Your gut is your second brain, according to the experts. So what is the gut-brain connection and how can we hack it to improve our skin, sleep, mood, productivity and health?
Why is gut health important?
Ever had a ‘gut feeling’ you can’t explain? That nagging feeling you get in your stomach when you “just know”? Well now, it’s more than a feeling – it can be scientifically proven! Recent research discovered a direct connection between the brain and the gut (a mere 2,000 years after Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed, “All disease starts in the gut.”) Scientists have even identified a link between the gut microbiome and several autoimmune diseases like MS, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Dr. Sunni Patel, gut influencer and founder of Dish Dash Deets, explains the science behind it. “The gut is physically connected to the brain via the vagus nerve which allows constant communication to each other which is known as the gut-brain axis. The gut also has millions of nerve cells called neurons which act as the signals and switchboard for the communication stream.”
Holly Zoccolan nutritional health coach and founder of The Health Zocc, sheds some light on the gut-brain connection. “The gut produces serotonin which is a vital chemical and neurotransmitter in the human body which assists in regulating mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. It is estimated that over 90% of serotonin (the happy hormone) is produced in the gut! This means that the types of bacteria which we have in our gut affect the way we think, feel and behave.
“All the food we eat is absorbed by the gut and the communication is made from the gut bacteria to the rest of the body to tell it how to respond to the food we just ate. Digestion is so important for overall wellbeing as it allows food to be broken down and used for cellular repair, growth, and energy. If the gut isn’t healthy it means the nutrient absorption is poor which can lead to deficiencies of essential minerals, nutrients, and vitamins which our organs rely on to function!”
What are the dangers of failing to look after our gut health?
With over 70% of our immune system residing in our gut, poor gut health can have health implications beyond a leaky gut or stomach cramps.
Dr. Patel agrees. “The gut is also linked to other elements of our body like mental health, immunity, libido, mood and energy levels, so you can imagine that an unhealthy gut has been known to cause mood swings, fatigue, as well as contribute to depression and other associated problems like skin issues, low energy, increased susceptibility to illnesses and increased risk factors for bowel diseases, obesity, cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Many don’t realize that a healthy gut can help boost attention span, productivity, sleep, and mood – not just help with regular and improved digestion.”
What are the signs of poor gut health?
“The easiest tell-tale of bad gut issues is through your toilet habits. If you have frequent diarrhea, unformed and discolored stools, associated bleeding with excess mucus, or regular constipation, it’s worth getting it checked as the gut microbiome is critical for digestion and a healthy or unhealthy gut will be visible in what you see in the bathroom.
“Other symptoms can be bloating, acid reflux, nausea, vomiting and bowel cramps, and pain. If you have a very unhealthy gut and diseases like IBD, it can have other symptoms like arthritic pain, fatigue, and mouth ulcers to name a few. IBS can also manifest with pain and fatigue. Some gut issues lead to poor skin and hair health which comes about through acne and rosacea,” says Dr. Patel.
Poor gut health has also been linked to anxiety, depression, eczema, psoriasis, and even Alzheimer's. So, how can we fuel our gut with goodness to hack our mind, mood, skin, libido, and long-term good health?
How can we improve our gut health?
Adding particular foods and supplements to (and leaving others out) our diet can lead to a happier, well-functioning gut! As a general rule, Dr. Patel advises, “Adding plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans and pulses, natural probiotics and prebiotic sources, and drinks to your diet, as well as herbs and spices, provides a rich source of fiber. Probiotics, as well as antioxidants, polyphenols, and micronutrients, will help keep the gut functioning well but also reduce the risk for future health issues.”
1. Increase fiber in your diet
Dr. Patel explains why. “Fiber is the king and queen of gut health so if you can meet your 30g of recommended daily allowance of fiber a day it will provide soluble and insoluble sources to help with bulking up stools as well helping to absorb fluid to help passing stools. Also, prebiotic fiber (in fructan-rich foods like banana, oats, onions, and Jerusalem artichokes) is a valuable fuel source for the trillions of gut bacteria by helping to create short-chain fatty acids like butyrate.”
To increase fiber in your diet, opt for wholegrain breakfast cereals, whole-wheat pasta, bulgur wheat or brown rice, fresh fruit, unsalted nuts and seeds, skin-on potatoes, and plenty of vegetables, beans, pulses, and legumes.
2. Eat the rainbow
“Add as many plants and the rainbow to your daily plates and if you can meet 30 different plant points a week (different portions of fruits, vegetables, nut milk, fresh herbs),” says Dr. Patel. “It adds diversity to your diet which we know is valuable for gut health and long term health gains.”
3. Add probiotics & fermented foods
All the experts agree: probiotics and fermented foods are a great way to encourage healthy bacteria in the gut. You can get these from certain foods, or take them as a supplement.
“Sources of natural probiotics such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tofu, tempeh, yogurt, kombucha, and kefir help to add valuable sources of healthy live bacteria,” suggests Dr. Patel.
Zoccolan explains why probiotics are the gut’s favorite sidekick. “These kinds of [fermented] foods provide phytochemicals, nutrients, and minerals which all feed our good gut bacteria. High-quality probiotics can help to restore an unhealthy gut into balance.” It was ferment to be!
4. Spice it up
Anti-inflammatory Ayurvedic herbs, turmeric, and ashwagandha, as well as “ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, mint, plus a mix of herbal teas,” can also aid digestion by balancing hormones that can cause an upset stomach and unhappy gut, advises Zoccolan.
More than a gut feeling
Proven to be linked with so many of our modern health woes, overhauling our gut health could just be the magic remedy we’ve been missing for a happier, healthier life. It’s more than just a gut feeling!