Go with your gut — it’s a common saying that has more than a grain of sense to it. As it turns out, the walls of the digestive system are actually lined with over one hundred million nerve cells, so much that scientists refer to it as a “brain in your gut.”
Known scientifically as the enteric nervous system (ENS), this vast and complex network is an exciting new finding that overhauls today’s understanding of how digestion works. It spans from the whole of the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum. And it’s connected directly to the brain stem, using those millions of nerve cells to transmit signals.
Together, the gut and the brain form the gut-brain axis. This vital connection goes both ways as the functioning of the brain affects the gut and vice versa.
Check out three key ways in which the gut and brain work together and depend on each other:
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that control emotions, and they are produced in both the brain and the gut. That’s why feelings like stress or anxiety can feel so visceral, manifesting in nausea, intestinal pain, and other bowel symptoms. Improving mental health can alleviate these symptoms in the gut. On the other hand, research suggests that consuming certain probiotics can also reduce anxiety and depression.
Controlling digestion isn’t just up to the brain. The gut also plays a key role in managing digestive functions like swallowing, enzyme release, and blood flow to facilitate nutrient absorption. Short-chain fatty acids produced in the gut, for instance, can reduce appetite. Bile acids and amino acids metabolized by the gut can also affect the brain. The whole gut-brain axis works in tandem, passing signals back and forth to effectively manage the process of digestion and beyond.
Gut microbes are an essential part of the immune system. They control what the body allows to enter it and what it excretes. Problems with the immune system in the gut can lead to inflammation, which may go on to bring about brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Inflammation can also be caused by high amounts of the inflammatory toxin lipopolysaccharide in the gut, which can contaminate the blood and make its way up to the brain. This can eventually result in brain disorders like dementia and schizophrenia.
So, how can you improve the health of your gut-brain axis? Try eating these foods to specifically target and support this vital network:
Enrich your gut, and by extension your brain, with probiotics. These foods are full of good bacteria that benefit the gut. They include fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurt, and more.
2. Omega-3 Fats
Load up on these healthy fats to increase healthy gut bacteria and enhance brain health, reducing the risk of brain disorders. Find Omega-3 fats in fatty fish and shrimp, or vegetarian sources like walnuts, edamame, and chia, hemp, or flax seeds.
3. High-Fiber Foods
Ease your digestive tract with high-fiber foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. These prebiotic fibers can also reduce the production of the stress hormone.