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The Gut-Brain Axis: How Your Gut Health Could Support a Healthy Mind

The Gut-Brain Axis: How Your Gut Health Could Support a Healthy Mind
Writer and expert4 months ago
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We’ve all done it. Walked into a room and completely forgotten why we’re there. Called our kids by six different names (including the cat’s) before we hit upon the right one. Completely forgotten the most basic of words. As we get older many of us will find that these little lapses increase[i], that our memory isn’t quite what it once was. While serious cognitive decline can be a sign of serious disorder, small changes usually indicate nothing more than the aging that we all experience.

Keeping your brain healthy throughout your lifetime is important. Not just for the future, but for now too, helping to protect you from the effects of stress, depression and anxiety. And it doesn’t have to be a lottery, keeping your brain as fit and well as your body starts right here.

Your Brain, How it Ages and What it Needs

We think a lot about heart health, put time and money into caring for our skin, and attend regular appointments to make sure our eyes and teeth are doing okay. Yet for some reason most of us put very little effort into caring for our minds…

Why you should take better care of your brain

There are a whole host of reasons why you should pay more attention to brain health. In addition to keeping things ticking over as you get older for reliable cognitive functioning, taking good care of your brain may contribute to improved mental wellbeing too, helping you to better cope with the everyday pressures of life. During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a significant uptick in brain health issues[ii], with anxiety and depression rising by 30% worldwide[iii]. This only serves to underline just how vital it is to take better care of our brains in the face of an ever-changing and unpredictable world.

What does your brain need to help it function at its best?

So just how do you support brain health?

  • Keep your body healthy: a healthy body supports a healthy mind. Giving up smoking, maintaining good blood pressure[iv] and taking regular exercise are all important for brain health. Exercise is shown to increase blood flow to the brain while also boosting your mood for better mental wellbeing too.
  • Engage your brain: whether it’s a daily sudoku or going back to school, challenging your brain is a must for preventing cognitive decline with experts recommending tasks, such as painting or crafting, that require both manual and mental dexterity[v] in particular.
  • Eat well: choosing a simple Mediterranean diet full of fruit, vegetables and healthy fats has been seen to offer potential protection from cognitive decline[vi].
  • Wear a helmet: according to experts, even minor head injuries can sometimes result in longer term cognitive impairment. Protecting your head at work, if you work in a hazardous environment, or while riding a bike or engaging in dangerous sports is a must.
  • Take good care of you: caring for your mental wellbeing might mean keeping up with a hobby that you enjoy, getting out in the sunshine each day or spending time with friends. Or it may mean taking time for talking therapies or simply ensuring you always get a good night’s sleep.

The Gut-Brain Axis: How Your Gut Health Could Support a Healthy Mind

Connected both biochemically and physically, your gut and your brain are intrinsically linked. But what does this mean for your mental wellbeing and brain health?

What is the gut-brain axis?

Around 500 million neurons exist inside your gut, connecting it directly to your brain through the nervous system[vii]. Not only that but the brain and gut communicate via the vagus nerve[viii] too, with research into this nerve showing a direct correlation between what’s happening in the brain and what’s going on in the gut[ix]. For example, that loose bowel feeling you get in times of stress? That could be the work of the vagus nerve. Stomach disorders such as IBS and Crohn’s disease have been linked to reduced vagus nerve function as well[x], underlining the importance of this connection between the intestines and the brain.

Does gut health impact mental wellbeing?

Neurotransmitters are also important for the gut-brain axis. Many of these clever chemicals are produced in the brain, controlling our emotions and our feelings. But they’re not only resident in the brain. Research shows that neurotransmitters produced in the gut affect our mood too. In fact, experts have seen that a great deal of the serotonin we rely on to help keep depression and anxiety at bay are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. In addition, gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), seen to help control feelings of anxiety[xi].

Taking care of your gut means taking care of your brain

These are just a small handful of the ways in which your gut works hard to protect your brain’s wellbeing to maintain having a connection between gut health and brain health. Studies have also shown that short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) produced in the gut could be instrumental in protecting the blood brain barrier[xii] while experts also think that there could be a connection between stomach bile and social disorders[xiii]. Additionally, there’s a proven connection between the gut and the immune system[xiv] with studies suggesting that this connection could, in turn, link intestinal health to brain disorders as varied as depression, Alzheimer's and dementia[xv].

What Supplements Are Good For The Mind?

Now that we know that the gut and the brain are so intimately linked, what can we do to nurture this connection? Can a good diet and supplements help to keep our brains healthy?

The vitamins and minerals that support brain health and where to find them

Support a healthy brain by adding these into your daily diet:

  • Fermented foods: helping to underline the importance of the gut-brain connection, prebiotics in the form of fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, garlic and kimchi could potentially offer neuroprotective benefits[xvi] which encourage a healthy gut.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: found in great quantities in the human brain, the fatty acids most commonly associated with oily fish have been shown to both increase good gut bacteria (microorganisms found in prebiotics)[xvii] and to reduce the risk of brain disorders[xviii]
  • Fibre: prebiotic fibre, found in many fruits vegetables and wholegrains are seen to help reduce the production of the stress hormone[xix]
  • Tryptophans: converted directly into the happy hormone serotonin, tryptophan is an amino acid you’ll enjoy the benefits of when eating cheese and eggs
  • Polyphenols: with the potential to improve cognition[xx], polyphenols increase the presence of good gut bacteria[xxi]. They are found in coffee, olive oil and cocoa
  • B vitamins: supporting brain function and with the potential to help you feel more energetic, B vitamins, and in particular vitamins B12 and B6, trigger dopamine and serotonin[xxii]. These vitamins may also protect from memory decline too[xxiii]

By adding these simple ingredients into a well balanced diet can enhance your gut health, allowing the gut microbiome (bacteria and other microbes in your gut which help digest food) to thrive and protect you from medical issues, i.e. chronic diseases.

Protect your brain health with a healthy brain supplement

Taking a daily supplement removes the guess work from consuming those nutrients that help to support brain health.

Abbie Alston, PrecisionBiotics Registered Nutritionish, identifies in her Q&A that a tip for having a healthy mind whilst maintaining a healthy gut would be to focus on mental wellbeing and learning what works best and feels most comfortable for you, whether that be through meditation, exercise or diet. There is no right or wrong way to support your mental well-being, it is figuring out what works best for you.

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