Not many people realise how important it is to keep your gut happy, to be able to keep your brain happy, so we’ve sat down with Abbie Alston, our PrecisionBiotics Nutritionist, to talk about brain health.
Where did your interest in this area start?
Since graduating university with a degree in Nutrition, and struggling with my own gut issues, I have been interested in overall gut health for a number of years now. More recently though through my role at PrecisionBiotics, and as research continues to emerge in this area, I have taken a particular interest in the role of the gut-brain axis. It is very interesting to see how our understanding of the gut-brain axis has grown so much in recent years, and how much there is still to uncover!
How do the gut and brain communicate?
Most of us at one time or another have experienced those little butterflies in our stomach when we are nervous, perhaps before a big competition or an interview, but not many people understand why this sensation occurs. The feeling of butterflies in the stomach is a great example of the gut and the brain communicating with each other, and this connection is what is known as the gut-brain axis.
The gut and the brain are connected both biochemically via chemical messengers such as neurotransmitters, and physically, via the vagus nerve, and it is through each of these pathways that the two organs are able to communicate and send messages back and forth. There is a constant loop of communication, therefore, the health of one organ directly impacts the health of the other.
How is the gut microbiome related to mental performance?
As we now know, the gut and the brain are connected via the gut-brain axis, meaning the two are in constant communication with each other. Increasing research has demonstrated the link between the two, with recent studies indicating that interventions in the gut microbiome may have positive results on mental performance, cognition and stress. Whilst this is an evolving area and more research is needed, more and more evidence is pointing towards the importance of the gut microbiome in mental performance.
Get To Know The Gut Microbiome
What can you do to fuel your brain?
The importance of the brain in everything we do is well understood; it allows you to think, move and breathe, and it is even switched on whilst we are asleep! Therefore, it is important to provide a constant supply of ‘fuel’.
The best way to provide this is by eating a healthy, balanced diet, that is rich in a diverse range of nutrients. Some great sources of nutrients for the brain include:
- Oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, that contain essential fatty acids including omega 3
- Proteins such as lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses provide nutrients including amino acids
- Wholegrain foods are a great source of energy
- Fruits and vegetables such as berries and leafy green veg offer a wide variety of essential nutrients
- Liquids, such as water, tea, coffee and juices are crucial to provide hydration throughout the day
Remember, the key here is to eat a diverse diet!
What are the few practical things you can do to keep your brain and gut happy?
Your diet plays a significant role in your overall health, including the health of vital organs such as the brain and your gut. The simplest way to improve your diet is to make sure you are eating a diverse range of foods including different fruits and vegetables, and switching up protein and carbohydrates sources.
As well as your diet, there are other environmental factors that can have an impact, such as:
- Exercise – there is some research to show low impact exercises such as yoga and pilates can be beneficial to gut health. We know exercise is good for overall health, so the important thing is to find a form of exercise you enjoy, and you can do consistently.
- Sleep – both the quantity and quality of your sleep each night is important, so finding a bedtime routine that suits you can help to improve your overall sleep.
- Looking after your mental wellbeing – finding ways to relax and unwind can be beneficial for some. Why not try a walk outside in nature, or spending time reading a book to help unwind at the end of the day.
Is there a link between sleep and the gut microbiome?
Our bodies have evolved to develop a circadian rhythm, which is essentially our sleep-wake cycle, but also dictates things like hunger cues too. Research has shown that the composition of the gut microbiome is linked to this circadian rhythm, therefore gut health may be associated with better sleep, and as such, poor sleep may lead to imbalances in the gut microbiome. Whilst research is still developing in this area, it’s clear there is some link between sleep and the gut microbiome.
What can impact someone’s sleep?
There are a number of things that can impact not just the quality of your sleep, but the duration too:
- Caffeine is well known to affect your ability to fall asleep, and even to stay asleep.
- Napping throughout the day can disrupt the pattern of sleep and consequently affect your ability to fall asleep at night.
- Screen time or being on your phone before bed has also been shown to affect sleep, as this blue light that is associated with these devices stimulates your brain, therefore making it tougher to get a good night’s sleep.
- Lack of a bedtime routine can also disrupt sleeping patterns. Consistency is key, so going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can really help to improve you overall sleep.
What’s your one tip for better sleep?
My one tip for better sleep would be to establish good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the environment and routine that promotes good sleep each and every night.
Sleep hygiene includes routine; for example, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, having time to wind down before bedtime, perhaps dimming the lights in the room, and optimizing your bedroom environment; such as having a comfortable pillow, making sure the temperature of the room is not too hot or too cold, and reducing possible light and noise disruptions with eye masks or ear plugs. This is of course individual for each person, so spend some time to learn what works best for you.
Read More About Sleep
What’s your one tip to support mental performance and wellbeing?
To help support mental performance, my one tip would be to focus on mental wellbeing and learning what works best and feels most comfortable for you.
For some, it may be about practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises, for others it may be spending time in nature and getting out for a walk. Some people might find it beneficial to take break from technology whilst others may find it relaxing to connect with others. There is no right or wrong way to support your mental wellbeing, it’s about figuring out what helps you the most.