11 things you didn’t know about the gut-brain connection

In recognition of World Mental Health Day, The Gut Choice is exploring how our gut health can impact our mental health

As you tuck into that beetroot-fuelled salad, who would’ve thought you might later be rewarded with a sense of calm and clarity. Well, it’s true — research has found that this food’s benefits along with many others goes beyond just providing nutrients to repair and energise the body once it has been digested in the gut. 

The Mental Health Foundation claim: “One of the most obvious yet under-recognised factors for mental health is nutrition.” According to the charity, a recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet (consisting primarily of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fats) led to a sustained reduction in depression among participants. They have published a new policy briefing which outlines how nutrition can be integrated into public health strategies to improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

“Nutrition is one of the most obvious yet under-recognised factors for mental health.”

Cognitive behaviour therapist and founder of Rapha Therapy Services, Martina Witter, agrees following a Mediterranean diet is beneficial for sufferers of depression. “What we eat can either enhance our mental health, invigorate us and help with thinking clearly  or contribute to it deteriorating,” explains the health and wellbeing consultant.

An estimated 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year with 1 in 6 reporting experiencing a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression in any given week. Tackling this is becoming more prevalent than ever.

If what we eat impacts our physical health, surely it can impact our mental health too? As 10 October brings World Mental Health Day, we are sharing these surprising facts to raise awareness about the gut-brain connection.

1. An egg-ceptional brain food

It is only recently that eggs have begun to receive the recognition they deserve as a superfood. Leading health resource Healthlineclaim eggs are a powerful brain and memory booster.

“Eggs are a good source of several nutrients tied to brain health, including vitamins B6 and B12, folate and choline,” the network explain, “Choline is an important micronutrient that your body uses to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory.”

Further, being deficient in two types of B vitamins — folate and B12 — has been linked to depression. Even just eating the egg yolk provides benefits as a concentrated source of choline. How do you like your eggs?

Image credit: Couleur, Pixabay.

2. Food for thought

There’s a reason your gut is referred to as the “second brain.” From asthma and obesity to type 2 diabetes, the gut microbiota has been linked to a range of diseases, plus mental health and even behaviour. Researchers from the University of Leuven, in Belgium, have now found most human gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters, such as the chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which enable communication between nervous cells in the brain (neurons). These neurotransmitters not only influence intestinal functions but our mood and behaviour also. What a clever tummy!

3. Home to happiness hormones

Although serotonin is best known as a brain neurotransmitter, it is estimated 95% of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract. Serotonin is an important molecule for signalling sensory and secretory functions in the gut, says Martina.

“Serotonin plays a pivotal role in immune cell activation and generation of inflammation in the gut.

“Studies uncovering various new functions of gut-derived serotonin indicate that many more are yet to be discovered in [the near future],” she adds. That’s something to smile about!

Image credit: Allef Vinicius, Unsplash.

4. Keep calm and eat protein

When we are feeling stressed or tense, usually, the first thing we want to do is reach for those Oreo biscuits or that rich chocolate cake or whatever we term to be our “comfort food.” But, rather than making us feel better, this can often be a hinderance. Martina claims: “Protein such as fish and chicken can regulate our thoughts and feelings whilst contributing to calming effects.” So, next time you feel the urge to grab a treat, pause and think for a minute; a warming fish pie might be all you need.

TIP: Batch cooking and freezing portions means you will always have a meal to hand for when stressful times arise.

5. Defeating depression

According to Gut Microbiota for Health, “Scientists have discovered people suffering from depression lack two bacteria in their gut microbiota called Coprococcus and Dialister.” As part of a study, the gut microbiome of 1,054 adults was analysed and results found there were “two genus of bacteria” consistently absent in those who were diagnosed with depression. Researchers warn this doesn’t mean these bacteria cause depression; it could simply be that depressed people eat differently. Although, they do hope this will lead to new treatments for mental diseases.

6. Dehydration = poor mental health

Wait, water is not just good for curing a hangover? Although it does help, research suggests water can influence our mood as well as relieving headaches. Mental health charity Mind say: “If you don’t drink enough fluid, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also start to feel constipated (which puts no one in a good mood),” — agreed! So, next time you take a sip from your glass you can rest assured you are contributing to your happiness as well as your health.

Image credit: Photo Mix, Pixabay.

7. Chicken or egg

We know the gut is sometimes referred to as the “second brain”; according to research, this is because the gut can function independently of the brain and spinal cord — the central nervous system (CNS). The gut has even been called the “first brain” which is based on evidence that the gut or enteric nervous system (ENS) evolved before the CNS. However, observing ENS neutrons in action has proven difficult for scientists. I guess we still don’t know for sure which came first.

8. A jolly good fruit

Have a pack of blueberries in your fridge? Well, you might want some as along with black beans, wholegrain, seaweed and chamomile, Martina says this fruit can help us to be happy.

“Blueberries contain resveratrol — a type of polyphenol produced in plants and fungi — and research suggests that [this compound] can contribute to reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression in mice,” she explains.

Now when we tuck into a blueberry muffin, we’ll have an extra reason to be happy! Yum.

Image credit: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.

9. Prioritise plant-based

It’s no secret, following a vegan diet can have many health benefits, but research published in the Nutritional Journal showed those who removed meat, fish and poultry from their diet also experienced improved mood.This suggests vegetarians may be happier and less stressed than their meat-eating counterparts. This is due to the long chain fatty acids associated with depression which meat contains. The complex carbohydrates present in vegan diets also increase the feel-good hormone serotonin. Plus, you may benefit from improved quality of sleep due to the increased consumption of vitamins such as magnesium and calcium which aid a restful night. Don’t worry if you aren’t quite ready to commit to plant-based completely, simply reducing meat, fish, and poultry may improve short-term mood state in modern omnivores. Data surrounding this is limited, so further investigation is needed. 

10. One step ahead 

Due to the intimate connection between the brain and gastrointestinal (GI) system, it could be possible that your tummy knows you want to eat before you do. Martina says: “The very thought of eating can release juices in the stomach before food [even reaches it].” Likewise to the brain having a direct effect on the stomach and intestines, the stomach can directly impact the brain.

“A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut,” adds Martina. “Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.”

11. Eat the right fats

Many people believe fat is something we should avoid within our diet. However, increasing evidence is highlighting the importance of “good” fats. Mind explain our brain needs fatty acids including omega-3 and -6 to function efficiently. These can be found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, milk, yoghurt, cheese and eggs. The charity recommends avoiding anything which lists ‘trans fats’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ in the ingredients.

“These can be tempting when you’re feeling low, but this kind of fat isn’t good for your mood or your physical health in the long run,” add Mind.

They have created ‘The Mind Meal’ which features these healthy fats for balanced mental health. 

Image credit: Irene Kredenets, Unsplash.

I am sharing one of my favourite recipes for a clear mind and calm gut. Not only does it taste delicious but the cooking process is soothing too! Tried the recipe or want to share your gut health and mental health experiences? Get in touch.

What is World Mental Health Day?

World Mental Health Day is on the 10 October every year and aims to raise awareness of and support mental health issues around the world. This year the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) has made “suicide prevention” the theme of the day. Due to alarming statistics — more than 800,000 die from suicide every year — the hope is to encourage governments to give the issue priority in public health agendas around the world and decrease the taboo surrounding the subject.

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