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The Gut-Brain Axis and How You Need to Change Your Diet

The Gut-Brain Axis and How You Need to Change Your Diet

Do you get a “sinking feeling” in your stomach when you think something is about to go wrong? Have you ever watched a “gut-wrenching” movie that left you in tears or felt “butterflies” in your stomach when you were nervous before giving a speech or riding a rollercoaster?

These feelings mean you are experiencing the workings of the gut-brain axis and are human. But the gut-brain axis is much more than just a trigger for emotion. It plays a vital role in many systems within your body, from hormones and mood to your glands and immunity. And you are what you eat—your food choices can affect everything from your digestion to your emotional well-being.

You can start treating your gut-brain axis like the precious commodity it is by reading more about it. You’ll discover how it works, how to nurture it, and the nutrition it needs to function correctly. You’ll also learn how Seeking Health can support your efforts to keep your gut-brain axis healthy and strong.

Got brain axis graphic

What is the Gut-Brain Axis?

Simply put, the gut-brain axis is the communication between your brain and digestive tract. It’s the neurological channel between your enteric nervous system (ENS) and central nervous system (CNS). Your gut-brain axis allows both systems to talk to each other. This dialogue helps your body know how to respond to internal and external stressors.

Your ENS is your brain and spinal cord. It controls digestion from when you swallow until enzymes are released to break down your food and pass waste. It consists of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the way from your esophagus to your rectum. It's the largest and most complex of the peripheral nervous systems and is often called "the second brain."

Brain first then stomach graphic

We can say, “You are what you eat” because of your gut-brain axis. Suppose you aren’t getting the proper nutrition into your gut. In that case, it can affect several functions and processes within your brain, like your moods and sleep. On the other hand, if you don’t take care of your brain and manage stress, your gut will eventually let you know it’s not happy, either.

Your gut-brain axis works hard. It’s why you may run to use the nearest restroom when you’re very nervous, like before taking a test. It can be why you feel sluggish and want to nap after a big, unhealthy meal. If your gut-brain axis is under constant stress, you can be susceptible to viruses and whatever is “going around” because your immune system can weaken. Unfortunately, it may even lead to something more sinister, like cancer, including colorectal cancer.(1)

How Does the Gut-Brain Axis Work?

Your gut-brain axis works like a super highway through your body. It’s a road heavily traveled and used to transport messages from your gut and brain and back again.

The messages sent along the axis travel through a network of neurons, hormones, and other signaling molecules. As a result, your gut-brain axis plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological functions. How you treat your gut-brain axis can affect your mood, behavior, and overall health. How well your gut-brain works depends on the food you eat, any illness you may have, and your mood. If conditions aren’t optimal, the journey can be treacherous.

Your gut-brain axis may also influence the following factors:(2)

 Digestion Food preferences
 Food intolerances Metabolism
 Mood Behavior
 Stress Pain
 Cognition Immunity

It may also be a key factor in several chronic health conditions:

  • Irritable bowl syndrome
  • Diahhrea
  • Constipation
  • Mood disorders
  • Noncardiac chest pain
  • Indigestion (dyspepsia)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Obesity

Your gut’s microbiome and vagus nerve also play vital roles in your gut-brain axis.

What Is the Gut’s Microbiome?

Your gut also hosts various microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. All together, it's called your gut microbiota. Microbiota live in your gut's microbiome and influence the gut-brain axis.

Gut Microbiome graphic

Microbiota work hard to keep you safe and healthy. It's constantly exposed to changes, like age, hormones, diet, sickness, and lifestyle. Your microbiota is like Goldilocks and wants everything to be just right at home—the microbiome. Having things just right and balanced (homeostasis) helps keep you healthy.

Your microbiome is also linked to your brain through the gut-brain axis. Microbiota helps produce many of the neurotransmitters you need for mood regulation. For example, most of the serotonin you need to control your mood is made in your gut.(3)

If living conditions in your microbiome are poor, you can become vulnerable to several health conditions:(4)

  • Bowel issues
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Systemic infections
  • Allergic disease

Your microbiota may also play a role in the development of several neurological disorders.(5)

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

Your vagus nerve is vital to your mind-body connection. It runs from your brainstem, where your brain meets your spinal cord, and travels your body down to your intestines. It breaks into two branches: one runs down the right side of your body and one down the left. The vagus nerve carries signals between your brain, heart, and digestive system. It is essential in digestion, heart rate and blood pressure, mood, speech, taste, and urination.(6)

As part of your parasympathetic system, your vagus nerve is part of the "rest and digest" response. It's opposite to the autonomic system that kick starts your "fight or flight" response when you're anxious. Your vagus nerve aids your gut-brain axis by regulating inflammation. It helps ensure your gut remains strong to fight disease, digest food, and let you know when you're feeling hungry or full.

internal organs graphic

What’s going on with your vagus nerve may be why your emotions can trigger changes in digestion. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, your digestion slows down so your body can conserve resources for the “fight or flight” response. Or, you may eat under stress, which can cause you to digest food too fast. Your emotional state can cause many uncomfortable digestive symptoms:(7)

Acid reflux  Bloating Constipation
Cramps  Diarrhea Gas
Heartburn  Indigestion Inflammation
Nausea  Stomach pain Changes in appetite

If your vagus nerve is always stressed, you may also experience inflammation.8 This type of inflammation can lead to obesity and food allergies. It may even be involved in inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

What Foods Help the Gut-Brain Axis?

Nutritious foods

You can eat many delicious foods to help support your gut-brain axis. The key is sticking to whole foods and avoiding processed. Whole foods are often the most colorful and vibrant food items in the produce section of your local grocery store. They are often the deep green, red, and purple fruits and vegetables that catch your eye while shopping.

Foods that support a healthy gut-brain axis include:(9,10,11,12,13)

 Chart with veggies

Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) may also be essential to your gut-brain axis health. You can eat EVOO to help support cardiovascular health, healthy blood sugar levels, brain health, the microbiome, and immunity.(14)

Fermented foods can also be a tasty and satisfying way to support your gut-brain axis. They are considered "live" foods because they are rich in diverse microbiota. As a food ferments, it may produce vitamins and antioxidants that your body can use. They may also release peptides supporting good health, like cardiovascular health.(15)

These fermented foods include:(16)

  • Plain yogurt
  • Keifer
  • Dry curd cottage cheese
  • Pickles brined in salt
  • Sour cream
  • Refrigerated miso
  • Refrigerated sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Unsweetened Kombucha
  • Gluten-free tempeh
  • Certain aged cheeses (cheddar, provolone, Swiss)
  • Fermented drinks (Beet Kvass and apple cider)

fermented foods

What Are the Three Super Foods for Brain Health?

There are three superfood standouts that you can eat to support brain health:

Chart with fruit and veggies

How Can I Improve My Gut-Brain Axis?

brain food

You can start taking several steps today to improve your gut-brain axis. As always, speak to your healthcare practitioner first. Do this to ensure you don’t have any undiagnosed health conditions or are on any medications that interact with anything you are eating.

  1. Stick to a healthy, whole food diet. As you read earlier, the quality of the foods you eat impacts your gut and brain health. Stay away from processed foods and fast foods. Consider mixing foods from the Mediterranean diet into your menu. These foods include leafy greens, herbs and seasonings, fish, olive oil, and whole grains. They help support your gut-brain axis and can help support your well-being overall.(20)
  2. Eat antioxidant-rich foods. You can find foods rich in antioxidants that help defend against free radicals. Antioxidant-rich foods include vitamins C, E, beta-carotene, and selenium to help fight oxidative stress. These foods include sweet potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, avocados, almonds, sunflower seeds, carrots, grapefruit, eggs, and brown rice. Good things come in small packages!
  3. Keep your gut happy by eating anti-inflammatory foods. Anti-inflammatory foods include the whole foods you’ve been reading about—they help keep the peace in your gut-brain axis. Adopting the Meditteranean or DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) may be ideal—both include anti-inflammatory foods. In fact, both may help lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline with aging.(21)
  4. Avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria but also good bacteria as well. They can cause an imbalance in your gut’s microbiome. You may become more susceptible to problems like diarrhea and infection. Children who take too many antibiotics may also be at risk for digestive, cognitive, and immunologic problems.(22)
  5. Consider incorporating a mind-body practice into your daily routine. Practices like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga may help improve digestion and your mood, which can help ease stress.23 Less stress may lead to better digestion and a healthier gut.
  6. Talk it out. Cognitive behavioral therapy may help relieve the discomfort of irritable bowel syndrome.24 It can also help support a rich, diverse microbiome, leading to healthy digestion.
  7. Start taking a prebiotic or probiotic. Both pre-and probiotics help support a healthy gut microbiome. You can get them through the foods you eat or supplements you can take. Prebiotics help feed the healthy gut bacteria in your microbiome. You can find them in foods like bananas, boiled potatoes, and anything rich in fiber. Probiotics are live microorganisms. You can find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and sour cream.

How Do You Calm the Gut-Brain Axis?

Man Meditating

You can help calm your gut-brain axis by improving your diet, as you read about earlier, and stimulating your vagus nerve. Stimulating your vagus nerve can help your body counteract the "fight or flight" response when you feel nervous. It can stimulate relaxation throughout your body, including your stomach. You'll feel better overall if your stomach isn't tied up in knots.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can happen manually or through a device. It's used as a treatment for conditions like epilepsy, stroke, and mood disorders.25 VNS helps improve blood flow to the brain and increase neurotransmitter levels. It may even help relieve the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.(26)

You can stimulate your vagus nerve throughout the day and reap some of the rewards of VNS. Doing so can help you focus on something other than the discomfort you may be feeling throughout your body, which can help you feel better. It can also help you relax and get a better handle on stress which can ease stomach discomfort.

You can stimulate your vagus nerve by practicing the following:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing through your diaphragm
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Massage, like a foot massage or reflexology
  • Loud gargling or singing (it stimulates your vocal cords and in turn, you vagus nerve)
  • Cold-water face immersion

Seeking Health’s Gut and Brain Support Supplements

Seeking Health has several gut and brain health supplements available to ensure you always get the gut-brain axis support you need. If you take the proper nutrients, you’ll help promote gut health and cognitive performance and support a healthy stress response.

  • ProBiota HistaminX is formulated without strains known to produce high levels of histamine. It’s a good option if you have histamine concerns such as headaches, intestinal upset, skin issues, or heart palpitations, especially when you take probiotics.
  • Probiota Bifidobacterium is a probiotic that contains bifidobacterium species only. It includes seven extensively researched bifidobacterium strains. It’s ideal for anyone who reacts negatively to lactobacillus.
  • Saccharomyces Boulardii is an acid-resistant, temperature-tolerant probiotic yeast. It’s formulated to support healthy gastrointestinal tract bacteria, healthy digestion, intestinal absorption, and bowel tone.
  • Optimal Focus provides stimulant-free support for normal information retention and recall, clarity, focus, and learning.
  • Brain Nutrients enhances the effectiveness of Optimal Focus and is designed to support a healthy, thriving brain along with mental energy, mood, concentration, and focus.
  • Stress Nutrients offers non-glandular adrenal support and support healthy stress responses. This blend of nutrients and adaptogenic botanicals helps support healthy cortisol regulation and feelings of calm.

The Bottom Line

Navigating your gut-brain axis is vital to healthy living. Learning how each organ in this system works and interacts is the first step toward supporting healthy digestion, immunity, and cognition. Eating nutrient-rich whole foods can help support a healthy gut microbiome to help keep your body balanced and boost immunity. When the strain of day-to-day life catches up with you, stimulating your vagus nerve can help you get the upper hand on your nerves. Stress relief can help ease digestion and keep your body strong so it can continue to fight disease.

Remember, Seeking Health is always here to help you on your journey. You can choose from the supplements offered that help support gut-brain axis health and overall well-being.

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34422394/
  2. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/the-gut-brain-connection
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25860609/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32612660/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33066156/
  6. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22279-vagus-nerve
  7. https://caps.byu.edu/stress-and-the-digestive-system
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27988382/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8321864/
  10. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801
  11. https://www.chop.edu/health-resources/food-medicine-prebiotic-foods
  12. https://www.uclahealth.org/news/polyphenols-can-be-found-in-many-fresh-foods
  13. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-fiber-foods/art-20050948
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33576418/
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35406140/
  16. https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/blog/blog-posts/2019/6/fermented-foods-for-gut-health/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31329250/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29263222/
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36381743/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18786971/
  21. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31209456/
  22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33330122/
  23. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38147600/
  24. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34847963/
  25. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24834378/
  26. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36552867/

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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