11 Feb What exactly is gut health and how can you improve it?
Written by Sofia Poggi
The importance of our gut health has been receiving copious amounts of attention lately and is an exciting step in advancing our knowledge on the connection between nutrition and mental health. Many people are aware that eating nutritious and whole foods makes you feel better both physically and mentally.
So how does this connection work exactly? And what makes our gut receive the honourable title of a “second brain”?
A surprising 90% of the cells in our body are bacterial cells (only 10% are human cells) and millions of these microbes reside in our gut. That’s an entire rainforest’s worth of bacteria, meaning that we’re composed of more bacteria than human! These microbes are responsible for regulating our mood, memory, digestion, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, immune responses, plus nutrient and hormone/neurotransmitter production.
Our gut is linked to our brain via the vagus nerve and the two are in constant communication. If that’s not jaw-dropping enough, according to this journal study, the gut is also responsible for the production of 90% of our body’s serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter associated with our happiness levels. Have you ever wondered why you get butterflies in your stomach when you are nervous or excited? Yes, it is because our stomachs are in overdrive creating how we feel!
How does nutrition play a role?
This study compared the gut bacteria of children consuming a highly processed Western diet compared to children on a diverse African plant-based diet. Those on the African diet had more diverse and healthy microbiomes, whereas those on the Western diet lacked the same biodiversity. The diversity of our microbiome is directly linked to the health of our gut. It’s important for reducing inflammation, supporting our immune systems and brain health. Processed foods, especially sugars, increase the growth of unhealthy strains within our gut and limit the variety and growth of our helpful flora, resulting in an increased risk of depression, anxiety and inflammation throughout the body.
Lucky for us, our microbiome is very adaptable and can begin to change in as little as 24 hours if we feed it the right foods.
What foods do these highly intelligent little microbes residing within us like to eat?
It is all about nourishing them with a fibre-rich and nutrient-dense diet. A diet that is full of:
- Whole grains
- Probiotics, found in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt, kombucha, tempeh, miso, pickled vegetables or probiotic supplements.
Fibre is what our microbes really go crazy for, think lots of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and whole grains. The more diverse and rich our diet is in fibre and nutrition, the more likely our microbiomes will flourish.
Our gut bacteria are also significantly impacted by our stress levels. When we are stressed, norepinephrine is produced in our bodies. This disrupts the gut-brain communication along the vagus nerve. Incorporating any kind of stress reduction practices, such as yoga, into your lifestyle will help keep you and your gut flora as healthy as can be. Somehow they even keep tabs on whether we are staying fit; the gut diversity of individuals practicing an ongoing exercise routine is drastically better than those who do not.
All in all, it’s safe to say it’s a good idea to start focusing on nourishing, calming, and exercising the little friendly microbes living symbiotically within us if we really want to live the healthiest and happiest lives we possibly can.