Last updated on May 26th, 2023 at 12:27 PM
Most of us will have experienced ‘nervous butterflies’, or had tummy problems that have made it harder to focus, but have you ever wondered what exactly causes this?
It turns out that there’s a strong relationship between our gut health and mental health, known as the gut-brain axis – and more of us are keen to find out about it – over the last 90 days, searches for ‘gut-brain axis’ have increased by 160%.
This IBS Awareness Month, I spoke with Dr. Luke Powles, Clinical Director for Bupa Health Clinics, to find out more about the connection between the gut and wellbeing.
From finding out what ‘good gut health’ actually means, to whether we should be taking supplements, Dr Powles’s advice can help to improve both digestive and mental health, e.g., which foods can strengthen your gut-brain connection and the best mind-body tools to keep you on an even keel.
What is the gut-brain axis?
The gut-brain axis is the term used to describe the close relationship between your gut and brain. Google Trends shows a 70% increase in searches for the gut-brain axis over the last 90 days, with people keen to learn more about it.
Although research into this connection is relatively new, it’s thought that there’s two-way communication between your brain and gut, that happens via your vagus nerve.
This nerve acts as a ‘bridge’ between your brain and gut, communicating across your immune, hormone and nervous systems.
Brain to gut
As your body makes the same chemicals in the gut that it does in the brain, they can influence the other – which explains terms like ‘nervous butterflies’ and ‘gut feelings’.
Some evidence shows that chronic stress can disrupt the bacteria in your gut, leading to inflammation and damage to your intestine walls.
Gut to brain
Your stomach can also influence your mind. If you’re suffering with digestive issues, like bloating, indigestion or diarrhoea, your ability to focus can be affected.
Research shows that those who live with gut conditions like irritable bowel disease (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease are more likely to have mental health conditions like anxiety.
What does it mean to have ‘good gut health’?
It’s important to take care of your gut health to protect your mental and physical health. ‘Good gut health’ means that your gut is full of good bacteria, that’s able to break down what you’ve eaten and unlock its full nutritional value.
Maintaining a good balance of bacteria within your gut helps to keep you healthy in body and mind, but there are lots of things that can cause imbalance to your gut health– from your age, certain antibiotics, food poisoning or conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease.
What’s the best way to maintain a good gut-brain axis?
One of the best ways to look after your gut-brain axis is simple – eat well. Be sure that your diet’s full of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, as well as lean meats and fish. These foods have a positive impact on both mental and physical health.
If you suffer from digestive issues, pay attention to them – it can be useful to track your diet and anxieties to see if there’s anything, in particular, causing a flare-up. This way, you can recognise the cause, start to address it and help improve your gut-brain axis. Why not use a worry tree or a food diary to get you started?
What are prebiotics and probiotics and do I need them?
You may have heard about prebiotics and probiotics, but there’s currently little evidence to support the health benefits of having them, whether in your food or as a supplement.
Prebiotics are a specific type of fibre that feeds the good bacteria in your gut, as they can’t be digested by the rest of your body. You can find prebiotics naturally in lots of food, including garlic, asparagus and bananas – they’re also available as supplements.
Eating probiotics may help to boost and balance your gut’s good bacteria levels – they are ‘live’ microorganisms, like yeast, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, or live bacteria yoghurts. Similarly, to probiotics, they’re also available as supplements.
Providing you have a healthy immune system, probiotics and prebiotics should be safe to consume, but they’re not essential. Speak to a health professional if you’re interested in finding out more information.
The health experts at the superfood supplement store Human Tonik also revealed five foods that can contribute to a healthier gut, which may improve your overall health.
Ginger is a superfood that has many surprising health benefits. It can help with congestion, reduce heartburn and even promote weight loss.
However, ginger can also be used to provide relief for an upset stomach and other digestive issues and support a healthy gut.
Gingerol, a natural compound found in fresh ginger, is packed with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can help restore gut balance. Ginger also helps promote digestion, meaning food doesn’t linger around in your gut for an extended period.
There are plenty of ways to add ginger to your diet. Add chopped ginger to your tea or hot water in the mornings. You can also blend it into a smoothie. If you’d rather take supplements, ginger capsules can be taken daily to improve gut health.
Bananas are another food that can contribute to improved gut health. Bananas contain a fibre called inulin, a substance that stimulates the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
Inulin is prebiotic that can help develop a microbiome and provide fuel for good bacteria to live in your gut. Eating inulin-rich foods can help your bacteria perform activities that keep your gut healthy.
Bananas are also a rich source of fructooligosaccharides, which act as a probiotic and promote the growth of good bacteria in the digestive tract, which ultimately helps with digestion.
The carbohydrates in bananas are also easily broken down. The fruit is gentle enough to be eaten if you are suffering from stomach ailments, and it restores lost electrolytes back into the body. Eating one or two bananas a day can seriously improve gut health.
Yoghurt is probably the first food you think of when it comes to gut health. Rich in probiotics, which are live microorganisms that keep the git microbiome healthy, yoghurt can help with gut issues such as bloating.
Having a proper balance of bacteria in your gut improves digestion and can block dangerous organisms that can cause infections and boosts your immune system. Foods such as yoghurt can also help your body absorb vital nutrients from food.
However, not all yoghurt is live with probiotics, so be sure to read the label and search for ones that contain live bacteria. High-protein yoghurt with minimal sugar is the best.
Lentils are a versatile food rich in nutrients such as iron, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, as well as resistant starches, which are brilliant for gut health.
Resistant starches are carbohydrates that do not break down into sugar and are not absorbed by the small intestine. They pass through most of the digestive system unchanged, usually fermenting in the colon. They then decrease the pH level in the colon to help create an environment where beneficial bacteria thrive.
There are many ways to add lentils to your diet. You can add them to your soup, pasta, and salads. You can also bake them with chicken or fish in the oven or simply serve them as a side dish.
Almonds are high in fibre, which can increase the production of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that promotes gut health. Eating a handful of almonds a day can positively affect our overall gut health.
Butyrate is produced by gut bacteria and supports digestive health. It promotes the growth of villi, microscopic extrusions that line the intestines, and enhance the production of mucin, a gel-like substance that coats the inside of the gut and keeps it healthy.
However, it should also be noted that almonds are high fat, so while a handful of almonds a day is recommended for gut health, be sure only to eat them in moderation. Adding almonds to your breakfast smoothies or yogurt is a great way to get them into your diet.
Signs and symptoms of an unhealthy gut
If you’re wondering if you could improve your gut health, the team at Human Tonik has also revealed the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy cut. If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, you could try adding some gut-healthy foods to your diet.
1. Upset stomach – this could include gas, bloating, and even heartburn
2. Unexplained weight changes – gaining or losing weight. An imbalanced gut can make it difficult for your body to regulate blood sugar and store fat.
3. Fatigue – Poor gut health can cause broken sleep cycles, which may cause extreme tiredness
4. Skin issues – Poor gut health can contribute to eczema, psoriasis, acne other skin conditions