Have you ever wondered why you get butterflies in your stomach? Or thought about the reason you tend to go with your gut feeling? Or even feel nauseated when you are stressed?

Well it’s probably because your brain and your gut are connected! Over the past few years, medicine has been revolutionized by understanding the links between digestion, mood, health, and even the way that we think. Some of the same chemicals that work in our brain, also work in our gut!  So it makes sense that our mood and our emotions impact our appetite and gut response. But how does improving gut health help our brain and emotions? Well, that’s exactly what this post is all about! Leveraging knowledge and techniques for improving gut health.

Reasons that gut health affects our brain 

When the gut is damaged, there are so many ways that it affects the rest of the body! It can impact our mood, our memory, our ability to fight disease, and our nutrition. 

Reason 1: Mood/Mental health

Disruption in the bacteria of the gut (microbiome) has been shown to contribute to anxiety and depression. And you may have noticed that your bowel habits change when you are stressed, sad, or upset! So you are actually impacting your mood just by what you eat (and improving gut health).

anxiety and depressing improving gut health

Reason 2: Memory/Brain health

Research has linked certain disorders of the brain like Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease to a disruption in the gut microbiome. So just by changing the bacteria in our gut, we can change our memory and long-term brain function!

Reason 3: Immune system

The gut contains almost 70% of the body’s immune system. When the gut is damaged, research shows an increase in autoimmune diseases and inflammatory conditions. This means that we are more likely to get sick and feel terrible just from our food! By improving gut health, we decrease the chances of getting sick.

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Photo by Christian Erfurt

Reason 4: Nutrition/Digestion

Altered gut health prevents the body from properly digesting food and absorbing nutrients and water to support every single function in our body. This can leave us feeling fatigued and sluggish long before blood work shows anything! And this is also why we feel awful even though medical providers tell us that our lab work is fine.

So why is this important?

When we don’t feel well, we don’t do well.  We don’t perform well, we struggle with simple daily tasks, and we set ourselves up for illness.  And it becomes a vicious cycle. Why? 

Because when you don’t feel well, your body craves foods that will give us that instant “high.” One of the reasons that we turn to food as a way to cope with our emotions is because of our brain gut connection. There are certain foods that trigger the “feel good” hormones in our brain including serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. These hormones make us relaxed and chemically “happy.” But the foods that can do this are foods like chocolate, sugar, and carbs, which cause inflammation in the gut and can damage it significantly over time. 

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Photo by Alex Haney

You may have heard the term “leaky gut” and this refers to damage of gut lining.  The basic idea is that the gut becomes damaged and allows small particles of food and waste to “escape” into the bloodstream.  This in turn causes significant inflammation in our body and can make us feel awful! 

What this means is that our food choices impact our brain, and our brain impacts our food choices. In order to feel better, you need to know how your body personally responds to different foods and habits.

One incredibly helpful tool for measuring gut health

Some easy ways to measure your gut health include monitoring what you eat, monitoring how you feel, and monitoring your bowel movements. Sexy, right?!

For me personally, I felt SO MUCH BETTER after I did my food allergy testing. 

This one simple test allowed me to find out which foods cause inflammation in my body. And anything that I can do to personalize my health is powerful! I used an easy at-home test and within 1 week had my results and interpretation emailed to me.

Of the 96 foods that I was tested for, 11 of them caused inflammation in my body.  And the top 2 were egg whites and chicken! So while I thought that I was being healthy by eating protein rich foods, I was actually damaging my body.  As soon as I made some changes in the foods that I ate, I noticed that I was able to sleep better, lose weight more easily, and had almost no back and joint pain even after exercising! And overall I just felt happier and more energetic so I know that I was improving gut health. (This is the company that I used for the food allergy test)

General foods for improving gut health

Salmon, Tuna, Seeds, Walnuts, and oils

Omega-3 fats increase good bacteria in the gut and have been shown to improve long-term brain health.

Kiefer, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt

Fermented foods improve both brain activity and healthy gut bacteria.

Beans, oats, barley, fruits, and vegetables

High fiber foods have been shown to feed the good bacteria in your gut, and also reduce the stress hormone cortisol.

vibrant foods for improving gut health

Foods that are rich in antioxidants such as cocoa, green tea, olive oil, and even coffee decrease inflammation in the gut and also improve cognition.

Other foods that have been shown to increase the “happy hormones” in your brain AND provide nutrition for your gut include:

  • spicy foods, which may trigger endorphin release
  • yogurt, beans, eggs, meats with low-fat content, and almonds, which are just a few foods linked to dopamine release
  • foods high in tryptophan, which have been linked to increased serotonin levels
  • foods containing probiotics, such as yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, which can influence the release of hormones

What are some Lifestyle changes that impact the brain-gut connection?

  • Stress Management: Stress has been shown to damage the lining of the gut and increase the amount of harmful bacteria in our GI tract! By managing stress, we promote an environment that increases the amount of good bacteria, thereby improving gut health!
  • Hydration: Staying hydrated can improve gut health since water helps with processing the food that we eat. It keeps waste moving through our GI tract and also helps promote healthy absorption of essential nutrients.
  • Sleep: Simply regulating sleep is another step towards improving gut health. It allows our body time to regenerate and repair. When we don’t get regular sleep, it really impacts our gut health, mood, and physical stress on the body.
self care sleep self love
  • Low-stress exercise: Yoga, walking, pilates are all exercises that are great for improving gut health because they support hormone levels that naturally manage stress. And exercise has also been shown to increase GI motility.
  • Whole food diet, manage constipation: Constipation is something that many of us struggle with, so by increasing soluble fiber, you are improving gut health and preventing additional damage.
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  • Spend time with loved ones: bonding has been shown to increase oxytocin levels, another “Feel good” hormone
  • Supplements: tyrosine (linked to dopamine production), green tea and green tea extract (dopamine and serotonin), probiotics (may boost serotonin and dopamine production), tryptophan (serotonin)

I hope these tips have given you more insight into your own personal health and self care! Please reach out with any questions! I would love to hear from you.

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Here are the links to other resources and journal articles for additional science information:

Hopkins Medicine

Healthline

APA

NCBI

DHAT

Discover one incredible tool for Improving Gut health (and uncover the secret to a better mood)
Sarah
Hello! My name is Sarah and I am a Wellness Coach and Healthcare Provider with 15 years of experience. I am passionate about intentional, balanced living and created this blog to help others live a mindful life focussed on Self Care! Here you will find resources covering topics from health, finance, self-discovery, psychology, to balance, mindfulness, and intentional living. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions.

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