Did you ever get a “gut feeling” that turned out to be true? Perhaps you’ve experienced strong emotions that cause “butterflies in your stomach” or made smart decisions by “going with your gut.”
The gut-brain connection may explain all these phenomena. Closely linked, the gut and brain communicate back and forth, influencing each other in many ways.
The gut-brain connection’s potential to help human health – especially brain, mood and cognitive health – is now emerging as a hot topic of clinical study.1
In this article, we will discuss the gut-brain connection’s importance, highlight some research, and provide you with strategies you can use to optimize your connection for overall health and wellness.
Meet the Microbiome: Your “Second Brain”
Researchers have estimated that 100 trillion microbes inhabit the gut, including over 1000 different species of good bacteria (probiotics) and bad bacteria (pathogens, yeasts, fungi, viruses, etc.).2,3
This inner world of microorganisms, collectively known as the microbiome, is regarded by some scientists as a “hidden organ” due to its broad influence on wellness.4 Some researchers have noted the microbiome’s important roles in brain and cognitive health by calling it the “second brain.”5
While it can’t think like the brain in your head, the second brain in your gut does regulate the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS in turn helps control several life-sustaining functions in the human body, including digestion, immune performance and endocrine functions.6,7
The microbiome in your gut talks with your brain, and vice versa.
Researchers have suggested this gut-brain connection works in two primary ways:
1. Direct communication
Researchers have proposed a microbiome-gut-brain axis that carries communication between the GI tract and brain via a nerve that connects them called the vagus nerve.8
2. Neurotransmitter support
Probiotics in the gut contribute to the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate cell-to-cell communication throughout the body and brain.9
For example, gut bacteria may produce about 95 percent of the body’s serotonin, a key brain chemical associated with a calm and bright mood.10Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains of probiotics in the gut are noted for their ability to produce neurotransmitters like GABA, dopamine, acetylcholine, melatonin and norepinephrine.11
What does this two-way gut-brain communication mean for human wellness?
While research is early, the microbiome-gut-brain axis may hold the potential to regulate various aspects of mood, cognitive performance and brain health.
Researchers in animal studies have suggested that altering the microbiome to favor good bacteria appeared to improve several stress-related emotional states; while introducing bad bacteria to the microbiome was associated with more apprehensive behavior.12,13
The Challenge: Maintaining Gut-Brain Balance
A balanced microbiome is associated with overall wellness, including a healthy gut-brain connection. If you have ever experienced stress-induced gastric distress, you already know what this feels like. Researchers have linked an unbalanced microbiome to a combination of digestive and cognitive concerns, including:14
- poor stress responses
- mood issues
- occasional bloating, constipation, and diarrhea
- weight gain
Researchers have even suggested that a balanced microbiome may play a role in supporting longer range brain and nervous system health as well.
Gut-Brain Connection Health Strategies
Here’s the good news: According to some researchers, the microbiome’s balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria can be altered with diet and lifestyle changes.16 Maintaining a healthy microbiome balance may optimize the gut-brain connection and help with concerns related to both digestive and cognitive wellness.
Here are some strategies you can use to help keep your microbiome-gut-brain axis in tip-top shape:
EAT FERMENTED FOODS
In some clinical studies, researchers have suggested that consuming fermented foods may influence gut-brain communication and hold the potential to support gut and cognitive health at the same time.17,18 Some researchers suggest fermented foods’ beneficial bacteria, especially Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, may regulate brain health directly and indirectly, as well as play a role in mood balance.19,20
- Fermented foods that may benefit a gut-brain diet include yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, fermented fruit vinegars and others.
EAT PREBIOTIC FIBER FOODS
A type of soluble fiber, prebiotic fibers – including fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides – feed the good bacteria that are already present in your gut, helping them to grow. Researchers suggest prebiotics may support mood like probiotics do while reducing stress’s impact on the microbiome and stabilizing Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli probiotic populations in the gut.21
- Prebiotic fiber foods include casava root, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), apple fiber (pectin) and bananas.
Fermented foods’ active probiotics and prebiotic fiber bolster and feed the gut microbiome, respectively. But consuming fermented foods can be challenging for some people.
Supplements for gut-brain connection health (sometimes called psychobiotics) supply fermented foods’ key ingredients along with other gut-healthy nutrients in a convenient format. Some of the best psychobiotic supplements to consider include:
Probiotic supplements: These products help by enabling the precise intake of beneficial bacteria in each capsule, both in terms of the type of probiotic strains and total numbers of viable units offered. Supplements with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains may offer reliable support for gut-brain wellness.
Prebiotic supplements: These supplements also offer precision and convenience advantages. Different types of prebiotics nourish different strains of probiotics. Look for supplements that use fructooligosaccharides (FOS) as a prebiotic source. FOS have been reviewed by researchers for their potential to help with unbalanced microbiomes.22
Prebiotic + Probiotic combination supplements: These products combine probiotics with prebiotics in a single capsule or gummy. By introducing probiotic strains to the gut and feeding the whole microbiome for robust organic growth, combination prebiotic+probiotic supplements may provide versatile and holistic support for microbiome health.
Psyllium husk supplements: Soluble fiber, found in psyllium husks, also provides a key energy source for nourishing microbiome probiotics. Supplements offer a convenient means of increasing psyllium intake and are typically offered in organic, unsweetened, sugar-sweetened, or sugar-free powder formulas that mix easily with water.
“Good fat” supplements: Omega-3s have long been a standard healthy fat for brain and digestive health. But now, emerging research is investigating how bioactive fats like palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) and oleoylethanolamide (OEA) may also play a role in the gut-brain axis and central nervous system health.23 OEA in particular has been studied for its unique ability to help support microbiome-related intestinal health.
– Shop All Gut Health Supplements –
AVOID ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Whatever food or supplement you consider, be sure to look for high-quality products with clean labels that avoid the use of synthetic sweeteners. Researchers have suggested that some artificial sweeteners appear to negatively affect the microbiome.24 Always opt for gut health supplements that use natural sweeteners only, such as stevia leaf or organic cane sugar.
START MIND-BODY WELLNESS
Mind-body wellness is the holistic equivalent to gut-brain health. Science now suggests mind-body programs may work to improve the microbiome. Researchers advise exercise for people with long-range irregularity since it appears to speed up stool transit time and support a consistent bowel movement pattern.25 Yoga has been proven to improve symptoms related to irritable digestion and mood balance.26,27 Tai’ chi is another holistic regimen that researchers suggest may affect the microbiome, potentially by stimulating the vagus nerve gut-brain connection.28
Whatever is good for the gut, it seems, is also good for the brain. And vice versa. This is part of the reason why the gut-brain connection holds so much promise for human wellness.
The microbiome has been suggested as a key contributor to the gut-brain connection’s far-ranging impact on health. Beyond its tantalizing potential for cognitive function and mood balance, a healthy microbiome-gut-brain axis has been suggested to support digestion, nutrient synthesis and absorption, immune function and more.
With a combination of lifestyle and diet changes – including incorporating probiotics, prebiotics, soluble fiber and healthy fats into your daily regimen – you can actively maintain your microbiome health and promote the gut-brain connection that may play key roles in optimizing your overall health and wellness.