How Eating a Plant Based Diet Can Help Gut and Brain Health
The human body is an intricately connected system, and the relationship between the gut and the brain, also known as the gut-brain axis, is a prime example of this interconnectivity. The gut and brain are connected not only through physical connections via the nervous system, but also biochemically. The state of the gut can have a direct impact on the brain and vice versa.
I sat down this week with a nutritionist who is currently working in clinical practice who has often observed how our society tends to think of the human body in a disjointed manner. If we are having a problem with our heart, we go to a cardiologist; if we are having a problem with our hormones, we go to an endocrinologist; if we are having a problem with our gut, we go to a gastroenterologist. The issue is that we tend to slice and dice all of our symptoms and body parts, often overlooking the fact that the body is wildly interconnected.
When it comes to the brain, we tend to think of it as the control center of our bodies. It tells our arm to move, it regulates our body temperature, processes feelings and emotions - the list goes on. However, recent research has revealed that the brain and gut are connected in ways we never imagined. The gut contains an estimated 39 trillion microbes, according to the Weizmann Institute of Science. These 'bugs' help us digest food and absorb nutrients, support our immune system, and keep things in working order.
The gut is also critical in the absorption of nutrients and supporting the immune system, as well as producing by-products that impact the entire body's systems. Additionally, much attention has been brought to the microbiome - the ecosystem of microorganisms, or 'bugs', that live within our gut. The trouble with having these friends in our guts is that sometimes the balance of good bugs (aka probiotics) to bad bugs is skewed more towards the latter. This is known as dysbiosis. When this occurs, you may experience gastrointestinal symptoms like minor bouts of constipation or diarrhea or even be diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Whether or not you have GI issues, sometimes this dysbiosis can result in other symptoms that manifest in other areas of the body, such as the brain. Low mood or depression, anxiety or fatigue, poor memory, poor focus, and even fatigue can occur.
Because bacteria and other microbes in the gut feed off of sugar and carbohydrates, it's common for dysbiosis to occur when we consume a diet rich in these foods (think bread, pasta, sweets, desserts, and other high-carbohydrate or high-sugar foods). In addition, many processed ingredients and even the use of antibiotics can negatively impact the balance of microbes in the gut. On the other hand, if we're not providing the proper nutrients and foods to support the good bacteria, this can also result in too much of our unwanted friends.
Probiotics, another hot-button topic, are strains of bacteria that are known to have beneficial effects. They are often referred to as our 'good' bacteria. Probiotics are certain strains of bacteria that support healthy digestion and produce by-products that have positive effects within the body by helping to digest fiber and absorb nutrients, for example. Additionally, probiotics help support the production of serotonin in our body. That's right - one of our "feel good" hormones for the brain is found within the gut. It's reported that about 90% of our body's serotonin is produced in the digestive tract, according to Caltech.
One way to enhance the balance of good bacteria is to consume fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir.
Eating a diet that includes certain foods can be beneficial for both the gut and brain. One important group of foods to focus on are probiotics, which are live microorganisms that can help support the balance of bacteria in the gut. These can be found in fermented foods like, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. Additionally, foods containing prebiotics can be helpful as well. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that help support the growth and sustain the balance of healthy gut bacteria. High-fiber foods like beans, legumes, and vegetables such as sunchokes, leeks, plantains, onions, garlic, and asparagus are all sources of prebiotics.
Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are also great for gut and brain health as they are high in fiber, minerals, and vitamins, particularly B vitamins. B vitamins like folate, B6, and B2 all play a role in supporting the production of feel-good hormones in the brain like dopamine and serotonin. Beets are another food that is beneficial for the gut and brain as they are high in vitamins and minerals, and they also help to generate nitric oxide which helps more oxygen reach the brain.
Another important group of foods to focus on is healthy fats, particularly omega-3s. Omega-3s provide support for the cells of the brain and support proper development. They can be found in vegan foods such as walnuts, chia and hemp seeds and also help support and protect the gastrointestinal system.
Simple ways to incorporate these foods into your diet include adding a leafy green salad to lunch or throwing spinach into the mix, roasting broccoli and cauliflower to accompany dinner, or swapping regular rice with cauliflower rice. Aim to add a source of healthy fats to your menu once a week, or toss nuts and seeds on top of a salad. By regularly incorporating these ingredients into your diet, you can take a big step towards better eating. Your gut and brain will thank you.
Root Kitchen delivers healthy, chef-developed vegan meals to make eating well easy and delicious. Check out our delivered vegan food menu..
Add a comment