When was the last time you had “butterflies” in your stomach, or had a “gut feeling” about something or someone?
Far from being an illusion, these responses are real - in fact they are hard-wired into the fundamentals of your nervous system, and what is often termed your “second brain”, the gut.
Having myself been a microbiologist for more than two decades, the importance of a healthy gut has always been a particular interest of mine.
Our gut, which is also sometimes called the intestines or the alimentary canal, stretches from our throat to our anus and measures about nine metres from end to end. The gut is a muscular tube which gently propels food through the body’s processes of digestion, extraction of nutrients and finally, expulsion.
The reason that the gut is often called the “second brain” is because embedded in the walls of the tube that is our gut, there is a vast mesh of around 100 million neurons – more neurons, in fact, than are contained within the spinal cord. This is called the enteric nervous system (enteric means anything to do with the gut). Interestingly, the gut’s neurotransmitters mainly send signals to the brain rather than receiving them.
Together, this extensive network of neurons and neurotransmitters embedded within your gut respond to your feelings and also to the intestinal microbiome (which is our constantly-changing gut bacteria balance which has evolved with us since birth). This highly-complex ecosystem helps us digest and extract nutrients from our food, and also helps us fend off disease-causing bacteria, as well as fighting off viruses.
This entire ecosystem within us, of bacteria and the extensive neural network work together to operate our gut, coordinating their activity – right down to generating the muscle contractions which propel waste through the last part of the gut, and out of the body.
To keep us healthy and well mentally and physically, the enteric nervous system and our intestinal microbiome need to be healthy and plentiful. And this happens when we eat the right balance of foods to support our gut.
There is a rapidly growing weight of evidence to support the idea that your gut’s health strongly influences your mood - which in turn influences your thinking and also impacts your overall wellbeing. The large collection of bacteria within the gut communicates with important neurotransmitters embedded throughout our enteric nervous system. Hence the phrase ‘’that gut feeling’’.
The “gut feeling” or “butterflies” are innate parts of our psychological stress responses. In a stress situation, your gut is as influential to your mood as your brain. In a situation which triggers our “fight, flight or freeze” response, the body prepares to enable the potential to run, and so our gut sends signals to the brain, which consequently releases a flood of chemicals, and our prehistoric response systems still kick in to make us run faster by becoming lighter – I think you see where this is going…
If you grew up in a very clean environment, frequently took antibiotics and ate junk food then you are more likely to have an unhealthy microbiome. Similarly, if you smoke and drink a lot of alcohol then your microbiome will be negatively affected.
Studies indicate that people with unhealthy gut microbiomes are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, stomach ulcers etc… It’s also worth knowing that if you have an unhealthy microbiome you are more likely to put on weight.
So it’s really helpful to our mood and wellbeing to be mindful of what you eat, focusing on eating healthy foods that nourish and increase your microbiome (just to remind you, that’s the bacteria in your gut). The best way to do this is by eating healthy food rich in probiotics and prebiotics.
Its important to distinguish between these two types of food, so let’s just look into this for a moment:
Prebiotic foods are foods that our existing good gut bacteria can feast upon and multiply.
Some of the most useful Prebiotic foods include:
Oats, fresh fruits, especially bananas, apples, vegetables and legumes, asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, and artichokes.
Probiotic foods are a fast way of increasing good bacteria by introducing them directly into the gut, allowing us to support a healthy gut ecosystem in which our bacteria can thrive.
Probiotics products most familiar to us include yogurts cultured with a variety of strains of healthy bacteria (but watch out for the ones with additives like sugar). We are all familiar with supplements- capsules or tablets containing good bacteria that are taken on a daily basis, offering a variety of bacterial strains and amounts to suit individual needs. Very popular right now are fermented foods, such as Kefir, Sauerkraut and Sourdough bread, which are all useful sources of probiotics.
Together, prebiotic and probiotic foods help keep your “second brain” full of the vibrant bacterial diversity it needs to function at its best. The two different kinds of foods work together to provide you with many benefits.
But isn’t it just about eating a healthier diet, you might say? Well, partly yes, but only partly. It’s important to remember that a lot of the processed foods we eat today are laced with additives, chemicals and preservatives which may actually damage your gut biome, causing us to feel less well and become less healthy.
Further, it has been proven in many scientific surveys that the foods we eat today have significantly smaller percentages of the vitamins and minerals they had in previous decades. This is most often to do with fast land turnaround, use of chemicals in fertilisers and pesticides and a move to ever more intensive farming practices. All of these contribute towards the diminishing value of those foods to our gut. Which is why these days it is recommended that everyone makes intaking both probiotic and prebiotic foods a regular part of your diet.
So I hope that you can see that by taking control of your diet you can help keep your enteric nervous system healthy, enabling you to feel the positive benefits in many ways.
Juan Carlos is a therapist and author with over 22 years' experience as a diagnostic scientist.
All blog entries are Copyright ©2019-2021 Juan Carlos Gouveia, except quotations and where stated.