How Food Feeds the Mind

– Written by Rebekah Miller, RDN, LDN at HBC Nutrition

The Gut-Brain Connection

Food not only nourishes the body, it feeds the mind. Glucose from the foods we eat acts as energy to keep the brain active and engaged. Fat from our diet helps to build the brain, which itself is 60% fat. Anyone who has experienced butterflies in the stomach knows that emotions and feelings experienced in the brain are also felt in the stomach. Ever get irritated or upset when you’re hungry? That gut-brain connection works both ways, with the brain sending signals to the digestive system and the digestive system sending signals back to the brain. Using the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the GI tract and brain speak to each other through a nerve network that links emotion and cognition in the brain with the function of the gut. In fact, there are as many nerves in the gut as there are in the spinal cord.

The Main Character

How, then, can we use this connection to influence our mind and emotions? Are there foods that support healthy cognition and emotional regulation?  Indeed there are, but there is one more character heavily involved in the story of food and its role in the brain.  The GI tract is filled with nerves, but it is also filled with microbes.  These tiny bacteria reside throughout the digestive tract, even in the acidic environment of the stomach.  Each bacteria performs its own essential work.  Microbiota help create vitamin K, protect the lining of the intestine, improve food absorption and, most importantly, activate neural pathways between the gut and brain.

Microbes in the stomach are also responsible for regulating serotonin, a popular hormone known to stabilize mood, regulate sleep, inhibit pain, and aid in digestion. In fact, 95% of the serotonin produced in the body is produced in the GI tract.  While the science behind how exactly the serotonin from the gut can impact the serotonin in the brain is somewhat complicated, the basic principle is that a healthy microbiome in the gut improves the brain’s cognition and mood.  Changes to microbiota affect both gut and brain serotonin levels.

What Can We Do?

What can we do to help our microbe friends?  How do we increase the number of beneficial microbes in our digestive tract? How do we keep the ones we already have? Increasing the number of microbes can be done in two ways:

Eating Fermented or Cultured Foods

Eating foods like yogurt, miso, tempeh, and fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, or drinking fermented drinks like kefir or kombucha on a regular basis helps build a powerful plethora of beneficial bacteria. Just be sure to buy these foods with active cultures in the refrigerated section of the store. Anything canned and shelf-stable no longer has many active bacteria.

Taking a Probiotic Supplement.

There has been research that suggests that food is a better carrier than supplements, but either way works. If supplements are a more preferred route, one study suggests that the ingested bacteria survive best when taken during a meal that contains some fat content, or up to 30 minutes before or after the meal.

Probiotics increase the number of bacteria. Prebiotics feed the bacteria already present.  Prebiotics are found in foods that contain fiber. Bacteria in the gut love to eat the parts of plants that are harder for our system to break down. Common prebiotic rich foods that can increase the health of your bacteria include: almonds, asparagus, bananas, garlic, kiwi, oats and whole wheats. Fiber is not only a good food for bacteria, but it also helps to regulate blood sugar and promote regular bowel movements. Remember! When increasing fiber in your diet, always do it slowly over a span of weeks, and be sure to increase the amount of water you drink as you increase fiber.

Other Ways to Promote Healthy Gut Flora

Stay active and manage your stress. Stress decreases the amount of bacteria in your gut and limits blood flow to the intestines, making digestion less effective.

Limit the amount of foods with refined sugars or too little fiber. Sugar encourages the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Too much harmful bacteria leaves little space for the beneficial ones to thrive.

Alcohol, too, can kill bacteria. Choosing recovery is a great step toward a healthy gut and brain!

Although we can’t see them, these little bacteria friends help us thrive.  They are one tool in our tool chest of ways to maintain a healthy mind and happy mood.

What will you do to feed your own microbiota?

Published on November 19, 2020
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