The Importance of Healthy Food: The Gut-Brain Axis

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To read Part 2 of this series, click here.

Gut bacteria may act on the gut-brain axis to alter appetite control and brain function as part of the genesis of eating disorders. The gut-brain axis, connected via neural, hormonal, and immunological pathways, is a bi-directional communication system that is initially recognized for its role in regulating digestive function and food intake. Each person has a unique and yet highly dynamic gut ecosystem that depends on complex interactions between genetic and environmental factors. Similarities in the microbial composition and functions among healthy individuals are suggestive of a core microbiome that is required for host health. Many diseases, ranging from metabolic (obesity and type 2 diabetes) to autoimmune (multiple sclerosis) and neurodegenerative (Alzheimer’s disease), have now been linked to dysbiosis (also called dysbacteriosis, a term for a microbial imbalance or maladaptation on or inside the body), and extensive research efforts have gone into developing treatments to achieve a healthy microbiome.

The effects of gut bacteria on our brains and bodies

Psychiatric and neurodevelopmental illnesses, including major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and multiple sclerosis, are consistently associated with a state of dysbiosis. Gut microbes are required for normal brain function, and the effects of gut bacteria on behavior are primarily mediated by their actions on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a major neuroendocrine system that regulates the response to both psychological and physical stressors. Chronic social stress (social disruption by aggressive co-inhabitants) and early life stress (maternal separation) have been shown to alter the diversity and composition of the gut microbiota in rodents.

Nutrient deficiency and brain fog

Depriving ourselves of real nutrients can have detrimental effects on our emotional, cognitive, and physical health. Malnutrition does not just consist of a lack of food, but it is also associated with depleting our body of whole balanced meals.

When we deny our bodies wholesome calories and nutrients, we are starving our brains. Our reaction times become slower, our short-term memory is not as sharp, our attention span shortens, and we become fatigued, distracted, and irritable, which can all carry into our personal and professional lives, affecting our moods, relationships, and workflow. On top of the emotional and mental wreckage, we are also potentially harming our bodies when we deprive ourselves of nutrients or fill out plates with empty calories. Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, anemia, and dental caries are all directly related to poor nutrition.

It is possible to be deficient in almost every nutrient, and unfortunately, children, menstruating women, pregnant women, older adults, vegetarians, and vegans seem to be at the highest risk of several deficiencies.

Easy steps to feeding your brain

Making healthy eating choices can improve cognitive function. Here are a few ways to get started.

1. Enjoy your food.

Food should not only nourish our bodies and help sharpen our minds but also bring us a sense of enjoyment. When we enjoy our food, dopamine is released in our brains, giving us a sense of pleasure. Nourishing our bodies from grocery shopping and researching recipes to cooking our meals and enjoying our food by ourselves or with others should be a process that brings us joy. While cooking in the kitchen, listen to music or a podcast, pour yourself a glass of wine, and have fun!

2. Eat the rainbow.

Imagine if you can have every color of the rainbow on your plate: red tomatoes, green spinach, purple potatoes, brown rice, yellow egg yolks, etc. OK, so maybe I am stretching it a bit, but you get the point, right? If we try to eat a plethora of color on our plate, we are doing our best to hit all the food groups and eat a meal full of vitamins and minerals. When we have a plate full of colorful veggies, meats, and grains, we are feeding our bodies and minds to the best of our ability. Try to get the most colorful plate of whole foods possible!

3. Daily multivitamins are OK.

Trying to obtain the daily needs of every vitamin and mineral can be incredibly challenging to the point that it can become stressful. The majority of us are not meeting our daily dietary requirements, and as a result, most of us do need to take a daily multivitamin and additional supplements, and that is OK.

4. Listen to your body.

There are some days when all I want is a gigantic chicken burrito (no cheese). It may be the greasiest, most carb-loaded, and lard-filled food I can get my hands on, but some days I need to listen to my body and indulge in my cravings. I order takeout here and there and splurge on burritos and candy on occasion. There is nothing wrong with indulging in cravings and “feeding your soul,” but we must be mindful of this in order to not get into a pattern of poor eating habits.

5. Limit emotional eating.

There is nothing better after a stressful day or an emotional experience than sitting on the couch, spoon deep into a pint of ice cream, pouring a glass of wine. Feeding our emotions with food is OK to an extent, but this can be a dangerous slippery slope. If we continuously use food as a coping mechanism or an emotional crutch, we can easily develop a poor relationship with food and our bodies, potentially driving us to develop an eating disorder.

6. Food is a social connection.

Food is one of the best ways to bring strangers and friends together. Sitting around the table and sharing a meal is an international form of bonding. Invite friends over to help you cook dinner. Try sharing more meals with friends and neighbors, and you may be surprised how your relationships will grow.

7. Allow food to bring out your creative side.

For many, cooking can be seen as a cumbersome task, but in reality, cooking can be fun and therapeutic. It can allow you to tap into your creative side and unplug from the day’s stressful events. Plan your recipes ahead of time, meal prep, and invest in a slow cooker if you are strapped for time. Don’t allow your busy schedule or your stressful workload to get in the way of planning and cooking nutritious meals that can nourish your mind and body

8. Be adventurous.

If you are grocery shopping, buy fruits or veggies you have never tried before. Cook a new recipe, use new ingredients, and try cooking fish or chicken with different spices.