Your gut brain (or “enteric nervous system” if you want to be all sciency about it) is a whole other brain that exists in and around your digestive system, in the walls of your intestines and the surrounding tissues. This “second brain” is incredibly powerful, with 100 times more neurons than your spinal cord. It regulates many functions including immune function, quality of digestion, hormones and mood. In fact, your gut brain is largely responsible for the production of 95% of the serotonin and other “feel good” chemicals in your body.
Maintaining a healthy gut brain is crucial! Here are five things you can do today to take care of it:
- Eat whole foods. The more you can make whole foods a part of your diet, the more you’re giving your gut brain the fuel it needs to function well. By whole foods I mean minimally processed and resemble their original form: vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, nuts, grains, and even some dairy. So, olive oil is closer to a whole food than an oreo, for example. Whole foods contain not only the nutrients that our gut brains need, but also other important chemicals like phytonutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds. In addition, whole foods already contain these nutrients in the amounts and ratios that our bodies need to optimally process them.
- Avoid preservatives and food coloring. This is important for two reasons. The first is that foods with preservatives and/or food coloring are less likely to be whole foods. The second is that preservatives and food coloring are toxic to your gut brain and your microbiome. Think about it – if you’re eating something that contains a preservative that’s supposed to inhibit bacterial growth in your food, wouldn’t it also inhibit bacterial growth in your gut? And we NEED bacteria in our gut! That serotonin I talked about that’s produced in your gut? It’s made by gut microbiome bacteria that’s being directed to do so by your gut brain. Food coloring has been shown to be a neurotoxin in many studies, so it kills the cells of your gut brain.
- Keep your mucosa healthy. A significant portion of your gut brain resides within two layers of your intestines, called a “neural plexus.” These layers go all the way from your esophagus to your large intestine, the entire length of your digestive system. So, it’s important to keep these layers healthy! A good way to do that is to make sure your gut mucosa is vibrant and healthy. The gut mucosa is a layer of mucous (eww, I know!) that coats your intestinal tract and keeps the food from reaching those plexus layers. The good news is that eating mostly whole foods will provide you with what you need for a healthy gut mucosa. But if you want to supplement, some helpful things you can take include: L-Glutamine, zinc carnosine, immunoglobulins, polyphenols, and amino acids including L-proline, L-serine, L-threonine, & L-cysteine. Of course, always check with your doctor before adding any supplements. (Side note: Am I the only one that looks at the word immunoglobulins and reads it as immunogoblins? I always imagine these microscopic goblins running around in my immune system.)
- Promote the serotonin cycle. When we give our brain and nervous system certain input, it actually changes the structure and function of it to create more of that same thing. So, for example, if I live in war zone and am often anxious and afraid, the structure and function of my brain will change over time to one where anxiety and fear are the default state. However, the same is true of happiness as well. If you “feed” your nervous system with things that promote joy, the structure and function of your brain will change to a default state of joy. Since our gut brains produce most of the happy chemicals in our body, it’s important to give it happy chemicals to prime it to make more. So, spend some time doing things that make you happy! That could be dancing to your favorite music, spending time with happy memories or envisioning your dreams coming true in the future, or hanging out with friends doing fun activities. Try to spend at least an hour a day doing things that increase your happy chemicals and over time, you’ll see a change in your baseline emotional state.
- Gut massage. The movement of food and other substances through your gut (called “gut motility”) is an important part of the health of your gut brain, too. Since your gut brain produces neurotransmitters, hormones, immune cells and other substances that are vital to health, it’s important to keep things moving along. Here’s a link to a great handout from the NHS on how to do abdominal self-massage: https://www.wchc.nhs.uk/content/uploads/2019/12/Self-abdominal-massage.pdf
I hope you found this information helpful and as always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to chat more.