The gut-brain connection: How they work together

Did you know that our gut and brain are connected through millions of tiny nerves? This two-way link between the central nervous system and the enteric system is known as the gut-brain axis.

In fact, research shows that the gut and brain communicate all the time – and the vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves connecting the two. It’s in charge of the regulation of internal organ functions, including digestion.

Is the gut our second brain?

The gut itself has been labelled by many experts in the health industry as the ‘second brain’ – and for good reason as it contains about 500 million neurons. However, many people are surprised when I tell them how closely related the gut and brain are. Even feelings of nervousness and excitement – what we call ‘butterflies in your stomach’ – is reflective of this important connection.

So many of my clients who have high-levels of stress and anxiety also experience stomach problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, pain, and stomach upset. Research has discovered that when we’re anxious, our body releases hormones and chemicals. These then enter our digestive system where they can affect (and disturb!) our gut microbiome, leading to an upset stomach or feelings of unwellness. 

There is also strong research to support the correlation between inflammation of the gut and other mental illnesses, including depression. “Depression, anxiety – these and other disorders are directly linked to what happens in the gut,” says UNSW Professor of Medicine and consultant gastroenterologist Emad El-Omar. 

Others may struggle with brain fog and feel less productive during the day because of their unhealthy food choices.

Food for thought

So what can we do? Well, there are several foods that we can incorporate into our diet to help boost our gut health and in turn, our brain function and mental health.

The first place to start is natural, wholefoods. Everyday we should be eating a range of fresh fruits and vegetables, and wholegrains – they’re essential for our overall health. Fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut), probiotics and other polyphenol-rich foods (berries, herbs and olives) have been shown to improve our gut health, which may benefit the gut-brain axis. Research also shows that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (think oily fish and nuts) can help as omega-3s are an important building block of the brain.

On the contrary, highly-processed and packaged foods such as biscuits, cakes, pies and chips can cause inflammation in the body, which may lead to an increased risk of developing depression.

We each have the power to improve our gut microbiome through better food choices and this can help boost our brain health and make us feel a whole lot more happier and healthier.

Learn how to take control of your gut health and reduce gut inflammation here.