Let's Talk About Our Guts
The relationship between our brains and our guts is a hot topic right now, as I’m sure many of you have heard of the “gut-brain connection” in some form or fashion. As the phrase implies, scientists are realizing how our gut is our second brain. In fact, our brain has 12 cranial nerves that are critical for everyday functions, such as moving our eyes or making facial expressions. Only one of these nerves leaves the skull, and guess where it goes? The gut. Thus, our brain is physically a part of our gut, and vice versa. Crazy! If you understand nothing else about nutrition, learning about your gut and its influence on everything from our body’s digestion abilities to maintaining energy levels is crucial.
The first thing to realize is that we have both bacteria and fungus living inside of in our guts. While you may have traditionally thought of fungus as something only found in mushrooms or with athlete’s foot, we have billions of these cultures in our bodies at all times. And these microorganisms don’t just live inside of us, they are actually part of who we are; in the same way that we work to maintain something as crucial as heart health, we have to do the same with our guts. This is because poor gut health includes symptoms such as gas, bloating, poor digestion, constipation or diarrhea, trouble concentrating, fatigue, weight gain, high sugar cravings, and difficulty controlling your mood.
So now that you understand the basics behind the gut and its heavy influence on our daily lives, let’s talk about how we manage our microorganism population. In basic terms, we have a bunch of good bacteria and bad bacteria, and certain things we do can either help grow the good guys or the bad guys. Often times when people experience many of the symptoms described above, it is because they have fed the bad bacteria at such high levels that they have completely dominated and taken over our systems. In a perfect world, we don’t want to kill off the bad guys or strengthen the good guys too much either; instead, we want a balance between the two. The way we can do that is by managing certain parts of our lifestyle, such as decreasing stress and getting exercise, while also influencing our diets.
Last week we talked about how too much sugar can negatively impact our mental health. As much as sugar tastes great going down, it wreaks havoc in our guts, as it essentially feeds and helps grow the bad bacteria and fungus. If you eat a diet filled with nothing but refined carbs like processed foods, along with lots of sugary foods, chances are your gut is so out of balance that the bad bacteria is completely dominant. If you’re young, you may not have many symptoms of an imbalanced gut, but it will probably catch up with you later on. Even beyond sugar, there are many other ways we can negatively influence our gut health – such as taking antibiotics, experiencing lots of unmanaged stress, not exercising regularly, taking high amounts of anti-acids like Tums or painkillers like Advil, and not getting enough sleep.
The good news is that our gut microbiome is easily influenced, so we have the ability to regain a healthy balance of our microorganisms. The first step to do so is reduce sugar as much as possible. As I mentioned in our last article, this does not mean you can never eat sugar again. Instead, think about where you can cut unnecessary sugar out (such as eating plain yogurt over high-sugar alternatives, or drinking flavored water over soda). Next, you can work on replacing refined carbs like white bread or fast food with complex carbs such as brown rice or whole wheat bread. While many people think of carbs as a “bad guy,” they are actually super important for feeding the good bacteria. In fact, if we don’t have complex carbs in our diets, our gut can never fully restore its balance, as the good bacteria will never be able to grow. It also may be helpful to think about every time you eat to include protein, complex carbs, and a fat source like olive oil or nuts. These three macronutrients work together to fuel your body and your gut. Other specific foods you can include more of are anything fermented, yogurts, kefir, garlic (this works to actually break down the biofilm the bad bacteria produce), ginger, berries, nuts, or green tea. And while we are not perfect, the less corn syrup or added sweeteners in your diet, the better you will feel. Finally, as far as lifestyle goes, reducing stress, incorporating regular exercise, and getting quality sleep are critical.
The bottom line is that our guts are a hidden key player in our health. Now that you know the strong connection between the brain and the gut, it is time for you to take control of your microorganisms. And what’s the best way to do so? Eat a wide variety of foods, make sure to get quality carbohydrates, protein and fat in every meal, and do your best to reduce sugar. Whether or not you are experiencing symptoms currently, an imbalanced gut will catch up you at some point, so you want to get ahead of this while you can. You may also think about taking a probiotic to help correct things back to balance, but make sure you don’t just grab the first one off the shelf – look for high diversity of microorganisms as well as high concentration of each strand. Whatever you do, don’t forget that gut health is fundamental to our overall health. And even more, we have the power to influence these microorganisms with our lifestyle and nutrition habits.
This article was written with the help of Molly Devine, Registered Dietitian and Owner of MSD Nutrition.