How to Keep Your Gut Healthy (and Your Mind Happy)
Ever sense that “trusting your gut” or “butterflies in your stomach” are more than just old wives’ tales? Mounting scientific evidence suggests that you’re absolutely right! Because when you go with your gut, you tap into what has become known as your second brain. Some find this a little creepy, but for me, it’s totally fascinating. I’ve always believed that what you eat affects how you feel and how you think, and recently, scientists have found this to be true in a very literal way.
Your enteric nervous system (ENS – the scientific term for your second brain) is made up of 100 million nerve cells in the walls of your digestive system. While there’s still much to discover about how this brain in the belly communicates with the 3-pound dome atop our necks (the ultimate command center for the nervous system), revolutionary research links our gut health with mood and emotional wellbeing – and yes, even the way we think.
In fact, an estimated 90 percent (or more!) of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin is manufactured in our digestive tracts. In other words, when you improve your gastrointestinal health, you’re simultaneously improving your mental health, too!
Here are my top 6 ways to keep your gut healthy and your brain happy:
1. Eat Real Food Plant fiber is the preferred food of healthy gut bacteria. Strive to eat foods that are high in inulin, a form of soluble dietary fiber that is naturally found in leeks, garlic, onions, artichokes, asparagus, lentils, slightly green bananas, and oats. This can help to optimize your gut environment and allow good bacteria to thrive. Of course, you already know to avoid processed foods (after all, our bodies don’t recognize them as “food,” anyway!)
2. Live Dirty; Eat Clean My good friend Dr. Robynne Chutkan, author of The Microbiome Solution (I developed all of the recipes for the book!), advocates a “live dirty, eat clean” philosophy to build up beneficial gut bacteria. Super sterile tendencies aren’t helpful to our gut health. So go ahead: hand-wash your dishes. Open your windows. Put down the sweet-smelling sanitizer. It’s okay to get a little dirty! (And psst: For a delicious, gut-healing dish, try this bowl from The Microbiome Solution for dinner, or this brand new superfood Thai salad with an innovative probiotic-rich peanut butter dressing!)
3. Fertilize Your Microbiome Once you create a fertile ground for good bacteria to grow in your gut, consider adding a probiotic “fertilizer” to get your gut garden to really flourish. This is especially important if you don’t eat fermented food regularly. Keep in mind that there are thousands of different kinds of bacteria in your gut, and choose a probiotic from a reputable brand that has a potency count of 50 billion or more. You can also sneak probiotics into your nice cream, homemade coconut yogurt (easy and life-changing!), and organic peanut butter.
4. Trust Your Gut Since every gut is 100% one-of-a-kind (just like every Food Story), there’s no one solution that works for everyone. But you can identify the foods that make your gut happy. To determine ingredients that cause uncomfortable symptoms versus those that keep you humming happily along, keep a food diary. By playing nutrition detective, you'll discover what your gut has been telling you all along.
5. Avoid Overuse of Antibiotics Antibiotics are frequently prescribed, and sometimes necessary, to kill off bad bugs. But they wreak havoc on our microbiomes and kill our good microbes along with the baddies. We’re also exposed to antibiotics in the meat we eat since 80% of the supply is treated with antibiotics. If you eat animal protein or dairy, choose organic, antibiotic-free products when possible. And if you’re trying to reduce your meat consumption, this post is for you!
6. Let It Go Easier said than done, but: releasing ongoing stress is a great way to protect your gut. Excess anxiety can reduce the diversity of bacteria and harm good bacteria in your gut. Exercise is not only a proven stress reducer but also helps keep your microbiome healthier. Strive to get plenty of sleep (7-9 hours a night), and practice yoga, meditation, or deep-breathing techniques to keep your stress levels low. Or try these 5 unexpected ways to get centered without meditating. (Of course, you can also add lavender, my favorite calming ingredient, into your chia pudding, ice cubes, or nighttime latte!)
When in doubt, think of the satisfying feeling of having just finished a nourishing meal in good company. It’s not just your stomach that feels great; it’s your brain, too. All the more reason to harness the power of the mind-gut connection!
Now it’s your turn: Have you struggled with gut health – or taken steps to improve it? Let’s inspire one another to go with our guts!