The Gut-Brain Connection: Eating to Help Anxiety
Part of my fascination with diagnosing and treating the body, is that it is all one big map or web, that we can trace to understand how it is functioning (or dtysfunctioning).
Your gut is considered your "second brain" and it is primarily where I lay the foundation for every treatment plan for my patients. Given we eat at least 3 meals each day, we can end up assaulting it, in micro-amounts daily, which can accumulate to larger damage and cause for concern like low-mood, low serotonin and anxiety.
What exactly is the “gut-brain connection.”
Our gut has its own set of neurons and nerves, called our enteric nervous system, which houses nerves like the vagus nerve, which operate on their own, without input from our conscious brain. Our "second brain", has thousands of nerves, more than the spinal cord in fact, as what we eat is crucial for sending signals on how to function to the rest of the body. The majority of the signals from our digestive tract (gut) to our brain, travel through the vagus nerve. To put it another way, the vagus nerve is the main highway of traffic from the gut to our actual brain, to tell our body what to do as a result of the nutrients, building blocks for hormones and fuel we've just eaten. Signals include how hungry or full we are, how many brain hormones we've made, blood sugar stability and energy levels, just to name a few.
The gut makes our neurochemicals, like serotonin, which go on to support our mood, energy and stability in our actual brain.
The 3 big functions of the gut are to digest our food, to make our brain hormones (neuro-chemicals) and our immune system. So if we assault the gut with poor food choices, or poor eating habits (eating while stressed, walking, working), we can begin to rack up damage to the system that keeps us calm and stable, mentally and physically. These functions are largely made by the microbiota (bacteria of our gut) which directly interacts with our digested food particles. Once the bacteria have further digested our food (eaten away at the fibre, breaking their bonds and releasing the nutrients to cross through the gut barrier into the blood to be taken-up by our organ tissue for function), the fibrous portion is sent further along the gut to the colon, to become stool. While the bacteria are eating the fibre of our foods, and diffusing the nutrients across the barrier into our blood stream, they are also setting off a chain of events inside the intestinal wall that make up our immune system and brain hormones. Therefore it is incredibly important our bacteria are eating well, to make sure our body is making our immune system and our brain hormones.
Research is booming in the field of understanding the human microbiome. We know we have billions of strains of gut bacteria, we are just scraping the surface when it comes to how they harmonize and what strain contributes to what particular function. Generally, we want to nourish the "good" bacterial strains with lots of fibre, so they can do their jobs well, and make our neuro-chemicals easily, with little interference from inflammation. We also want to keep our blood sugar stable, to stabilize our hormones leptin and ghrelin, which tells us when we are full or hungry.
What to eat to support or treat anxiety?
Since we experience the least anxiety when our brain has the appropriate ratio of neurochemicals like serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine and GABA, our long term goal in treating and preventing anxiety is to make sure we are eating adequately to manufacture these chemicals. Fibre is the best way to ensure that the right bacteria in our intestine are growing and functioning. The name given to foods that our good bacteria (probiotics) like to eat is called pre-biotics. Pre-biotics are essentially different fibrous foods. Foods that have fibre are largely our green leafy vegetables, fruits and vegetables in general and some soluble fibres like psyllium husk, flaxseed and oats.
Other ways to help our gut make our neurochemicals, is to reduce inflammation at the gut level. This can be done by ensuring the sending the signal for satiety (using leptin), which is largely done by eating good fats such as omega-3, 6, and 9 fats, gamma-linoleic fatty acids (GLA), and mono-unsaturated fats. This fat signal will tell the body to produce leptin, which will decrease our desire to overeat carbohydrates. Too many carbohydrates contribute easily to inflammation, so not overeating them will reduce the chances of inflammation. Also, omega-3 fats and GLA fats, are anti-inflammatory at high doses.
To summarize: be sure to include lots of fibre, from green leafy vegetables, and healthy fats in your diet daily, to help keep your brain hormones stable, to ward off anxiety. An easy way to incorporate green leafy vegetables and healthy fats into your diet is in the form of a smoothie.
Pre-Biotic Food Sources:
Pre-biotics is the name given to fibrous foods that feed good bacteria in our microbiome. The highest fibrous foods will be raw vegetables, that haven't had their fibre bonds broken by cooking methods. Top examples include (many of which make a great addition to salads and smoothies):
- Raw Dandelion greens
- Raw garlic
- Raw asparagus
- Raw onion
- Raw leeks
- Oats (can be cooked, but also eaten raw)
- Raw under-ripe banana
- Raw apples
Brain loving smoothie recipes:
Tip #1: When making any smoothie (with fruits or veg), always add an oil. The fibre from the fruit or veg will be what your good gut bacteria will feed on, and the good anti-inflammatory omega 3, 7, 9s in the oil, along with the structure of the fat, will be what fuels and protects the brain.
Tip #2: If you ever need to sweeten a smoothie up, to mask flavour, add a few strawberries or banana, depending on the recipe.
Tip #3: If you're going to make it a meal, add 3 tbsp ground hemp hearts, and 2 tbsp ground flaxmeal for protein! Don't let it sit too long once these ingredients are added, or they will congeal and change the texture.
Green Brain Gains Smoothie Recipe
- Handful of kale
- 2 romaine lettuce leaves
- 1/4 skinned green apple
- small amount of parsley or cilantro
- few mint leaves
- 1/2 a lime
- 1/4 a naval orange
- 1 tbsp cold pressed, virgin coconut oil
- 1 tbsp omega-3 fish oil or GLA or Flaxseed oil
- Water to desired texture
- Instructions: Blend together until smooth, and enjoy!
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Rev Neurosci. 2018 Feb 5. pii: /j/revneuro.ahead-of-print/revneuro-2017-0072/revneuro-2017-0072.xml. doi: 10.1515/revneuro-2017-0072. Gut microbiome and depression: what we know and what we need to know.
Health Psychol Open. 2017 Aug 10;4(2):2055102917724335. doi: 10.1177/2055102917724335. eCollection 2017 Jul-Dec.The third tier in treatment: Attending to the growing connection between gut health and emotional well-being.