Why your gut is your second brain
Have you ever experienced ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when you were nervous? Or simply experienced some gastrointestinal issues when anxious? Research shows gut health issues worsen when we're anxious, and this is down to our 'gut-brain axis', and is just one of the reasons why our gut health is so important.
Here we explain the gut-brain axis and why our gut is known as 'the second brain'.
What is the gut-brain axis?
The gut and the brain are intrinsically connected. They communicate in both directions all the time through 'the vagus nerve' - think of the vagus nerve as a telephone wire between the two. However, our gut and brain also communicate through our hormones, which are like a wireless signal, through 'neurotransmitters' throughout our body.
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Neurotransmitters are a chemical substance which is released at the end of a nerve fibre, triggered by a nerve impulse. The vagus nerve and neurotransmitters combine to form 'the gut-brain axis'.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body that starts from the brain and runs through to the abdomen, and branches to other organs. It sends information about the state of our gut to the brain and delivers messages such as 'hunger', 'thirst', cravings for particular foods, and much more.
The second brain
Our gut is referred to as the ‘second brain’ because it is lined with nerves and has the same types of neurons and neurotransmitters as our brain. As a result, our gut controls the digestive process, manages the absorption of nutrients, and tells our brain what is going on across our body and what our body needs. Learn more about why you should improve your gut health.
Healthy gut microbes produce substances called ‘short-chain fatty acids'. There are different types of short-chain fatty acids such as 'acetate', 'butyrate' and 'propionate', and research shows they play a vital role in our overall health and our brain health.
Gut-brain axis and stress
Short- chain fatty acids alter the levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. Low levels of GABA have been associated with symptoms such as sugar cravings, anxiety, low mood and insomnia. The more short-chain fatty acids in our gut, the more GABA we produce and the greater the resistance our body has to stress.
You may also enjoy 'How your diet can improve your mental health'.
Butyrate fatty acids support the intestinal lining. It is important we keep the tight junctions that form part of the intestinal barrier strong and healthy. This prevents substances including bad bacteria, parasites, fungi and toxins, from leaking through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream (also known as 'Leaky Gut Syndrome') where they otherwise cause illness and health conditions. You may also enjoy learning about the six signs of an unhealthy gut.
Gut-brain axis and brain performance
Short-chain fatty acids produced in our gut by healthy gut microbes are vital for brain health, and 'butyrate' is the mainstay short-chain fatty acid at the heart of the gut-brain axis and the relationship between a healthy gut, mental performance and brain health.
Butyrate acts as a signalling agent in the gut-brain axis. Butyrate supplies ‘brain food’ to the part of the brain involved with long-term memory and emotions.
Our brain is also protected by the 'blood-brain barrier' and butyrate plays a vital role in protecting the brain by shielding it from harmful toxins or infectious agents that may be present in our gut through food or drink, or that we contract through illness or disease.
Recommended supplements for brain health
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Vegan Omega 3
Omega 3 fatty acids are vital for our brain health and the function of our brain. While animal sources of Omega 3, such as mackerel and salmon contain long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA, plant sources contain short-chain Omega 3 fatty acids called ALA (alpha-linolenic acids) which our body converts into EPA and DHA.
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- Zoe Predict Study: The gut microbiome (joinzoe.com)
- British Dietetic Association Mindful Eating | British Dietetic Association (BDA)
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- Noonan, S. et al. Probiotics alone or combined with prebiotics may help ease depression | BMJ
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- Bourrassa, M. et al (2016) Butyrate, neuroepigenetics and the gut microbiome: Can a high fiber diet improve brain health? - ScienceDirect