The “second brain”
It is not a surprising fact that our gut is called a “second brain”. (1) This is the place where most of the neurotransmitters are produced. That is why often people with chronic digestive problems suffer from anxiety, poor, concentration, mood and cognition issues. (2, 5)
Having a healthy gut is crucial for our entire health and connected to everything that happens in the body. Altogether, our gut is a huge chemical factory that helps to produce vitamins, digest our food, regulates hormones, excretes toxins, produces healing compounds, and keeps us healthy. It is fascinating that we have more gut bacteria in our gut than we have cells in our body. Our overall health depends on the diversity and the balance of the bacteria in our gut.
The bacteria in our microbiome produce dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, and these messages are going to the brain, sending signals to the brain. These messenger molecules are also sending messages to our stress system – the HPA Axis (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis). The microbiome—the bacteria—are also sending signals to the gut cells. So we see this deep interconnectedness between bacteria and brain cells. (3)
Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. They transfer signals between neurons. They affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, carbohydrate cravings, and addictions, and they can contribute to pain, anxiety, and insomnia when they are not in balance. (5)
When the digestion of proteins is impaired, the amino acids are not present for the brain to support the neurotransmitter production, which directly affects mood, sleep, and cravings.
Dopamine and serotonin are the two primary neurotransmitters associated with the regulation of food intake. The “second brain” uses over 30 neurotransmitters, and 95% of the serotonin in the body is situated in the gut.
Research continues to explore how food affects the production of the neurotransmitters in the gut, and how this process respectively affects the brain and the mind.
How Food Nourishes Your Brain, Mind, and Mood
Food consists of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, vitamins, and minerals. The role of digestion is to break down these foods into smaller particles so they can be absorbed in the bloodstream and utilized by the body. This process happens in the gastrointestinal tract. Brain function is supported by all these foods. Carbohydrates break down into glucose and provide energy for the brain. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. The brain is mostly made up of fats and relies on energy provided by dietary fat.
The foods we eat impact our gut microbiome profoundly. The bacteria in our gut support he conversion of the amino acids we eat through food into the different brain hormones or neurotransmitters. If the brain hormones are imbalanced, this will affect how our brain works, the brain’s speed, mood, and metabolism. (4)
The function of the brain and its resistance to degeneration depend on what happens in the gut. Our various lifestyle choices can powerfully influence our gut health. By influencing the diversity of the bacteria residing in the gut we influence the production of the neurotransmitters which are critical for our mood.
7 Steps to Support Your Mood through Food
1. Mood follows food. Eat breakfast.
It is not a good idea to stay hungry. Try to avoid refined carbohydrates and add mood-stabilizing foods to your diet. Adding healthy proteins and fats will keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day and so will your mood be.
2. Nourish the first and the “second brain”.
The brain is made up of 60% fat. If you want to improve your mood, focus, attention, and memory, try to add to your diet good quality fats – butter, eggs, walnuts, and coconut oil. It is good to stay away from poor quality fats that are added to the processed and canned foods.
To support efficient brain chemistry, you need to nourish your “second brain” – the digestive system. This is the place where food is broken down and absorbed ad where the neurotransmitters responsible for better mood are produced.
3. Eat food when you are relaxed.
Digestion happens when you are relaxed while eating. Try to eat food only seated and in a relaxed state. Take few deep breaths before each meal.
4. Limit your exposure to additives, preservatives, hormones, toxic pesticides, and fertilizers on food.
Try to use organic and wild foods – the best approach is to eat locally and seasonally.
5. Eat all the colors of the “rainbow”
Obtain your nutrients from the whole color spectrum by eating fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods.
6. There is no one single diet that is right for everyone
People have different genetic and cultural makeup and hence different metabolism. By respecting your genetic and ancestral heritage you can make the right food choices and eat for your individual metabolic type.
7. Sometimes diet is not sufficient
If you have serious mental issues, consider adding vitamins, minerals, fats, and glandulars to your healthy diet. When choosing supplements always consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner. (5)
- Broken Brain 2, series
- O’Bryan T, You can fix your brain, Rodale, 2018
- Korn, L, Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016