Our gut and brain are deeply interrelated (1). The gut is an organ system that covers every aspect of digestion. After the food is swollen it starts its journey through the gut. Then the food gets broken down into very small pieces so that they can pass through the gut lining and get into the bloodstream where the body will use them to make new cells. Our intestines are covered with microvilli that are packed with digestive enzymes and they help in the breakdown of bigger food particles into smaller ones so that they pass easily through the gut lining.(2) But how can we use food for stress relief?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE HAVE A POOR DIET
If we have poor digestion the food cannot be broken down into small compounds and delivered to the bloodstream for the production of new cell structures. As a result, nutritional deficiencies as magnesium, zinc or vitamin D deficiency might follow and they can manifest in various ways and can have a negative long-term impact on our health. (3)
We are healthy when we have proper digestion, assimilation, and absorption of food. When the gut contains the right balance of good and bad bacteria it is believed that the gut is in a state of symbiosis. If there is an imbalance in the gut microbiome it is referred to as a state of dysbiosis and is considered as a source of inflammation throughout the entire body. (2)
Having a poor diet, experiencing ongoing chronic stress or toxic exposure, damages and inflames our gut lining. As a result, it gets torn and large undigested food particles pass through the intestinal lining into the bloodstream. This is called intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’(5)
When the gut is inflamed and the gut bacteria get out of balance, this can trigger systemic inflammation and can increase molecules in the body called cytokines. Since two-thirds of our immune system is situated in our astrointestinal tract, when we have an inflamed intestinal lining, the lymphatic system and the immune system are also inflamed and they start to send inflammatory messages to the rest of the body including our brain. This can interfere with mood, cognition, and with everything that is going on in the brain.
THE BI-DIRECTIONAL CONNECTION
The gut and the brain have a bi-irectional connection. The gut can modulate the structure and the function of the brain and conversely, the brain can regulate the gut microbiota. (4) For every message the brain sends to the gut, the gut sends 9 messages back to the brain. (2)
Our gut microbiome plays a crucial role in the digestion of amino acids from the food we eat and their conversion into the various brain hormones and neurotransmitters. For example, the brain hormones control how the brain works, including our mood and metabolism.
One of the best things we can do for anxiety and stress relief is to optimize our food intake. Above all, food is powerful medicine and the most important health intervention that anyone can make. The food we eat every day has a massive impact on our gut microbiome. (5)
10 GUIDELINES TO EATING FOOD FOR STRESS RELIEF AND OPTIMAL HEALTH
1. Choose unprocessed, unrefined, whole foods.
2. Eat locally and seasonally, by choosing organic fruits and vegetables.
3. Increase intake of colorful plant-based foods, especially berries – they contain chemicals that reduce inflammation and have a positive effect on the body, improving brain health. The antioxidants found in berries to support oxidative stress protection.
4. Increase the intake of healthy fats – organic nuts and seeds, avocados, grass-fed butter, and coconut. We need healthy fats for healthy cell membranes. We need them to make hormones (like estrogen and testosterone) and immune cells, to regulate inflammation and metabolism. 60% of our brains are fat.
5. Take care of proper preparation of your grains and seeds properly – soaking and sprouting will enhance the bioavailability of the nutrients.
6. Choose grass-finished meats, pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and wild-caught seafood – they provide high-quality fats, long-burning fuel for the brain and body. They provide omega-3 fats, zinc, conjugated linoleic acid, vitamin B12, and other important micronutrients.
7. Add spices and herbs to support the body’s natural detoxification pathways – turmeric and black pepper are a wonderful detoxifying combination. Lemons and limes juiced in a cup of spring water before meals support optimal digestion through increased production of hydrochloric acid.
8. Add pre and probiotics – they support healthy gut flora and the detoxification processes. Choose from various fermented vegetables – organic raw pickles, sauerkraut, beet kvass or organic kefir and yogurt or kombucha tea or organic miso soup. There are some individuals who are histamine intolerant and they should limit or avoid fermented foods.
9. Do not skip meals and do not fast intentionally. This will help your adrenals to recover quicker.
10. Eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly and while sitting only. Digestion is a parasympathetic process, so it is necessary to eat in a relaxed state for optimal assimilation and absorption of nutrients.
O’Brian T, You can fix your brain, Rodale, 2018
Nutritional Therapy Association, NTP lecture course, 2019