Nutritional Interventions to Help Your Gut and Anxious Brain

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

August 15, 2022

Nutritional Interventions to Help Your Gut and Anxious Brain
The brain is the most amazing organ of the human body. It talks with all your other organs, tissues, and cells through many different mechanisms. One of the most fascinating connections is between your brain and digestive tract. They are immensely interconnected and communicate with each other 24/7. This gut-brain relationship is critical for overall health, and if ignored can cause many unwanted outcomes in overall health.

Brain health is more than neurotransmitters balance or thinking good thoughts to cope with a stressed mood. Your brain health and mood stability are directly tied into the health of 40 trillion microbes in your gut. It is especially important when life brings stress and anxieties to support both your brain and gut.

40 Trillion Microbes Talk to Your Brain

Your digestive tract and the trillions of microbes that live there make and release numerous compounds like hormones, neurotransmitters, immune compounds, cytokines and other neurochemicals that affect brain health. It does this all while providing digestion, absorption, blood sugar and cholesterol management. This metabolic factory is the largest endocrine organ in your body and is directly impacted by your diet.

Your gut flora constantly talks to your brain and impacts your mental state and mood. Good flora must be dominate in this system, otherwise, non-beneficial flora flourish, “talk back” and stress your brain.

The gut microbiome communicates to your brain by way of the longest nerve in your body called the vagus nerve. It is a two-way communication highway for the “brain-gut axis”. The vagus nerve is also directly connected with the health of your gut flora and brain.

Gut Dysbiosis Stresses Your Brain and Mood

When the gut microbiome is dysbiotic or has increased non-beneficial flora like Candida, inflammatory compounds like TNF-alpha, NF-kappa B, and various cytokines are produced in higher amounts and released. They travel up the vagus nerve to the parts of the brain responsible for interpretation of events, emotional responses, and memories, like the amygdala. These pro-inflammatory compounds affect neurotransmitters, receptor sites, and provoke oxidative stress, ultimately affecting your emotional state.

Brain and Mood Stress Can Trigger Gut Dysbiosis

The brain-gut axis is a two-way relationship. Stressful emotions and events can also disrupt your gut flora. Fear, anger, sadness, and frustration, etc. send signals down the vagus nerve to the digestive tract. These stress signals provoke release of pro-inflammatory compounds that can lead to gut flora changes, and disruption of the intestinal barrier. This can cause nausea, indigestion, bowel irritability, along with a variety of other digestive issues. A common stress-reaction before a big exam or speech or after an argument is a stomachache, nausea, indigestion, or diarrhea.

Ten Steps to a Healthier Gut-Brain Connection

Your diet is the most fundamental method of intervention to help your brain-gut connection and mood. Ask yourself - are you consuming a whole foods diet at least 80 percent of the time? Does your mood or bowels worsen after certain foods or after stress eating? Is your diet optimizing or challenging your gut-brain health?

Many nutrients affect brain-gut health. Here are some of the most critical things to help your brain-amygdala-gut-microbiome balance.

1. Fiber and flora. Consume at least 30-35 grams of fiber per day. The Standard American Diet provides 10-15 grams or less than half of your daily needs.

Dietary fiber greatly impacts the health of your gut microbiome, which in turn affects the amygdala and other parts of your brain. When gut flora metabolize dietary fiber, it produces short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA help manage inflammatory signals in your gut that affect the gut-brain/amygdala connection and your mood. High fiber diets support SCFA levels and other beneficial compounds in your colon, which help keep your digestive tract and brain “happy”.

When fiber is lacking in your diet, beneficial bacteria lack the food they need to survive, causing good flora to starve and SCFA levels decrease. This tips the balance of your gut microbiome into non-beneficial flora with a pro-inflammatory state and increased intestinal permeability. More toxins and inflammatory compounds enter circulation and affect your brain. It stresses emotional centers, cognitive function, and contributes to reduced stress tolerance, symptoms of anxiety, depression, and brain fog, etc. SCFA help repair and keep your gut mucosal barrier intact.

Use fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and/or fermented vegetables to supply beneficial dietary flora. For more in-depth support, use probiotic supplements like Super Dophilus or LactoSpore probiotics found in Vital UT.

2. Beneficial oils and fats. Omega-3 oils are critical for the gut-brain connection. Consume a diet rich in beneficial omega-3 oils (DHA, EPA, and alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Cold-water fish like mackerel, sardines, and Alaskan Sockeye Salmon provide the richest sources of omega-3 EPA and DHA.

Flax and chia seeds, walnut, avocado, sesame, etc provide ALA and some beneficial omega-6 oils. ALA can be converted into DHA and EPA, but it is inefficient and requires several nutrients to complete this process. Coconut oil, olive oil, and organic butter provide other beneficial types of oils, but not DHA/EPA.

Omega-3 DHA/EPA oils/fats help your body make anti-inflammatory compounds and must be in your diet everyday. If you do not consume these oils, then you must supplement daily, as your body uses them also for tissue repair.

Optimal omega-3 oil DHA intake is critical for brain and gut health and vagus nerve function. Individuals who lack DHA have much higher likelihood of mood stress and challenged cognitive function.

A 2018 JAMA Network Review study showed that individuals who consumed 2000 mg or more of omega-3 oils per day with high DHA content experienced better mood stability than the control group or those who consumed higher EPA.

Research has demonstrated the great importance of omega-3 oils for your gut microbiome, intestinal mucosal barrier integrity, gut-immune system and reduction of inflammatory signals. These beneficial oils also help produce short chain fatty acids/SCFA which support your gut lining integrity and emotional centers, including the amygdala.

3. Avoid processed vegetable oils and trans-fats. Americans consume high amounts of corn, soybean, and canola oils found in processed foods, restaurant and fast foods. These processed vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory and do not supply the omega-3 oils that your gut lining or brain cells need to thrive.

4. Avoid/reduce artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and added sugar. Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, etc) provokes increased excitatory neurotransmitter levels and blocks the function of dopamine and serotonin in the brain.

High fructose corn syrup induces gut dysbiosis, lowers serotonin levels, and changes brain health.

Limit your added sugar intake to 25 grams or less per day to reduce the stress on your gut and brain.

5. Focus on a whole foods diet. Your diet can either support your body and its natural ability to heal itself or contribute to a slow decline and breakdown. The ultra-processed Standard American Diet contributes to a slow poisoning of your body. It leads to chronic inflammation and high oxidative stress, disruption of gut flora, fails to replenish nutrients, and encourages depression and anxiety symptoms and an overall decline in health.

Strive for at least 5-9 servings per day of richly colored fruits and vegetables, for antioxidants and phytonutrients. Berries contain nootropic “smart” antioxidants like fisetin, which help protect your brain and support healthy mood.

Enjoy complex, unrefined grains, beans, legumes, raw seeds and nuts, quality organic, free-range or wild-caught animal/egg/fish proteins with fruits and vegetables for a complete array of nutrients. Whole foods also allows your gut flora to better manage cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, detoxification, immune resilience, and much more.

6. Consider removal of gluten from your diet. Considerable research has proven that gluten affects your gut microbiome and brain-mood-cognitive health. Gluten intake creates many reactions that may “silently” affect your mood, gut or other tissues in your body.

When you consume gluten, it increases zonulin expression. Zonulin is a protein that lines the inner intestinal lining, which normally selectively limits movement of particles from inside the gut into circulation.

When zonulin is overly activated from gluten consumption, little doors/openings called tight junctions are opened for longer periods of time. This leads to increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome and allows larger compounds, toxins, and germs to cross from the gut into circulation and affect brain health.

Tight junctions stay open longer based on several factors and vary in their return to homeostasis. It may take a few hours, a day, several days, or longer to repair after gluten exposure.

Gluten is found in white and wheat flours, wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats. Gluten is in whole grain breads, white breads, as well as sprouted breads and organic bread products unless it says gluten-free on the package. Wheat-free is not the same as gluten-free. Gluten is commonly found in many other packaged foods.

Wheat has been extensively hybridized since the 1940’s and has become ultra-processed in the food supply. More gluten is being consumed than generations ago, which contributes to increased gluten intolerance. Researchers have also found that ultra-processed gluten-containing products create significant negative effects on gut integrity, immune, and brain health more so than ancient wheat or non-processed gluten sources.

More information may be found in the articles:

Gluten Intolerance Affects Mood, Balance, Methylation, and Brain Inflammation

Gluten Intolerance: What Does It Look Like?

The Many Faces of Gluten Intolerance

7. Use spices like turmeric and ginger. These natural spices help modulate inflammatory signals and inhibit release of NF-kappa B and other compounds in your gut and brain. This aids neurotransmitter and stress hormone balance. Turmeric and ginger support a healthy gut microbiome and provides antioxidant protection to your brain.

Turmeric helps activate the enzymes required to convert plant-based omega-3 oils into DHA. Thus, it helps boost DHA activity and levels in your brain, while providing antioxidant and repair support for your digestive tract.

8. Magnesium. This essential mineral plays a vital role in the gut-brain connection. Animal studies showed that low magnesium intake correlated with brain mood stress and changes in the gut microbiome. Higher levels of cytokines and other inflammatory markers were identified when magnesium was insufficient.

Your body requires at least 400 mg of magnesium every day but is lacking in the American diet. Stress and poor gut health increases your magnesium needs. More in-depth information may be found in the article Insufficient Magnesium – Public Health Crisis Declared.

9. Don’t eat to soothe your feelings. A bad mood can make you reach for comfort foods or binge on junk. Ice cream, chips, fries, milk chocolate and other junk food, sugars, or snacks may temporarily ease the frustration, anxiety or depression, but does not feed your brain or gut microbiome well. The better your diet is, the more brain resiliency you will have to withstand mood stress.

Work out the mood stress also with deep belly breathing, exercise, a hot bath, prayer and meditation, stretching, a glass of warm milk, playing with your pet, holding a sleeping baby, looking at happy pictures/videos, or talking with a safe friend/family member. These activities help support the vagus nerve and friendly flora too!

10. Additional support. Nutritional supplements like RelaxaMag, Stress Helper, Adrenal Helper, Sleep Helper and Daily DHA aid in calming down stress-related feelings and responses. Vitamin D, Brain Protector, and Turmeric Gold can also be very helpful for the gut-brain connection.

Pop Tart Bites and vitamin gummies, bagels and lattes do not feed your brain well – or your children’s. Make the choice to feed your gut-brain connection well. The vitality of your 40 trillion gut flora and your brain/mood stability depends upon you making good choices.

Additional articles of interest:

Support the Mighty Vagus Nerve

Feed Your Busy Brain

Your Sweet Tooth Adversely Impacts Gut and Brain Health

This is Your Brain on Pop

GABA: Managing Brain Stimulation, Anxiety, and Other Consequences

Leaky Gut Syndrome: More Than Just a Gut Problem

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