10 ways to hack the gut-brain axis
The gut-brain axis is the link between the rich ecosystem of the gut, which contains millions of bacteria, viruses and fungi and our brain. It also links the actual so-called ‘gut brain’, which contains millions of nerve fibres to the brain in our head. Never knew you had two brains? You can read about them here. Hacking the gut-brain axis has the potential to improve our health in hundreds of ways - from reducing the effects of depression and anxiety, to reducing tummy cramps, to even helping us live longer! Research has already shown us exciting ways to hack the axis and make our guts healthier.
Addressing the gut to brain connection
1. Eat more plants
A diet filled with a variety of fruit and vegetables feeds your microbiome best. It provides lots of fibre, a prebiotic, that stimulates the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Increasing these bacteria has been proven to boost immunity and digestion in some studies. Excessive fruit can contribute to bloating, but switching to more vegetables instead is the best fix for this, while limiting fruit intake to 3 portions a day is recommended for IBS sufferers. Eating those plants will give your gut-brain the best fuel to keep it happy and healthy.
2. Manage stress
Stressed people may have fewer good bacteria in their gut. But, reducing stress can be easier said than done. If you start by making only one change, consider CBT.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is founded on the principle that our thoughts, feelings and actions exist in a cycle.
We can cause change at any point in the cycle and it will have a ‘domino effect’ on the other two aspects. One of the best CBT-based methods to tackle stress includes attention training, which you can try and learn about in the Zemedy app or read more about how CBT works for IBS.
4. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Antibiotics kill bacteria. Though very useful and sometimes life-saving if you have pneumonia, gastroenteritis or another nasty infection, antibiotics kill both the good and the bad bacteria. This can lead to the development of an unhealthy microbiome. Some people will notice bowel habit changes when taking antibiotics as an effect of losing the good bacteria. While it is important to take antibiotics and finish the course whenever they are prescribed to you, avoid taking antibiotics for minor illnesses in collaboration with your doctor. For example, don’t be tempted to take antibiotics for a viral illness.
5. Try natural probiotics
We can get natural probiotics from our foods including kimchi, full-fat yoghurt and kefir. Probiotics can boost gut health as they have been effective in treating antibiotic-associated and Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhoea (read about what this mouthful means here). There isn’t a lot of evidence concerning their role in IBS, but the NHS recommends trying probiotics for at least one month to see if they can help you. They have minimal side effects in most people and are full of good bacteria, which may give your gut a boost.
With IBS, you can have a more sensitive tummy, so if any of these foods trigger a flare-up, switch and try something different. Other examples include sauerkraut, pickles and kombucha. One thing to be mindful about are specific products which may claim to have probiotics - it’s important to be careful as these are not regulated scientifically and may really vary in the amount of probiotics they contain.
6. Reduce free sugars and saturated fats
Numerous studies have shown that eating a diet rich in free sugars, such as those found in sweets, chocolates and cakes, may damage the microbiome and cause an increase in bad bacteria. Foods high in saturated fats, such as in some cuts of meat, have also been shown to be bad for our gut bugs. Alternatives to free sugars are natural ones, such as those from fruit. Overall, a good way to cut down is to reduce the amount of sugar in your drinks and eating sweet treats in moderation. Alternatives to saturated fats are olive oils and nuts and seeds.
7. Sleep well
The gut-brain axis is controlled by internal rhythms which love consistent sleep. For example, the body likes to release digestive enzymes at the same time. To sleep well, you should be sleeping at roughly the same time every night and for the same number of hours. Try to avoid light in the evenings - blue light from computer and phone screens can really disrupt your sleep patterns. Instead, unwind and relax before bed and allow the restorative power of sleep to enhance your microbiome in the process! For more, check out our tips on the perfect evening routine for gut health.
8. Have a food routine
Generally speaking, eating later in the day is bad for the circadian rhythm. Having a food routine also means eating at similar times every day, too. This allows the gut-brain axis to become efficient since it can hone a routine and stick to it, rather than get confused and unprepared when you pull all-nighters and eat at random times during the day.
9. Exercise daily
Exercising is a fantastic way to keep your muscles functioning well and it can be a great stress- reliever, which is excellent for the microbiome. Excitingly, studies have shown that exercise training changes the gut microbiome in terms of efficiency and composition. In addition, it seems that regular aerobic exercise makes the most difference. But remember to take things nice and easy - the last thing you want to do is to stress about exercise. Try to make it fun and as a way to blow off some steam.
10. Stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system
Sounds complicated or even magical? Fear not! The parasympathetic nervous system connects the gut to the brain and is also in charge of the “rest and digest” mode for your body, which is the opposite to “fight or flight” that’s activated during stress. So activating this system reduces stress and promotes gut health!
Tips for gut health and anxiety relief
Simple ways to activate this include:
Have you tried any of these hacks? We would love to hear how you found them - drop us a message in the chat in the bottom right of the screen or at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to share these hacks with anyone who might need them.