Emerging science is showing how our gut and brain are intrinsically linked, with our diets having an influence on behaviour, cognitive function, mood disorders among others. Researchers in Oregon State have found that the bacteria that live in our guts change as we increase fats and sugars in our diets. High sugar diets were associated with poorer memory, and it may be because the bugs in our guts have an ability to communicate with the brain! This communication is a chemical one – bugs release chemicals that our bodies detect as neurotransmitters, a chemical our own cells produce to communicate with one another. These neurotransmitters influence our nervous and immune systems and may also influence the production of serotonin. Neurotransmitters have many functions, and which ones the bacteria are able to influence is still subject to study.
The fact is, our diet is the major trigger that determine the type of bacteria that populate in our guts and how they behave. If you want to protect yourself from cognitive decline as you get older, or if you experience symptoms of depression and anxiety then relook at your diet. The following aspects of our diet need changing:
– we need to increase our omega-3 consumption (for brain health, specifically we need DHA). You can get this largely from eating oily fish at least once a week (mackerel, salmon, herring etc.)
– we need to drastically reduce the amount of processed food we eat. Processed food is the highest contributor to sugar in our diets
– we need to eat more “anti-oxidant foods”: vegetables! These should be the largest portion of our diet, and should always include something dark green (kale, spinach, rocket, watercress etc.) and then as many other colours as we find pleasing: peppers, tomatoes, squashes, aubergines, beets, carrots etc.
– we need better quality fibre in our diet. Fibre is the food for gut bacteria, they particularly like fructo-oligosaccharides found in “flavour-adding foods” such as onions, garlic, chicory, asparagus (when in season), as well as artichoke and bananas. The added benefit of these foods is that they increase the absorption of calcium, important for good bone and teeth health!
– Get out in the sunshine for at least 20 minutes a day and get vitamin D producing in our bodies.
– Move more. Increasing physical activity in our lives does not mean joining a gym or buying expensive trainers, we can simply do more to be active such as walk about our homes more, walk part of the way to work each day or simply standing up more! Standing burns more calories than sitting.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.