Over the past few decades, a growing collection of research has explored a connection between the workings of the gut and the health of the brain. The findings? The bacterial makeup of the gut not only regulates intestinal health, but also directly affects the immune and central nervous systems, thus playing a large role in a wider variety of diseases and disorders than ever imagined. Ongoing research, in fact, is exploring the connection between gut health and depression, anxiety, immune disorders, nervous system diseases, and even autism. On the most recent episode of my “Emotions Mentor” podcast, Dr. Danielle Daniel (LSCW) and I spoke about this connection and what we can do specifically to improve gut health—and thus improve brain health.
Two elements are key to a healthy gut-brain connection: 1) eating an abundance of nutrient-rich foods that reduce inflammation and nourish the body, and 2) preventing gut dysbiosis (the overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut). Right now you’re probably bracing yourself to read a long list of things I recommend eliminating from your diet in order to do these two things.
But I’ve found that making the lifestyle changes necessary to accomplish the above-mentioned goals is a lot easier when focusing on the things you should add to your diet first. Once you’ve reaped the rewards of adding lots of good things to your life, it will be a lot easier to start eliminating the bad. You might even find that you no longer want or have room for the bad. (I’m looking at you, sugar, refined grains, and processed foods!)
To tackle the first goal (reducing inflammation), work on adding these types of food to your diet:
1. Oils high in omega-9 fatty acids.
These include olive oil, grape-seed oil, and avocado oils. Try flavor-infused olive oils (think rosemary and garlic) on your salads and begin cooking exclusively with extra virgin olive oil.
2. Fish, especially if it’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids.
Good choices are salmon, albacore tuna, anchovies, sardines, trout, mackerel, and halibut. Aim for eating one of these twice a week.
3. Nuts and seeds.
Walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds, in particular, are also high in omega-3s and can be added to salads, tossed in your morning oatmeal, or eaten on their own as a snack.
Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, oranges, and pineapple are especially beneficial. Add some to smoothies, probiotic-rich yogurt, steel-cut oats, and salads. Keep bowls of fresh fruit at the ready and bags of frozen fruit in the freezer.
5. Leafy greens.
Spinach, kale, and collard greens are all good choices, as they are high in vitamin K, which helps reduce inflammation.
6. Avocados, broccoli, bell peppers, and cabbage.
By this point, you can likely see a colorful pattern: fruits and vegetables with vibrant, dark pigmentation are a sure bet for fighting inflammation.
7. Whole grains.
Oatmeal, brown rice, and whole wheat bread are rich in fiber, which also plays a role in reducing inflammation.
8. Herbs and spices.
These contribute valuable antioxidants to your diet and also add lots of flavor, which has the added benefit of curbing cravings and satisfying the palate. Turmeric and garlic are some of my favorite.
9. Dark chocolate.
Yep, you read that right: if the chocolate is at least 70 percent pure cocoa, it is also full of flavanols, which reduce inflammation and keep the endothelial cells that line your arteries healthy. Drizzle some melted dark chocolate over a bowl of berries for a dessert that not only tastes delicious but is remarkably healthy. You can also reap the benefits of dark chocolate by sprinkling cacao powder (don’t confuse this with cocoa powder) over fresh fruit, adding it to your morning smoothie, or blending it with your favorite probiotic-rich yogurt.
Once you’ve added these inflammation-fighting foods to your diet, start focusing on that bacteria in your gut. Healthy bacteria are what keeps your gut working well while also communicating positive messages to your brain, immune system, and nervous system.
When bad bacteria enter the gut (often via sugar and processed grains), they can take over, causing an overgrowth of dangerous microorganisms that contribute to everything from irritable bowel syndrome to tooth decay. Restoring the balance of good bacteria in your gut begins with introducing probiotics (live bacteria and yeasts) to your diet. While probiotic supplements do exist, there are also a number of foods you can add to the diet that are rich in these live, active bacteria. These include:
Make sure the label indicates that the product includes live, active cultures. It should also be low in sugar. Contrary to outdated advice, however, it doesn’t need to be low in fat. In fact, eating a diet rich in healthy fats has been found to get you full faster and keep you that way longer. Fat is also crucial to brain health.
Furthermore, foods that are labeled low-fat or non-fat are often full of added sugars (to replace the flavor lost when the fat was removed) and additives that contribute to an unhealthy gut biome. If you have dairy sensitivities or are trying to support a plant-based diet, look for coconut yogurt with added probiotics.
This fermented milk drink (it can be made with cow, goat, sheep, or even coconut milk) has a tart and tangy taste, while also being fresh, crisp, and effervescent. It is made by soaking kefir grains, which are rich in bacteria and yeast, in milk to form a probiotic-rich drink. It can be flavored or plain. To reduce your sugar intake, buy plain kefir rather than the flavored variety and stir in a couple spoon fulls of pureed berries.
This traditional German dish is made by fermenting finely shredded cabbage in lactic acid bacteria. Make sure to buy unpasteurized sauerkraut to get the probiotic benefits, as the process of pasteurization kills any live bacteria.
Essential Oil Tips
The plant compounds in essential oils, like the foods mentioned above, can also help reduce inflammation and fight gut dysbiosis.
Here are two ways to use essential oils to support the gut-brain connection:
For gut dysbiosis—Add 2 to 3 drops each oregano and melaleuca oil to a veggie cap. Fill remaining space with a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil. Take daily. Alternatively, use 2 to 3 drops each rose oil and thyme in place of the oregano and melaleuca. This combination has been shown to reduce bad gut bacteria.
For inflammation—Place a drop of turmeric or frankincense on your thumb and then press and hold the thumb against the roof of your mouth. Do this twice daily. Alternatively, mix a few drops of either oil with a carrier oil and add to a veggie cap. Take daily.
(Always use pure essential oils that are safe for internal use, such as those produced by doTerra.)
PS. There's more to taking care of yourself than just your gut, learn how to strengthen your sleep cycles, eating habits, and attitude with the Good Mood Bootcamp online course!