Our cognitive health is heavily dependent on the balance of nutrients we consume, and how they influence our gut-microbiome. Humans have approximately 100 billion neurons in their brain - but what many don't know is that there are more than 500 million within our stomachs! The enteric nervous system, which regulates the gut, is often called our “second brain”, and it communicates back and forth with our “first” brain.
Our gut and brain are tightly connected by way of various chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. These molecules play an essential role in how we experience feelings and emotions. This connection between the gut and brain impacts your digestion, mood and the way you think. For example, you may have heard of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects our mood and controls things like sleep patterns. But did you know it has an important connection to your gut? That's right — 95% of this vital chemical is actually produced in our gastrointestinal tract!
Your gut-brain axis and immune system are intricately linked, allowing for communication between the three systems. The gut has a major influence on inflammation levels within our body which can affect brain health — over-activation of the immune system triggers unwelcome inflammation, which is known to contribute to conditions such as depression and Alzheimer's disease.
There are some key choices you can make to improve your overall nutrition and its impact on your mental health. Unfortunately, the typical Western diet tends to focus on foods which yield immediate satisfaction or feelings of reward. Foods like sweets, cheeseburgers, flavored chips, and soft drinks can give a quick spike in dopamine, but since these choices negatively affect our nutrition and gut health, they have a negative impact on our brain function and mental health. In fact, when it comes to regional diets, the modern Western diet is near the bottom of the list for supporting brain function. By transitioning to a modified Mediterranean diet (with reduced grains), which is rich in healthy omega 3 oils, lean meats, fatty fish, olives and nuts, you can reap the benefits of better brain function as well as reduced risk of dementia. Making simple swaps, such as choosing whole over processed foods, also help ensure your body receives all the essential nutrients it needs for optimum performance. So take care when choosing meals — we are what we eat, so make it count!