The main central nervous system is the brain and the spinal cord. But there’s also a “second brain” in the gut, and scientists refer to this as the Enteric Nervous System. The vagus nerve connects the gut and the brain, and it’s responsible for sending messages back and forth between the two body parts. Because of this connection, the food a person eats can affect their mood and overall health.
Your dining team needs to understand how these two nervous systems work together and how they’re impacted by someone’s diet. For more of an introduction on how the gut-brain axis works, check out this blog post. Below, we’ll discuss the gut-brain axis’s impact on health conditions and which foods your residents should be eating to maintain a healthy gut.
First, What is the Microbiome?
The human body has about 4 million distinct bacterial genes, and more than 95% of those are located in the large intestine. This is called the gut microbiome. Many of the bacteria in a person’s body are essential to health, and the food a person eats can affect how the microbiome functions. Some microbes in the gut can also be potentially harmful. For healthy people, the good and harmful bacteria remain in balance and can coexist. However, if a person has a poor diet or a certain condition causes an imbalance, the body may become more susceptible to disease.
Because of the gut-brain connection, the microbiome can also have an effect on brain function and behavior. Studies have shown that the gut microbiota plays a role in regulating anxiety, mood, cognition, and pain.
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
One way many people try to improve their gut health is by consuming prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotics are “microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body.” Probiotics can help maintain healthy microorganisms in the gut, or help your gut microorganisms return to a healthy condition after being disturbed, create substances that have a positive effect on the body, and/or affect someone’s immune response.
Different probiotics have different effects on the body. For example, one study found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum reduced depression and increased the quality of life for those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
How can you add more probiotics to your residents’ diets? Probiotics can be found in yogurt, aged cheeses, and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut.
Prebiotics are “naturally occurring, non-digestible food components that are linked to promoting the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut.” They can help fight off bad bacteria in the gut and also may reduce inflammation and have a positive impact on cholesterol. Prebiotics provide probiotics with the energy they need to do their job.
Foods that contain prebiotics include bananas, garlic, beans, and whole-grain foods like bread.
The Impact on Health Conditions
Studies have found that patients with depression had lower levels of certain bacterias, and that “the abundance of several types of bacteria, including Veillonellaceae and Lachnospiraceae, correlated with schizophrenia severity, and that the presence of a panel of specific microbes enabled the researchers to differentiate individuals with schizophrenia from healthy subjects more often than not.”
Some gut microbes act as protectors of the gut wall and it affects what does and doesn’t get into the bloodstream. Without those protectors, someone might experience what’s commonly called “leaky gut.” This means that holes in the gut lining let bad things, like partially digested food and toxins, into the bloodstream, which could trigger inflammation. Several autoimmune diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, autoimmune hepatitis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus, can begin or get worse due to a leaky gut.
What Type of Diet Improves Gut Health?
Rather than handing out probiotic supplements, your dining team should develop menus that create positive changes in your residents’ microbiomes. It sounds like common sense, but diets for good gut health should be full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in processed foods.
As we mentioned above, fermented foods are great for the gut. We also recommend foods that are high in fiber, like beans, fruit, and other whole grains. Gut bacteria love to feast on fiber, so don’t be stingy!
When adding fat to your menus, focus on the good fats. Studies have shown that people who consume omega-3-rich foods have more bacterial diversity in their guts. You may already know that fish, like salmon, herring, and mackerel are all high in omega-3s. Other foods that have omega-3s include walnuts, seaweed, chia seeds, and kidney beans.
Foods high in polyphenols also help create healthy gut bacteria. Polyphenols are “secondary metabolites of plants and are generally involved in defense against ultraviolet radiation or aggression by pathogens.” However, they are also found in foods like dark chocolate, strawberries, apples, red onions, spinach, black beans, coffee, tea, and olives.
Listen to the Gut
The gut-brain connection means that the right food is essential to making sure your residents are physically and mentally well. While all residents will benefit from a healthy diet, work with your food and health teams to determine who may need a diet that’s more focused on improving overall gut health.
If you need some extra help, Culinary Services Group can work with your community to provide guidance and care to residents with all types of conditions. Contact us to get started.