If you’ve ever had anxious thoughts and simultaneously experienced a nervous stomach, or if you’ve ever made a decision and had a gut feeling, those sensations have happened because of a special connection between your gut and your brain. It’s called the gut-brain axis, and it plays an important role in many of the body’s functions.
The 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. This nervous system talks to the brain and the food someone eats can affect how these talks go. The vagus nerve is a large nerve that connects the gut and the brain, and it’s responsible for sending messages back and forth between the two body parts. By understanding how these two systems work together, you can provide better care for your residents with conditions affected by the gut-brain axis.
What’s in the gut?
The entire gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of neurons that are affected by the bacteria that live in the gut microbiome (the gut microbiome is basically made up of all of the genetic material and microbes, like bacteria and fungi, that live in the intestine). Good gut bacteria can reduce inflammation, regulate the immune system, and stimulate the neural pathways of the gut-brain axis.
Because this part of the body plays so many roles, a person’s diet can affect their gut-brain axis and therefore their health and their mood.
The gut and the mood
There is actual, scientific evidence that certain foods have an impact on a person’s mood. We’re sure you’ve heard of serotonin. It’s a neurotransmitter in the body that regulates a person’s emotions (in fact, there’s a link between low serotonin levels and depression). While you may know that there’s serotonin in the brain, you might be surprised to learn that 95% of the body’s serotonin is housed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract where it regulates bowel function. Studies have shown that a diet higher in the amino acid tryptophan can raise serotonin levels and increase positive moods in people. This is because the body converts tryptophan into serotonin. Foods with a high level of tryptophan include:
- Turkey and chicken
There are also other conditions that are affected by someone’s serotonin levels. For example, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), is linked to having too much serotonin in the gut. Aside from depression, low serotonin levels are also linked to fibromyalgia, obesity, and anxiety.
The gut and the brain
Studies have shown that the activity and changes of a person’s gut bacteria are linked to certain diseases and conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease, autism, blood cancers and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.
The bacteria in one’s gut helps teach the immune system what is good and what’s bad.
If the bacteria in the gut is unbalanced, the gut can enter a state of increased intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut. Because a person’s intestinal walls are looser with leaky gut, more bad bacterias can get in. One of those bad bacterias is called lipopolysaccharide (LPS). It’s an inflammatory toxin, so if a lot of it gets into a person’s gut, it can cause inflammation. Increased inflammation has been linked to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. High LPS levels are also associated with depression and schizophrenia.
One study that wanted to learn more about the link between gut health an Alzheimer’s was conducted at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Researchers examined stool samples to assess participants “microbial richness.” They found that patients with Alzheimer’s disease had less diverse microorganisms in their guts than those without the disease. The findings suggest that creating a healthier gut through someone’s diet might be able to prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Your dietitian’s role in better gut health
Your facility’s dietitian can work with your food service team to integrate better foods for the gut into your menus. This “food as medicine” approach may be able to improve your residents’ moods and prevent or slow down any conditions that are caused by changes in gut health.
A recommended diet for a better, healthier gut is one that is high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Diets like the Mediterranean or Japanese diets often contain more fruits, vegetables, fish, and leaner meats, as well as other foods that can improve gut health and therefore boost overall health and mood.
Some other foods that we always suggest to improve gut health for residents at our facilities are:
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
By continuing to encourage your dietitian to remain up-to-date on the latest research about the gut-brain axis and its effects on conditions your residents have, you can create a happier, healthier community. We recommend working with your teams to evaluate which residents might be helped by a gut-friendly diet and then integrating those foods into the menu. And if you need help, we’re always here.
Good, well-rounded diets are a powerful piece of whole-person care, and research is showing that better nutrition is truly the key to better gut health. Culinary Services Group’s dietitians can provide guidance and care to residents with all types of diseases. They’ll help improve your residents’ overall nutritional status with the right dietary prescriptions so they can be happier and healthier. Contact us to get started.