Most of us have at some point or another experienced stomach pains when stressed or nervous, felt an excited buzz in our bellies when looking forward to something or been told to trust our gut. That’s no coincidence – the way in which our brains communicate with our stomachs has been well documented. And, just as stress and other psychological factors affect the health of our gut, the balance of our intestinal flora also has a significant impact on how we feel mentally. An imbalance in our intestinal flora, for example, can lead to all sorts of different mental health issues. In this article, we take a look at how anti-inflammatory foods and the right vitamins can produce happy bellies and happy brains.
Although the stomach and the brain are located in quite different parts of the body, and have entirely different primary functions, the impact they have on one another is quite significant. When we’re stressed and our brains are out of step, this affects the health of our gut. Equally, our brain can be affected by a lack of harmony in our intestinal flora. The belly and the brain communicate with one another via the so-called gut-brain axis which includes the nervous system, circulatory system and immune system. Researchers have observed that the roughly 2 kg of microbes we have in our intestinal flora have a significant impact on this belly-to-brain communication. Studies have also been conducted on mice which have shown that mice who didn’t have healthy and balanced intestinal flora, for example, showed signs of anxiety and depression. Other studies, conducted on humans, have shown that an imbalance in the intestinal flora can cause symptoms similar to those observed in patients with depression, autism and schizophrenia. There are also a number of studies that have identified differences in intestinal bacteria between healthy people and people with depression, autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Parkinson’s disease, for example.
When we are under a lot of stress, eat processed food or follow a sedentary lifestyle, this upsets the balance in our intestinal flora. The good bacteria in the gut become weaker and fewer in number, leaving more room for the bad bacteria. These nasty bacteria can lead to inflammations in the body, and can also have a negative impact on how our brains feel. A good way to take care of our intestinal flora and to nourish the good bacteria in our gut is to eat anti-inflammatory foods.
Anti-inflammatory foods are exactly what they sound like – foods that help to suppress and prevent inflammations in the body. So-called acute inflammations, which usually manifest as redness or swelling, are not harmful and are simply the body’s natural way of defending itself against threats posed by chemicals, for example. What is harmful, however, are the low-grade inflammations that lie in wait in our bodies, festering over a long period of time and potentially leading to illnesses. Eating anti-inflammatory foods is a good way to suppress low-grade inflammations and keep them at bay.
An anti-inflammatory diet is largely plant-based and, in other words, full of useful fibers, vitamins and antioxidants. Together with boosting your body with all these anti-inflammatory goodies, it’s also a good idea to avoid foods that can cause inflammations in the body to increase, such as processed food, sugars and trans fats.
There are loads of great, anti-inflammatory foods out there that you can indulge in to nourish both your body and your intestinal flora. Fill your plate with greens, fruits and berries, nuts, seeds, gluten-free cereals like amaranth, sorghum and quinoa, legumes, fermented foods like kimchi, and wild-caught fish. And why not season with anti-inflammatory herbs and spices like turmeric, cayenne pepper, cloves and Ceylon cinnamon.
Avoiding inflammatory foods is also a good idea. This includes foods that contain sugars and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice and pasta, fried or grilled meat, smoked and processed meat, hardened fats like margarine, gluten and dairy products.
In addition to a healthy, balanced and anti-inflammatory diet that keeps our intestinal flora balanced, getting Vitamin B is also important for the functioning of our brains. Vitamin B9, also known as folic acid, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12 all play an important role in the health of our brains and deficiencies of these vitamins are associated with conditions such as dementia and depression. Research has shown that people with low levels of folic acid and Vitamin B12 are twice as likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s. B Vitamins, and especially folic acid, also help to reduce levels of homocysteine. Excessively high levels of homocysteine are harmful for our brains and can lead to depression and dementia.
You can find Vitamin B12 in fish, meat, shellfish, eggs, liver, milk and cheese, but also in fermented products like kimchi, kefir and kombucha – which are also anti-inflammatory. Potatoes, grains and berries are great sources of Vitamin B6, while folic acid can be found in all dark greens, cabbages, beans, chickpeas, lentils, fruits and berries.