Gut health is everything, literally.
If you think mental health is important, it’s time you think about your gut. Gut health has been a recent trend in the health world, mainly because, after five decades of research, we finally know that your gut is your body’s second brain. This second brain is officially called the enteric nervous system (ENS), and it turns out it does a lot more than digest your food — it can actually affect your emotions.
Your gut sends signals to your brain that directly affect feelings of sadness and stress, influence memory, learning, and decision-making. Your gut relies on more than 30 neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that are identical to those in the brain. What’s even more amazing is that playing around with gut health has turned out to be a hugely successful tool for achieving relief from major depression. Even autism may be wrapped up in the neurobiology of the brain in your belly.
“The gut can work independently of any control by the brain in your head — it’s functioning as a second brain,” Michael Gershon, professor and chair of pathology and cell biology at Columbia, tells Psychology Today. “It’s another independent center of integrative neural activity.”
Greek physician and father of modern medicine Hippocrates said, “all diseases start in the gut.” So, if your gut is your second brain, how important is it to overall health?
“Gut health is vital to overall health,” explains nutritionist Jennie Miremadi. “The nutrients that your body needs to function properly are digested and absorbed in your gut. Your gut also serves as a barrier to protect your body from foreign substances that enter your body via your mouth. If the lining of your gut is damaged, it can result in a harmful immune response and inflammation. Your gut also plays an essential role in toxin elimination.”
And when it comes to gut health, there are plenty of factors that can negatively affect it, including certain foods.
“There are so many factors that can negatively affect gut health including poor diet, medications, stress, toxins, overgrowth of harmful bacteria or yeast, parasites, digestive enzyme deficiencies, and lack of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Avoid sugar, processed, refined carbohydrates, and soda,” she says.
And if you have a sensitive stomach, there’s a list of foods you should be aware of.
“Many people have sensitivities to gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and eggs. If these foods, or any other foods irritate your gut, try taking them out of your diet to see if it helps alleviate digestive or other symptoms.”
There are some telltale signs of an unhealthy gut that you can look out for, and if you suffer from any of these ailments, this might be the answer you’re looking for. As we’ve learned, it turns out that your gut can have effects on parts of your body that have nothing to do with digestion.
“Some common signs and symptoms of an unhealthy gut include symptoms of digestive distress such as acid reflux, heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation,” Miremadi says, ” However, gut problems can also affect other systems of the body, and have been associated with conditions such as arthritis, acne, eczema, autoimmune conditions, autism, and dermatitis.”
You’ve probably heard that probiotic foods are great for gut health, but is there anything other than Greek yogurt available? Turns out, yes! Miremadi dishes on her top five probiotic foods for superior gut health.
“Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented pickles,” she says, “fermented soy (from non-GMO soy beans) such as tempeh, miso, and natto; coconut yogurt, and coconut kefir water. Those without an intolerance to dairy can also try fermented cow, goat, or sheep’s milk yogurt or kefir.”
A healthy gut isn’t just about consuming probiotics and fermented foods. It turns out that digestive enzymes are all the rage, and for good reason. Miremadi says they are “necessary to break down your food so that the nutrients can be extracted and absorbed.”
And since our brains are responsible for emotions like love, maybe the way to your heart really is through your stomach
Check out Teen Vogue’s February issue cover star, Zoë Kravitz.