The link between our brain and the food we eat.
Humans only have one brain, right? Strictly speaking, yes. But have you heard about the so-called ‘second brain’? Known more specifically as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the ‘second brain’ operates independently of the rest of the central nervous system. It’s no coincidence that we use phrases like “go with your gut” or “feeling butterflies in your tummy” when referring to big decisions or moments of unexpected anxiety. That’s because there’s a direct link between belly and brain, and one that’s important not to ignore.
While it isn’t involved actively in the cognitive process, and certainly couldn’t solve a sum, the ENS has a significant communication stream with your ‘main brain’ (the one in your head!). Patients of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example, are often struck by seismic emotional shifts, while it’s highly likely that just about everybody will have heard of the phrase ‘upset tummy’ before. IBS patients are also more likely than their non-suffering peers to be diagnosed with depression during their lifetime.
Sara Norburn, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Coach at PAM Life suggests that, far from being secondary, the ENS
“can directly impact how we feel physically, emotionally and how our brain functions. In order to have greater control of your mental health, a great starting point is to become aware of the different foods and food types that can affect how your brain works.”
Sara has described the benefit of a balanced, healthy gut and linked this physical state with a reduced likelihood, or even effective reduction of, depression. A balanced diet containing a reasonable amount of fruit and vegetables is likely to support this healthy balance, leading to effective neurotransmitter production and heightened mental wellbeing.
A longitudinal study concluded in 2014 showed that over a 6-year period, women who ate at least 2 portions of fruit and vegetables per day were less likely to exhibit symptoms of depression. This link was found even after adjustment for other factors like smoking, alcohol intake, or co-morbidities. Interestingly, however, this impact started to reverse with higher levels of fruit and vegetable intake, demonstrating the importance of a balanced approach, and that there really is such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’.
During a similar study in London, England in 2017, a research team found that in an examination of 23,245 people, regular consumption of food and beverages high in sugar content led to an increased likelihood of diagnosis with a range of common mental disorders. As in the above study, almost all cases of these disorders were unable to be easily attributed to any other factors. But if sugary foods are so bad for mental health, why do we feel such a craving for them, and why do they feel so good at the time?
The human relationship with sugar is complicated. The body runs on a special kind of sugar called glucose. Glucose fuels the body, and unsurprisingly, the brain. Based in our primitive instincts from simpler, albeit scarcer times, the brain has an innate desire for sugar-heavy foods to aid survival as they are an excellent source of quick-access energy. Eating a sugary treat causes a rapid release of dopamine — a chemical reward that sparks a deluge of positive feelings. This is that positive rush that comes from a sugary treat. So-called ‘comfort foods’, heavy in sugar content give that short, sharp boost, but take a heavy toll if made a common staple of your daily diet.
So, pay attention to what your tummy is telling you! It’s absolutely true that a cheeky chocolate bar is likely to lift your mood, but like many things, winning the long game requires some short-term sacrifices, and a good measure of balance. With direct neural interconnections, there is absolutely no doubt that a healthy gut leads to a happy mind.