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Ashley Swanda

Gut Feeling

Researchers are finding direct connections between gut health and brain health. Here's what you need to know — and how you can improve your overall well-being.

Chances are you’ve heard of the mind-body connection — how your thoughts and beliefs influence your physical health. That's well-established in medical circles.

But new research looks at things from a different perspective, focusing on how your digestive system affects your mood, health, and even how you think. The findings might just make a difference in your quality of life.

Exploring the ecosystem

The lining of your gut is an actual ecosystem — known as the microbiome — that's home to trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These small but mighty microbes all help you digest your food.

Not surprisingly, what you feed your microbiome affects its health. And the healthier your microbiome, the healthier you are. In short, you want to create an environment for healthy microbes to grow and thrive. And you can help do that by eating what are known as prebiotics and probiotics.

You'll find prebiotics in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables such as asparagus, blueberries, spinach, and more. Probiotics are in food and drinks like yogurt and kombucha and contain live organisms (that are safe to eat).

Prebiotics and probiotics work a little differently from each other, but they both nourish your microbiome.

The gut-brain connection

At some point you've experienced stomach “butterflies” when you're excited. Or felt nauseous when you're nervous. Those reactions show how your gut and brain are connected. But when your gut microbiome is off balance (often because it lacks the right amounts of prebiotics and probiotics) it can help lead to anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia.

It works the other way as well. Stress, anxiety, and the like appear to prompt gut microbiome changes. And that can cause indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and even ulcers. Same goes for antibiotics, which can alter the microbiome and cause digestive issues.

Tips to keep your gut clean and healthy:

  1. Add probiotics to your diet
    In addition to yogurt and kombucha, you'll find probiotics in fermented food and drinks such as kefir, pickles, sauerkraut, and even sourdough bread. Tip: When you buy yogurt, look for products with “live and active cultures' listed on the label.
  2. Feast on prebiotics
    Foods like beans, berries, bananas, leafy greens, and onions will help keep your digestive system healthy — and give you a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  3. Go for variety
    Our bodies thrive on a diverse range of foods from all food groups.
  4. Finally, you can also find probiotic and prebiotic supplements at health food stores.
    Keep in mind: It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements or starting new diets.

Ashley Swanda is an Edina, Minnesota-based writer.