Stuck in a rut? Check your gut

Apr 18, 2018 | Change, Stress

Brain food for change

When you’re tired, stressed or depressed, how likely are you to change your habits or take on a new challenge? Not very.

How you feel affects your ability to change. And what you eat affects how you feel. If you’ve ever binged on too much sugar, fat, or alcohol, you know what I’m talking about.

Yet most of the time we’re just living our busy lives, eating because we need to, or because we’re bored or stressed or craving something. Most of the time, we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to how what we eat affects us.

But more and more, research is showing that if we view our diet as brain food and take greater care with what we eat, we could improve our energy, mood and cognitive functioning.

With the right brain food, we could improve our changeability quotient, which is why I ask new clients about their diet. For more on changeability factors, click here.

A second brain

The gut has been called the “second brain.” Not only is the gastrointestinal tract full of its own sensors, with a surface area over 100 times larger than the skin’s, but it also sends more signals to the brain than any other organ.

Thanks to the vagus (sounds like Vegas ;), what happens in the gut doesn’t stay in the gut. The vagus nerve is a huge, wandering nerve that connects organs, including the abdomen, with the brain and carries messages between them. It’s kind of like our own internal super highway.

The gut can regulate the brain

The connection between the gut and brain is a two-way street.

Top-down regulation happens when a state in the brain affects the body. For instance, stress can inhibit digestion, allowing the body to use energy on more pressing matters like the fight-or-flight response.

But 80% of the nerve fibers in the the vagus nerve are used for bottom-up regulation, sending signals from the gut to the brain.

Through the vagus nerve, the gut plays a critical role in determining our thoughts and mood.

What the gut says to the brain

So what kind of signals get sent from the gut?

A recent neuroscience study from Florida State University found that when a person’s diet is poor, the vagus nerve carries signals of caution and protection from the gut to the brain.

Since the brain’s number one job is to keep us safe and alive, this makes complete sense. Think of it like this: when the gut isn’t healthy, the body is not in the best state for protecting itself (whether that be running from danger or fighting off a cold).

So the message to the brain is to be on heightened alert against potential danger. And if we’re on heightened alert, we are probably going to feel anxious or become exhausted and depressed.

Scientists are still studying the connection between the gut, the vagus nerve and mood, but it’s probably no coincidence that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve has effectively treated depression.

Brain food for both brains

What we eat doesn’t travel directly from our mouths to our main brain but travels through the gut first.

If we put the right kind of food into our second brain, we ensure that our brains receive positive signals from the gut. We reduce the protective and cautionary signals sent to the first brain, and the energy the brain was spending protecting us can be spent on greater cognitive functioning.

And we improve our mood, our thoughts, and our ability to change and grow.

6 ways to begin

  1. Pay attention to your diet. Start by simply being more aware of what you eat, and how you feel afterwards. It can help to keep a journal, tracking what you eat and how you feel. Pay particular attention to thoughts and feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as energy levels.
  2. Avoid or limit food high in processed fat and sugar. Stay away from food and drinks that are high in saturated fats and sugars that lack any nutritional value, like junk food and processed food; instead, replace them with natural sources of fat (e.g. avocado and nuts) and sugar (e.g. fruit).
  3. Eat more veggies and fruit. Most of us could stand to up the intake of vegetables and fruit. Can you up the intake to 5 servings a day?
  4. Get plenty of fiber. Look for natural sources of fiber, which include many whole grains, vegetables and nuts. For a list, click this article.
  5. Movement or exercise. A sedentary lifestyle does not help our digestion or mood. Be sure to make time for some light exercise or movement at least several times a week, or ideally, every day.
  6. If you have digestive issues, don’t ignore them. If you’re having regular problems and discomfort, see a doctor. Gut problems affect your brain, your mood, and quality of life, so get some expert help.

(If you’re interested in more specifics on gut health, see this piece with more tips, including information on pro-biotic and pre-biotic foods, or this short piece from the Mayo Clinic.)

Above all, remember that it isn’t about a diet of deprivation, but about being more mindful of what you’re sending to your gut and brain, and taking steps to improve your energy, mood and cognitive functioning!

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Unsplash.


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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