An image of Dr. Tara Swart

We asked....neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart

Did you know that your gut and brain communicate? Ever wondered how? Or what you could do to help? We put these questions, plus some submitted via our Facebook community members, to neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart.

How do the gut and brain communicate?

The gut and the brain communicate through the autonomic nervous system (both sympathetic ‘fright/flight’ and parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’) primarily via the vagus nerve; through the hormonal system; and through chemical messages in the blood known as cytokine transmission. The gut bacteria actually communicate separately with the gut neurons and the brain itself.

What can you do to fuel your brain?

Eat regularly and healthily! You brain is the hungriest organ in your body and it can’t store energy after all the glucose from the breakdown of your diet has been digested and stored (so we need to eat a meal or have a healthy snack approximately every 2 hours). Try to include a variety of 7 fruit and veg per day, focusing on leafy greens, eating ‘the rainbow’ i.e. red, yellow and orange fruit and veg or salads. Eating water-rich foods such as cucumber or melon keep you more hydrated than drinking water alone. The brain is made up mostly of fat and water so eating foods rich in good fats such as avocado, eggs, oily fish (salmon, mackerel etc), olive oil etc is also really important especially if you are vegetarian or vegan. Nuts and seeds contain micro-nutrients that are vital for many brain processes such as sleep, mood and managing stress so try to include them as snacks or toppings. Finally, dark skinned foods are particularly good for the brain as they are high in anthocyanins that contribute to growth of brain cells; try to include things like aubergine, purple sprouting broccoli or black beans in your diet. The good news is that dark chocolate over 80% and organic coffee count too!

Breath practice, what do I do and how does it work?

You can simply start by noticing your breath. When we are stressed, it becomes rapid and shallow. Try to count 16-18 breaths per minute. Try to breathe a little more deeply than you were and focus on your inhale and exhale being of roughly equal length. Try to make sure you take some deeper breaths at least once an hour.

Are gut feelings real?

Absolutely! Wisdom and lessons that you have picked up throughout life, but cannot consciously remember, are stored in neurons in your limbic system (intuitive) and your gut neurons – hence the term ‘gut feelings’. Journaling is a great way to hone your intuition and to learn that you should listen to your gut feelings but can always run them through your logical system and/or discuss with a close friend or therapist.

Practical things to do to keep your brain and gut happy?

Drink enough water, try to walk 10,000 steps per day, eat 7 servings of fruit and veg per day and include fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha) and prebiotic foods (onion, garlic, asparagus, artichoke) as part of your diet. Minimise alcohol, processed foods, antibiotics and stress.

How can you optimise brain function?

Ensure that you get sufficient length and quality of sleep; fuel your brain healthily as above; drink plenty of water (half a litre for every 15kg of your body weight per day); avoid being sedentary, and make sure you get outdoors every day; have positive, meaningful social relationships; reduce information overload and decision fatigue in your life by keeping things as simple as possible.

Can you recommend some up-to-date books around gut-brain communication?

The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott Anderson.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

The Gut-Brain Axis: Dietary, Probiotic, and Prebiotic Interventions on the Microbiota by Niall Hyland

Thank you for answering, Dr Tara Swart. We appreciate your insight.