When something feels right, your body will respond. Some call it intuition, others may say it’s your instincts. The common denominator is the bodily response. Oftentimes, this response comes as a “gut reaction,” and these reactions can help you navigate the right or wrong path. Even though that heavy feeling in your stomach may feel unpleasant, your gut is a helpful tool in guiding you in the right direction. In fact, some people claim the gut is the “second brain” of the body. Scientifically, this is known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). Composed of more than 100 million neurons, the ENS is a relatively new area of study where researchers and scientists alike are discovering just how integral a role the gut plays in our everyday lives.

The function of the “second brain”

Sure, simple math and problem-solving skills are not the gut’s forte. However, the ENS still plays a vital role in how we go about our day. “Its main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination,” said Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology. “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain — with profound results.”

One of the main ways the ENS communicates with our “first” brain is through stress responses. The effects of an irritable bowel before a big presentation, as well as butterflies in your stomach when you see someone you romantically like are both ways the ENS responds to stress. In addition, about 90% of the cells involved in these stomach stress responses send information directly to the brain rather than receiving messages from it. The ENS primarily communicates with all the bacteria in our microbiome. Keeping the microbiome healthy is majorly important, as imbalances can lead to a variety of health conditions such as weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and diabetes. What’s more, other recent studies have shown that people who keep their gut microbes healthy and diverse are less likely to suffer from mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. A healthy microbiome has also been shown to reduce inflammation, improve memory, and even reduce social anxiety. Indeed, the gut has a lot more involvement in our mood than we may initially think, as 90% of the body’s serotonin receptors are located in the gut. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being, as well as other functions such as learning and memory. Additional research into how the neurons in the gut affect mood disorders is ongoing and may have a revolutionary impact on how mood disorders are treated in a clinical setting.

Establishing a healthy gut

So, how exactly do we keep our gut healthy? The easiest way to improve the health of your microbiome is to revamp your diet. First, you’ll want to stay away from ultra-processed foods as much as possible. These foods contain additives that may enhance the look and flavor of your food but aren’t doing your gut any favors. Examples of ultra-processed foods include canned foods, sugary dried fruits, salted meat products, soda, packaged snack foods, chicken nuggets, and pretty much any item from a fast food restaurant. Instead, try replacing these foods with whole foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains are great examples of whole foods that will help your gut microbiome restore itself. Getting enough fiber in your diet is also important, so try incorporating fiber-rich produce and legumes into your daily diet as well. Along with ultra-processed foods, you’ll want to reduce your daily sugar intake as well. Hidden sugars are everywhere in packaged foods, so focusing on a whole foods diet will help you avoid incorporating unwanted, unseen sugars in your diet.

After you’ve established a gut-friendly base diet, you may want to incorporate microbiome-boosting foods, too. That’s where prebiotics and probiotics come into play. Prebiotics are special types of dietary fibers that fertilize the good bacteria in your gut. Luckily, there are several types of prebiotics you can consume on any type of budget. Examples of healthy prebiotic foods include easy-to-access staples like bananas, apples, garlic, and onion. Other superfoods that also act as prebiotics include seaweed, flax seed, cocoa, and chicory root. Probiotics, on the other hand, are live bacteria which is found in fermented foods. Examples of probiotics include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, pickles, and more. Yes, believe it or not, the kombucha craze actually has a purpose. While you’re incorporating all these gut-healthy foods into your diet, you should also use antibiotics only when necessary. This is because antibiotics can produce both short-term and long-term effects on the microbiome. Antibiotics are responsible for killing bad bacteria in the body, but they may also kill good bacteria in the process. Even taking antibiotics for one week can potentially change the makeup of your gut’s microbiome for a full year. To avoid drastic effects from using antibiotics, incorporate probiotics into your diet while you take the medicine and then prebiotics after you’re done with your antibiotic treatment. Although there is still much to be learned about how the gut interacts with the brain and our moods, keeping a healthy and diverse microbiome is the least we can do while further research is being developed.