Continuing with the sort of unofficial theme of looking at clinical psychology and mental health from different angles, this week I really wanted to revisit the gut-brain connection as we first explored in Episode 101. Since having a healthy gut-brain connection could be critical for having healthy cognition as well as mood. Hence why this is of interest to psychology and this podcast. If you’re interested in mental health, biological psychology and more then definitely keep reading.
This episode has been sponsored by Cognitive Psychology: A Guide To Neuropsychology, Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Note: Nothing on this podcast is ever any sort of medical or official advice.
What Is The Gut-Brain Connection?
Whilst in the past, the brain and body have been thought of as two completely separate entities that didn’t affect each other in the slightest, in more recent times, we have been beginning to understand the complex and fascinating links between our body and our brain, and a great example of this interaction is the very impressive and rather stunning communication network between what’s happening in our gut and our brain, and vice versa. This is called the gut-brain axis.
In other words, our brain and gut are in constant communication with each other.
Leading researchers and psychologists to propose that by improving the quality of the data sent through this communication network, people might be able to improve their mental and brain health, and there are three easy ways how this might be possible to achieve.
Promoting A Healthier Gut Immune State
The vast majority of our immune cells are based around and inside the gut itself, so it is little surprise that the gut immune state could play a critical role in our overall health. Including having benefits or at least knock-on effects for our brain health and mental health, as well as there are multiple connections between our brain health and the health of our gut immunity.
Firstly, our gut immune signals might influence our Vagus nerve, since it has nerve fibres located right next to our gut immune cells, and this carries data to the brain that might affect us cognitively and the overall state of our brain.
Secondly, our gut immune system could send signals into our bloodstream and then these signals get to our brain, where they could affect brain health.
And whilst it is very tough to know how exactly each aspect of a person’s lifestyle could affect our gut immune state, it has been suggested that too much stress might lead to the gut lining becoming damaged. Resulting in an increase of molecules from our gut that could activate the gut immune cells, leading to our whole body to become inflamed. This has been linked to worse brain health in several studies.
Therefore, at the most basic of levels, by consuming a balanced diet that is rich in vitamins s well as minerals could help support a balanced function of our gut immune cells and our immune system overall.
And it certainly seems to be the case that the gut microbiome and our gut immune cells spend a lot of time communicating, so by tackling or helping our gut microbes with the balanced diet suggestion, we are most probably helping our gut immune cells as well.
Personally, this is something that I love about psychology and our biology as a whole, because everything is interconnected, and in a therapy context, yes that technically makes it harder for us to help clients. But it also makes our jobs more interesting, exciting and more skilfully, and to me that is definitely something to celebrate.
Prioritising A More Balanced Gut Microbiome
Maybe this one should have come first but we’ll all get the same information in a moment, because right now there are trillions of bacteria in our guts and they’re communicating with our gut cells as well as they’re influencing our immune and nerve cells just below the gut lining.
These bacteria make up a lot of our gut microbiome, and it is believed their made-up could seriously influence our gut-brain connection and our overall gut health. As well as some early research has found a connection between changes in a person’s gut microbiome and a risk for brain conditions ranging from depression (Foster et al., 2021) to dementia (Luc et al., 2021).
Whilst in the grand scheme of things, it is still too early to draw any firm conclusions about the impact of our gut microbiome and mental health conditions, it is still beneficial and maybe an unofficial good idea to start taking better care of our microbiome. Some basic ways to do that is prioritising dietary fibre, like whole grains, nuts as well as seeds, fruits and vegetables, and polyphenols. These are plant nutrients that provide plants with vibrant colours and anti-stress benefits.
As well as eating more fibre and polyphenols has been linked to better brain health (Yamagishi et al., 2022), and is believed to help promote a healthier gut microbiome (Pei et al., 2020).
Focus On Good Sleep and Being In Time In Nature For Setting Up Your Brain For Gut-Friendless
I’ll be the first to admit that the title of this suggestion does sound like guru rubbish but there is a lot of supporting evidence that I’ll get to in a moment. Therefore, what this section means is it’s important to remember in the gut-brain connection that it is a two-way street. Or it’s bidirectional to put it in more scientific terms. As well as whilst it is great to prioritise gut health to promote brain health, it does also work the other way around.
For example, researchers have studied the effects of people being briefly exposed to nature photos, and found that the brief exposure was enough to influence people’s thinking (Berry et al., 2014). More specifically, they found when people looked at nature, people made less impulsive decisions, which is exactly the sort of choices that makes us stick to food that is good for our gut, rather than us falling for junk food that damages our gut and overall health (Berding et al., 2021).
Therefore, it is just critical to remember that what we put in our body physically can and does affect us mentally by impacting our cognitive processes, including our decision-making.
Additionally, researchers have found our decision-making, they were using this as a brain function measurement, can be dramatically impacted by our lifestyle factors. For example, if a person misses out on a good night's sleep then this has been linked to a stronger preference for sugary foods (Tajiri et al, 2020) and in teenagers, an increased amount of unhealthy food is eated compared to gut-health food (Duraccio et al, 2022). Suggesting that by optimising our brain health with good sleep, this can help us to make better choices that promote our gut health.
Biological Psychology Conclusion
I always like to return to these stranger little topics within psychology because I tend to find that they help me to remember to be humble in psychology to some extent. Because in psychology we often forget the basics of everything is connected, there is always so much more to learn and we will never ever be able to even scratch the surface of human behaviour in the grand scheme of things, because there is simply so much to do.
And I know lots of students and professionals might question that’s the point of it then, if there’s no chance of ever learning everything about behaviour. But the point is, the more we try the more amazing things we’ll discover, the more we’ll learn and most importantly, we can then apply this new knowledge to old problems and hopefully improve people’s lives in the first place.
There are so many amazing things to discover in psychology and that is what keeps me going with my learning, books and the podcast, because I’m always waiting and ready to learn something brand new and possibly life-changing.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s biological psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Cognitive Psychology: A Guide To Neuropsychology, Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day.
Biological Psychology and Clinical Psychology References
Łuc, M., Misiak, B., Pawłowski, M., Stańczykiewicz, B., Zabłocka, A., Szcześniak, D., ... & Rymaszewska, J. (2021). Gut microbiota in dementia. Critical review of novel findings and their potential application. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 104, 110039.
Foster, J. A., Baker, G. B., & Dursun, S. M. (2021). The relationship between the gut microbiome-immune system-brain axis and major depressive disorder. Frontiers in Neurology, 12, 721126.
Pei, R., Liu, X., & Bolling, B. (2020). Flavonoids and gut health. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 61, 153-159.
Yamagishi, K., Maruyama, K., Ikeda, A., Nagao, M., Noda, H., Umesawa, M., Hayama-Terada, M., Muraki, I., Okada, C., Tanaka, M., Kishida, R., Kihara, T., Ohira, T., Imano, H., Brunner, E. J., Sankai, T.,
Okada, T., Tanigawa, T., Kitamura, A., Kiyama, M., … Iso, H. (2022). Dietary fiber intake and risk of incident disabling dementia: the Circulatory Risk in Communities Study. Nutritional neuroscience, 1–8. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/1028415X.2022.2027592
Berding, K., Vlckova, K., Marx, W., Schellekens, H., Stanton, C., Clarke, G., ... & Cryan, J. F. (2021). Diet and the microbiota–gut–brain Axis: Sowing the seeds of good mental health. Advances in Nutrition, 12(4), 1239-1285.
Berry, M. S., Sweeney, M. M., Morath, J., Odum, A. L., & Jordan, K. E. (2014). The nature of impulsivity: visual exposure to natural environments decreases impulsive decision-making in a delay discounting task. PloS one, 9(5), e97915. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0097915
Duraccio, K. M., Whitacre, C., Krietsch, K. N., Zhang, N., Summer, S., Price, M., ... & Beebe, D. W. (2022). Losing sleep by staying up late leads adolescents to consume more carbohydrates and a higher glycemic load. Sleep, 45(3), zsab269.
Tajiri, E., Yoshimura, E., Hatamoto, Y., Shiratsuchi, H., Tanaka, S., & Shimoda, S. (2020). Acute sleep curtailment increases sweet taste preference, appetite and food intake in healthy young adults: A randomized crossover trial. Behavioral Sciences, 10(2), 47.
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