How to improve mental focus…through your gut!

Smiling happy woman making healthy lunch, healthy food, looking after gut

Is brain fog clouding your productivity? Is the mid-afternoon slump sabotaging your schedule? The hidden world of bacteria that live inside your gut has a close relationship with your brain.

Wheatley-McGrain, author of Calm Your Gut explores the fascinating science behind the mind/gut connection and shares gut health tips to improve clarity and focus for greater productivity and mental health.

The gut has emerged as a hot topic in recent years, as a wealth of research has revealed that our unique bacterial combination within the gut ‘microbiome’ (the largest bacterial ecosystem of the human body), is connected to our mental health and performance. Let’s discover a little more about our gorgeous gut bugs and how they interact with and affect our lives, from stress to productivity…

Mental Health 

Our gut bugs play a crucial role in our mental health and brain function. John Cryan, a leading expert at Cork University, coined the term ‘psychobiotics’ from studies showing that specific strains of the bacteria can reduce the body’s stress response. His most recent studies have revealed that an increase in prebiotic foods in our diet can influence our mental health. In as little as 6 weeks, increasing your intake of fibre-rich foods (e.g. leeks, lentils, oats) and fermented foods (e.g. kefir, kimchi, live yoghurt) may have a positive effect in reducing levels of anxiety and stress. This is exciting and important research that has big implications for those of us following a traditional Western Diet.

So the next time you’ve got a busy day at work and you’re tempted to skip lunch or go for the ‘fast-food’ option, it’s worth remembering that you’re not just feeding yourself, you’re also feeding your gut bugs!

What we feed our microbes appears to shape our brains and behaviour. We now know that our gut bacteria play a key role in producing hundreds of different neurochemicals, including dopamine and GABA, the body’s calming chemicals. The gut microbiome also manufactures around 95% of the body’s serotonin, which directly impacts your mood, and can influence your focus and sense of calm.

So, there are 3 key measures of the health of our gut: The abundance of bacteria; the diversity of different species; and the balance of good and bad (less helpful) bacteria. A balanced microbiome can improve our resilience to stress, whereas an unbalanced microbiome (AKA dysbiosis) can impact our mental health.

Everything happens in Vagus!

The key mechanism for communication between our gut and our brain is our vagus nerve. This extraordinary, long, wandering nerve is a little like a 10-lane superhighway between our gut and our brain, with 6 lanes going from our gut to the brain, and 4 from our brain to the gut.

In simple terms, the more bacteria we have in our gut the better the communication between our gut and our brain. Stimulating the vagus nerve can increase our sense of calm, and even support our feeling of mental clarity.

So, if your day is rushing away from you these simple hacks can stimulate and tone your vagus nerve: belly breathing, laughing, humming, singing, and splashing cold water on your face.

How to avoid crashes in focus and energy 

Our brain is greedy! You’ve only got to recall the last time you felt a little ‘hangry’ to acknowledge that low blood sugar can unsettle your focus.  Our brain makes up only 2% of our body mass, yet it consumes a hefty 20% of our energy intake!

To protect our mental clarity and focus we want to reduce the foods which have a negative impact on the health and diversity of our gut bugs, and our brain.

So it’s time to reduce sugar. But watch out for those diets or free-from-sugar products which replace sugar with artificial sweeteners. These chemical concoctions have been shown to cause unhealthy changes in the balance of our gut bacteria.

We also want to reduce highly processed foods that tend to go hand in hand with refined carbohydrates, which cause sudden spikes in our blood sugar response. Interestingly our individual metabolism is shaped by our unique combination of gut microbes. Low blood sugar levels can impact our focus and concentration, and increase our feelings of anxiety. Yikes! So, when we fill up on ultra-processed foods that are low in fibre and low in nutrients, we are doing two things; starving our brains of the trace minerals and vitamins that help them flourish, and depriving our gut bugs of the fibre they thrive on!

To flourish, feel focused and be well, we really need to be supporting our gut bugs and our brain. The balanced advice is the Mediterranean diet, rich in plant foods and high-quality healthy fats, with small amounts of animal protein. This diet is protective of both brain and gut health.

The 3 ‘P’s to good gut health: 

  1. Probiotics increase the number of bacteria in your gut, improving communication

Think fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and live yoghurt (and if cow’s milk doesn’t suit you and your gut there are plenty of tasty dairy-free alternatives for both kefir and yoghurt)

  1. Prebiotics feed our gorgeous gut bugs.

Prebiotics are fibre, and as recent studies are showing, our gut bugs simply love fibre. Ideally, we should aim for 30g per day, but most of us following a typical Western diet are only eating around half that. Think of simple foods like apples, (green) bananas, legumes, oats, and the amazing allium family including garlic, onion, and leeks.

  1. Polyphenols support an antioxidant environment in the gut, decreasing inflammation.

Think grapes, berries, green and black tea, and, excitingly, dark chocolate (ideally 85%+ cocoa). Berries deserve a special mention and can be a great afternoon snack to boost focus and concentration. Blueberries are particularly high in flavonoids that activate an enzyme, which stimulates the flow of oxygen to the brain. And don’t forget your greens! People who eat potassium-rich, green, leafy veg each day have been shown to have improved cognitive functioning and memory over time. Alongside taking care of your gut bugs, remember to stay hydrated. Our body is bathed in water and our brain function and productivity decline when we are dehydrated.

Tempted to grab a cup of coffee? Well, research shows that coffee drinkers have improved microbiome diversity, coffee beans are packed with fibre and polyphenols, great for gut health and supporting concentration and alertness. (But go easy, caffeine in excess can disrupt our circadian rhythm and cause issues with sleep and concentration).

Looking beyond what we eat

Ultimately, self-care is the key to making changes that stick, so if you’re stuck in a rut it’s time to take care of your gut! On top of nutrition, a good quality sleep cycle supports you and your gut bacteria’s circadian rhythm, and exercise also improves the diversity and abundance of our gut bacteria.

Cara Wheatley-McGrainAbout the author

Cara Wheatley-McGrain is author of Calm Your Gut (Hay House, £12.99), and the Founder of The Mindful Gut. She works to support deeper insights into how our collective food choices shape both our outer and inner ecology. Her firm belief is that when we change our diet, we change the world.

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