ST. LOUIS – The gut is like your second brain and can have a significant impact on your overall health, advises a nutrition expert.

Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explains the gut-brain connection.

“The gut-brain axis refers to communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system which is the localized nervous system housed within the inner layers of the gastrointestinal tract,” Linsenmeyer said. “Signals between the brain and gut go both ways—the brain sends signals to the gastrointestinal tract, and vice versa.”

Linsenmeyer said a healthy gut contains trillions of friendly microorganisms called microbiota which inhabit the GI tract – with the largest concentration residing in the large intestine.  

“The gut microbiota performs many critical functions,” Linsenmeyer said. “They prevent colonization by pathogenic bacteria, promote the development of a stronger immune system, synthesize essential vitamins, and ferment nutrients to produce short-chain fatty acids.”

Dysbiosis occurs when there is an imbalance of microbiota in the gut caused by environmental, diet, exercise, medication use, and lifestyle factors which can lead to health issues.

“Dysbiosis can play a role not just in gastrointestinal conditions, but others like obesity, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, certain cancers, anxiety, and depression,” Linsenmeyer said.  “The intersection of the gut microbiota and physical and mental health conditions is an area of rapidly expanding research.” 

Linsenmeyer said it can be difficult for people to recognize the signs of an unhealthy gut since it can manifest in different ways. For example, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation may signal intestinal problems, but the relationship with conditions such as anxiety or depression are nearly impossible to pin down to a list of symptoms given their multifactorial nature.  She recommends focusing on cultivating a healthy gut microbiota and to observe if it makes a difference in any physical or mental health conditions.   

Seven Tips to Maintain A Healthy Gut  

  1. Fine-tune Your Eating Habits Follow a healthy eating pattern—mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and dairy. 
  2. Eat More Probiotics Consume probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut. Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits when consumed at sufficient levels.
  3. Load up on Prebiotics Consume prebiotic-rich foods such as vegetables and fruits (asparagus, bananas, artichokes, and beets), grains (wheat, rye, and barley), beans and legumes (soybeans and peas). Prebiotics are substrates needed for the growth and activity of healthy bacteria.
  4. Supplements Not Needed Supplement forms of probiotics or prebiotics are not necessary to maintain a healthy gut since they can be found in a variety of food sources.
  5. Get Your Body Moving Maintain a healthy weight.
  6. Quench Your Thirst Drink adequate water and avoid or limit sugar-sweetened beverages. 
  7. Exercise Regularly Exercise can alter the composition and function of the gut microbiota. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, plus muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week.  

Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 12,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.