Getting work done on an empty stomach isn’t recommended, as hunger hinders productivity and learning. However, what you put into your body has a bigger effect than quieting the rumblings of a stomach or causing a much-needed caffeine boost.
The effects of what you eat and drink even go well beyond simply getting fitter. Indeed, what you put in your body can make you smarter, happier and more productive thanks to the unique connection between your brain and your stomach.
“Gut instincts” aren’t just a literary metaphor about trusting our nature. It turns out that there’s more to gut instincts than a mere reflex to a difficult decision. A tangible link between our brain and our gut exists. Our digestive system, the so-called second-brain, does more than process food. Rather, the gut-brain axis between the mind and the stomach is a complex combination of neurons and hormones that feeds information in both directions.
These seemingly distinct parts of our body play a big factor in how we feel. When we feel something like guilt, the gut feels it too. Same thing when we feel “butterflies in our stomach” from being nervous. Mood is a powerful determining factor in performance, as positive moods can be a big benefit to productivity. Negative moods, meanwhile, can stifle output and creativity.
As odd as it sounds, being as mindful of your gut as you are of your brain can help bring your performance to the next level.
The Importance of Guts
As complex as the human mind might seem, it turns out our gut is just as sophisticated. Bacteria in our digestive system can cause obesity, cause side effects to drugs and create the likelihood of certain diseases. Bacteria even affects mental health, as anxiety,
Bacteria even affects mental health — anxiety, depression and other maladies can be attributed to bacteria in our guts. The genes in our cells have long been the focus of researchers, but the gut might be even more important in determining who we really are.
As the director of the National Institute of Mental Health told The New York Times:
We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human. That’s a phenomenal insight and one that we have to take seriously when we think about human development.’
Changing Minds Through Our Stomach
Our genetic makeup is set in stone when we’re born, as people inherit genes from their parents.
While our genes aren’t easy to modify (although it may be possible), what’s inside our gut is much more malleable. Researchers have made promising findings on how changing what we eat can improve how our minds work.
One of the best-known experiments in the field was conducted in 2011 by researchers in Ireland. Laboratory mice were dropped into a container of water and forced to swim. This is a stressful situation designed to see how the mice react.
The mice that were given probiotic pills (which has similar nutritional qualities to yogurt) over the course of a couple weeks were comparatively relaxed. They displayed lower levels of anxiety and stress. The control group, meanwhile, were prone to panic when forced to stay afloat.
Another study shows that — at least in mice — the right diet can lead to a sharper mind. In the study, one group of mice was fed ground beef (fancy eating for the rodent), while the other was given standard rodent chow (yuck).
In tests, the meat-eating group displayed better memory and heightened learning. They were also less stressed and with lower anxiety.
Obviously, what works on mice doesn’t always work on humans. However, similar research has been successfully completed on humans. A 2013 UCLA study found a connection between gut health and mental health.
Making it Work For You
Research in the field is ongoing, yet the connection between the strength of one’s gut and the sharpness of the mind is clear. Here are some suggestions on how to improve your gut — and in conjunction — your brain:
- Probiotic foods (particularly yogurt) are especially rich in the good kind of bacteria. If yogurt isn’t to your liking, then sauerkraut, pickles and even some types of cheese can do the trick.
- Parents are onto something when they nag their kids to finish the vegetables. High-fiber vegetables like broccoli and peas are good choices.
- General health tips — like getting enough rest and exercising — can also improve not only your gut, but the rest of your body.