Does a healthy gut play any role in brain health?

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In this, the second part of our Brain Health series, we take a look at the impact of the digestive system and fiber on brain health. (Read part one, Can What We Eat Help Our Brains as We Age?)

Meet your microbiome

All of us host a huge number of bacteria on and in our bodies and together they make up what is called our microbiome. Much of our microbiome is found in our digestive tract, commonly referred to as our gut microbiome. A healthy, diverse gut microbiome is increasingly being credited with a role in healthy aging—although the extent of its importance is not fully known yet.

The gut and the brain communicate with each other constantly, and it’s generally accepted that the gut microbiome influences cognition.  Animal research indicates that diet influences the gut microbiome, which in turn impacts inflammation in the brain associated with cognitive decline. And, while evidence that neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are influenced by the gut microbiota, much additional work must be done before we know how—and to what extent—gut bacteria may be impacting the development of neurological diseases in humans.

Feed your gut the good stuff

While there are a number of things you can do to enhance the health of your gut bacteria, including stress reduction and adequate sleep, diet is key. In general, a diet that is healthy for you is also healthy for your gut microbiome; here are some of the diet basics:

Wild Blueberry Ginger Kombucha Smoothie

A focus on fiber

I’ve written about fiber before (check out that blog post here), but here’s a quick review. Dietary fiber is the indigestible part of plants. All plants contain fiber, including fruits vegetables, legumes, and grains, as well as nuts and seeds. Fiber is generally categorized as either soluble or insoluble. Insoluble fiber is the kind associated with gastrointestinal health and laxation, while soluble fiber is the kind that’s linked with blood sugar control and blood cholesterol levels. Getting enough dietary fiber can reduce the risk of several chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. And, unlike functional fiber (which is added to foods by manufacturers), intrinsic dietary fiber comes with the added bonus of the nutrients in the foods where it’s found. In fact, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the fiber content of a diet is considered a good gauge of overall diet quality.

How much fiber do we need? The Institute of Medicine fiber recommendation for people aged 50 and younger is 25-38grams per day for women and men, respectively. For people over age 50, the recommended amount decreases to 21-30g/day. Most Americans don’t eat nearly enough fiber-filled foods. In fact, on average, we only get about half of the recommended daily amount of fiber we need. Increasing the fiber content of your diet can be achieved if you put effort into a couple of areas:

  • Eat 2 cups of fruit each day
  • Aim to get 2 ½ cups of vegetables each day
  • Swap out refined grains with whole grains
  • Add some beans, peas and lentils to your diet each week

Wild Blueberries are high in fiber

In order to be considered “high in” a nutrient, a food needs to provide more than 20% of the Daily Value of that nutrient. Unlike regular cultivated blueberries, Wild Blueberries meet the designation for “high in fiber” because they contain 6g of fiber, they provide 21% of the Daily Value. The key to their high fiber status is the fact that most of their fiber is found in the skin of the berry. Because the berries are so small, there are many more Wild Blueberries per cup than there are with regular, larger blueberries. So, more berries mean more berry skin and therefore, more fiber. No matter how you eat them—whether blended into a smoothie or sprinkled on your cereal or yogurt—you’re getting a good dose of fiber with every cup of Wild Blueberries you eat.

Kit Broihier

About the Author

Kit Broihier is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and serves as the Wild Blueberry Association of North America’s Nutrition Advisor.