Gut Health

Why it’s important to look after your gut-brain axis this winter

December 6, 2023

Looking after your gut-brain axis is important all year round, but paying a little extra attention to it during the winter months is something we should all be doing. Good gut health = good brain health.

The gut itself holds 70% of our immune system and speaks directly to the brain. This line of communication is called the gut-brain axis, and is a bidirectional communication system.  “Our gut microbes talk to the brain and vice versa, via nerves, hormones and the immune system. In doing so they greatly influence brain function and behaviour,” says Professor James Goodwin.

The gut houses trillions of both good and bad bacteria, and while we definitely want more good than bad bacteria, the bad is actually helpful for strengthening our immune system. Think of the way vaccines work – bad bacteria in the gut works in a similar manner. This gut bacteria is called ‘microbiome’ and plays a key role in the immune system – it orders our immune cells to make powerful antiviral proteins. Not only does the microbiome do this in the gut, but through the gut-brain axis it can also modulate brain-resident immune cells, creating effective responses to neuroinflammation, neurogenesis and plasticity. An imbalance in the gut can influence our system’s response, leading not only to poor brain and physical health, but also autoimmune conditions such as thyroid disease and psoriasis, if not properly looked after. 

Why is diet so important for the gut-brain axis? 

The diet plays a critical role. It affects the composition of the microbiome which in turn affects our immune cells. We want our microbiome to be as healthy as possible so that our immune cells are as strong as possible, fighting against potential threats ie. infections you may encounter, especially during the winter season. As dietician Dr. Carrie Ruxton says, “key nutrients are vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc and iron”, all of which are not only important for nurturing our immune systems but also maintaining our brain health and overall sense of wellbeing. 

How to nurture your gut-brain axis this winter

Keeping the gut in check begins with what you put into your body. Here are a few ways to stay on top of your health this winter:

  1. Maximise foods rich in vitamin C by eating five fruits and vegetables a day. Fun fact! Did you know that a kiwi has more vitamin C than both a strawberry and orange? 
  2. Choose whole grain cereals to boost the number of gut-friendly bacteria that you have. The gut is your first line of defence, so it’s important to feed your microbiome with foods they like. 
  3. Eat oily fish at least once a week, twice if you can. Foods such as salmon, cod and haddock are rich in vitamin D, zinc and omega-3, all of which are essential for good immunity. 
  4. From October onwards, we all begin to experience a dip in our vitamin D levels – that is if you live in the UK. Ensure you take a daily vitamin D supplement during winter, whether a capsule or spray, to keep your levels topped up. 
  5. Remember to eat iron-rich foods such as lean red meat, beans and pulses. A lack of iron can cause fatigue, cold hands and cold feet. None of which you’ll want this winter!

As well as focussing on gut-friendly foods and nutrition, there are a few other ways to nurture your gut: 

Prioritise sleep

Lack of sleep can make you more susceptible to feeling run down. People who get less than six hours of sleep a night are four times more likely to have poor gut health and a lower immune system than those who get a good seven to eight hours sleep a night. 

Get moving

A review of 16 studies involving 1.8 million people around the world found those who exercised regularly were more likely to stay sharp and feel good. Be sure to get your recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week through activities such as a brisk winter walk, Yoga, Pilates or swimming. 

Stay social 

Christmas is the best time to see your friends and family. What’s not to love! Not only will it get you feeling festive, but it will help reduce stress levels by reducing the release of the hormone cortisol which can lead to high blood pressure. 

By thinking of your gut this winter, not only will you better your body but you will keep your brain health in check, helping you to stay sharp, feel good and reduce the risk of cognitive decline in later life.