How Nutrition Effects Mental Performance
Your gut system is incredibly complex. Believe it or not, the health of your gut has the power to directly influence your psychology and mental function.
At any one time, you have thousands of different types of micro-organisms in your gut, collectively known as your gut microbiota or microbiome. These micro-organisms are living things, usually some type of bacteria. You have 100 trillion of them in your gut – about 10 times the number of cells in your body and approximately 200 times the number of human genes you have. If you think about it from a broad perspective, we are all just a super-organism that carries billions of living micro-organisms within it.
The Gut-Brain Network
Your gut microbiota is involved in a huge number of metabolic processes, including the:
Metabolism and absorption of nutrients
Decomposition of proteins
Synthesis of vitamins and bioactive compounds
It plays a crucial role in maintaining a strong immune system. It’s also recently been discovered that there’s a crucial link between the gut and the brain, now deemed the gut-brain network.
The close communication between the micro-organisms in the gut and the brain is linked by what’s known as the gut-brain axis and many recent studies have found that the gut microbiota develops simultaneously with the brain and your psychology. This means that the gut not only regulates the structure and function of the brain, it also influences the development and the behaviour of the brain.
Research has revealed that individuals with abnormal gut microbiota (abnormal composition of gut micro-organisms) have faster rates of brain dysfunction and mental disorders and this can include impaired learning capacity and even memory.
Poor Gut Health
Something that’s very important in relation to sport and football is that chronic fatigue is also known to be a consequence of poor gut health. The health of the gut barrier (surrounding the wall of the gut) is very important as this keeps micro-organisms within the gut and regulates the flow of nutrients and molecules from the gut into the bloodstream, ideally preventing any harmful micro-organisms and substances from entering the blood and causing an inflammatory reaction.
Without a strong and healthy gut barrier, a condition known as leaky gut can develop. Damage to the gut barrier prevents it from functioning properly, affecting its permeability and thereby its ability to prevent micro-organisms from passing through that wouldn’t normally do so. This not only leads to damage and inflammation, it also impairs the blood-brain barrier, meaning harmful micro-organisms can reach the brain and induce neuro-inflammation, creating numerous poor psychological effects.
Maintaining a Healthy Gut
Maintaining a healthy gut comes down to two main things:
Making sure the micro-organisms within the gut are healthy and able to keep us functioning properly.
Keeping the gut barrier strong and functioning properly to stop anything bad in the gut from leaking out and causing inflammation, or in terms of the brain, causing neuro-inflammation and damage to the brain.
Good and Bad Gut Bacteria
So, what can be done from a nutritional perspective to keep your gut healthy?
What you eat and other lifestyle factors, dictates the composition of the micro-organisms in your gut and the function of the gut barrier. There are healthy gut bacteria and bad or unhealthy gut bacteria and what you eat is effectively providing living space and food for these micro-organisms in your gut. With your food choices, you are unconsciously regulating the type and the number of these micro-organisms.
The bottom line is that a terrible diet is going to feed the bad variety. If you’re not providing enough dietary fibre for the healthy bacteria within the gut, your gut health is going to be bad in comparison to someone on a very wholesome natural food diet.
These different states in the gut have very different effects on the brain. When you start to deprive the healthy bacteria in the gut, you begin to see a disfunction in terms of gut function, including your digestive system, immune system, nervous system, the neural/brain systems that affect your behaviour, cognition and mental clarity.
Leading on from this, we know that human genes have not changed much over the last 100 years, but human microbiota has undergone tremendous change. This is due to agricultural changes and modern-day food processing which has led to higher levels of sugar, unhealthy fatty acids, chemicals and additives in the typical diet and a consequent change in the composition of gut bacteria. In more rural areas and in older generations, changes in gut bacteria are relatively small and this is because a more traditional diet of wholefoods has been maintained. This also means that these populations have lower incidences of modern-day diseases and the psychological issues which are increasingly prevalent in cities and urban areas.
A Natural Diet
To improve your gut health and maintain good gut health, it’s important to start feeding your body with as many natural foods as possible. We have evolved to eat whole foods, so these are the foods that good bacteria like to feed on. As an athlete, there are times when convenience foods, processed foods or supplements have a place, but it’s important to limit their use to those times when they meet an athletic purpose.
Natural foods will always have the best influence on your gut and therefore on your brain (not to mention the immune and digestive systems). This means basing your diet on foods such as potatoes, oats, fruits and vegetables, as these contain dietary fibre which is the main source of energy for healthy gut bacteria. We’ve also evolved to eat fish and meat, so these aren’t damaging to gut health.
Foods to avoid include processed sugary products, sodas, sweets and things that are high in omega 6 fatty acids – mainly vegetable oils.
It can be a good idea to analyse your diet and ask yourself how much of it is coming from whole, natural food sources and how much of it is high in sugar, oil and additives. From here, you can start to make some sensible swaps and see how this makes you feel.