As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, I focus heavily on the relationship between the gut and the brain to utilize food as a means of improving mental fitness and emotional wellbeing. In my book, This Is Your Brain on Food, I refer to this relationship as the ‘Gut Brain Romance’. Gut health and brain health are intricately interdependent and, much like a romance, this relationship has both good and bad days. Connected by the vagus nerve, which allows for 2-way “text messages” between these organs, they are in constant communication and the health of one is reflective of the health of the other. The following are some of the keyways that a healthy gut can improve athletic performance
You may have heard the gut referred to as the ‘second brain’ due to the immense number of nerve endings and microbes it contains, and how influential it is on the health of the rest of the body. A healthily balanced microbiome is associated with low inflammation not only in the gut and brain, but also throughout the entire body. Reduced inflammation supports muscle and respiratory endurance during physical activity as well as enhanced recovery time.
Improved Focus & Drive
A healthy gut is similarly associated with reduced inflammation in the brain. Neuroinflammation is specifically tied to brain fog, poor concentration, reduced reaction time, increased feelings of stress and difficulty focusing. These cognitive symptoms can prove detrimental to athletic performance as they may prevent individuals from bringing their ‘A game’! However, through intentional, gut healthy dietary choices, improving gut health can help athletes reduce neuroinflammation and improve mental fitness to really get their head in the game!
Now, you may be wondering just which foods athletes should reach for when looking to improve gut health for optimal athletic performance. The following are my five favorite foods for supporting a healthy gut and focused mind:
- Sulforaphane rich veggies: sulforaphane is a sulfur rich plant compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, arugula, and kale. It has powerful abilities in improving digestion and supporting a healthy microbiome. This is effective in reducing inflammation in the gut as well as the mind and body.
- Leafy Greens: leafy greens include lettuces, spinach, Swiss chard, and dandelion greens, amongst others. They are especially rich in folate, fiber and vitamin C. Folate supports healthy neurotransmitter levels for healthy focus and cognition, while fiber and vitamin C can both actively reduce inflammation for improved performance.
- Fermented Foods: a healthy microbiome is dependent on a healthy presence of good bacteria in the gut. An effective way to replenish these populations of good bacteria is through eating fermented foods! Naturally rich in live cultures, foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, and plain yogurts are staple foods for mental fitness.
- Prebiotic Fiber: while fermented foods are key for populating the gut with healthy bacteria, prebiotic foods are equally important as they feed these healthy bacteria, helping them thrive and function at their peak, so you do as well. Prebiotic foods include asparagus, garlic, onions, leafy greens, artichokes, legumes, mushrooms, apples, and grapefruit, amongst others. Including prebiotics in the diet is crucial for maintaining reduced levels of inflammation and supporting focus.
- Omega-3’s: omega-3 fatty acids are an incredibly powerful tool in reducing inflammation in the gut and brain. They can be found abundantly in wild caught fish like salmon, anchovies, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in nuts and seeds like walnuts and chia seeds. Omega-3 consumption is associated with notably reduced inflammation throughout the entire body which supports physical and mental performance. Interestingly, many omega-3 rich foods are also excellent sources of clean protein for the added benefit of improved muscle recovery after a workout!
Successful athletes know that performance is dependent on so much more than just the physical body. A healthy mind is key for optimal performance, endurance and sustainability, and a healthy mind is dependent on a healthy gut. I encourage anyone interested in improving their mental and physical fitness to incorporate the above five foods into their diet and take note of how much performance improves!