Nurturing your gut-brain connection for whole body health

Your microbiome works hard to keep you healthy, here’s how to support it.
A person placing strawberries in a bowl with yogurt and bananas.

Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach or found an emotional event to be “gut-wrenching?” These phrases speak to the interplay between your gut and your brain, which have an important connection to each other.

The gut and the brain form a two-way communication system called the gut-brain axis. This system – which includes trillions of bacteria in the gut microbiome – plays an important role in whole body health, including heart health. Here’s what you need to know about the gut-brain axis and how to care for it.

The gut microbiome

The “gut” part of the gut-brain axis largely focuses on the microbiome, which is a collection of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in the body and influence our health. Researchers are unravelling how the microbiome works. It’s complex because it contains over 38 trillion bacteria that change in response to exercise, diet, medication and other factors.

What is known to-date is that the microbiome has many vital roles, including:

  • Regulating cholesterol levels
  • Supporting immunity by destroying harmful bacteria and viruses
  • Aiding digestion
  • Making neurotransmitters, which help regulate mood
  • Creating enzymes that help the body make vitamins
  • Secreting hormones to regulate body functions
The gut-brain axis

The gut microbiome and the brain communicate to each other via the vagus nerve and it’s a two-way street. When the microbiome is off-balance, it can communicate the wrong messages to the brain and body. This is known as dysbiosis and has been linked to: 

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • High cholesterol
  • Digestive issues
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis
  • Type 2 diabetes
The gut-brain axis and the heart

Signals sent between the gut and the brain help regulate cholesterol levels. Some helpful gut bacteria, including specific strains of Lactobacilli plantarum, may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce heart disease risk. Researchers hope to someday treat high cholesterol by altering the composition of the microbiome.

How to support your gut and brain health

Scientists are learning how to tweak gut bacteria to manage certain diseases. There are already some healthy probiotic supplements that may help with disease management, but the puzzle is far from complete (see “what about probiotic supplements?” below).  

Until science has more answers, a great way to support brain and gut health is with these four healthy lifestyle habits:

1. A nutritious eating plan: A healthy microbiome thrives when your diet has lots of variety and is high in fibre, which comes from vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. A fibre-rich, plant-based diet is good for heart health, brain health and the microbiome. Research also shows that these foods help maintain a healthy microbiome:

  • Omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel
  • Foods rich in polyphenols such as berries, olive oil and green tea
  • Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut

    Alcohol, artificial sweeteners, red meat, sugar and excessive amounts of ultra-processed foods can harm the microbiome and should be limited.

2. Regular physical activity: Exercise is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and a healthier microbiome. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise, and work on muscle strength at least twice a week using resistance bands or free weights.

3. Stress management: Having high levels of chronic stress can change the microbiome, including a reduction in good bacteria. Taking regular breaks to do things you enjoy can help manage stress. Try walking outdoors in nature, meeting a friend, watching a funny video or doing a hobby that you love.

4. Sufficient sleep: Persistent sleep deprivation can damage the microbiome and has been linked to heart disease. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Having trouble getting enough zzzs? Follow the healthy lifestyle tips above and add:

  • A consistent bedtime
  • A quiet dark room
  • Turning off devices an hour before bed
  • Avoiding large meals before bed
  • No caffeine eight hours before bedtime
  • No more than 1-2 alcohol drinks per week
What about probiotic supplements?

Probiotics are good bacteria that help support the microbiome. But before you take a probiotic supplement, it’s vital to know that a probiotic only works for a specific ailment if you take the right strain in the right quantity. What’s alarming is that taking the wrong probiotic can cause dysbiosis in your microbiome. Talk to your healthcare provider for advice before taking any probiotics. They can help you use this evidence-based Probiotic Chart to learn which probiotic treats your specific ailment.

One day in the future, your doctor will likely test the bacterial make-up of your microbiome along with your usual blood and urine tests. The results will help them treat certain health conditions. Until then, the best tools we have are healthy lifestyle habits.

About the author

Cara Rosenbloom

Cara Rosenbloom

Cara Rosenbloom RD is a registered dietitian, health journalist and owner of the nutrition communications company Words to Eat By. Her work has been published in over 75 publications worldwide, including the Washington Post, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Allrecipes and Healthline. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Nourish (2016) and Food to Grow On (2021). Read nutrition articles at