Updated on December 22, 2022
In recent years, researchers have uncovered relationships between body systems that were previously believed to be only peripherally connected. One such relationship is the gut-brain axis, which refers to the constant and bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and the components of the enteric nervous system located in the gut.
Within the brain, there are emotional and cognitive centers closely tied to gastrointestinal function, and these interactions are mediated by gut microbiota. Disruptions in the gut-brain axis that can cause debilitating symptoms are associated with a wide range of health conditions, ranging from autism to anxiety to irritable bowel syndrome. Depending on the patient and the condition, these symptoms can include constipation, diarrhea, anxiety, and mood swings. For disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, gut-brain axis disruptions can be causative, while for conditions like autism, they can exacerbate the symptoms that already characterize the patient’s condition. Thus, optimizing the functioning of the gut-brain axis can aid in the support and maintenance of both physical and mental wellness.
There are several different types of nutritional supplements that can facilitate the functioning of the gut-brain axis by supporting the health of the gut microbiome. Probiotic, prebiotic, and vitamin B12 supplements can all have positive impacts on the microbial community in the gut, which can provide nutritional support for the symptoms of the many intestinal, neurological, and psychiatric disorders tied to the gut-brain axis. These supplements can also play a critical role in increasing the absorption of bioavailable nutritional supplements that have been shown to benefit symptoms related to the gut-brain axis.
The bulk of the research on nutritional supplements that support the health of the gut-brain axis focuses on the benefits of probiotic supplements. A probiotic supplement directly introduces “good bacteria” into the gut microbiome. These bacteria can enhance the function of the gut in many different ways, such as increasing nutrient absorption and improving gut motility. In addition to these benefits, a healthy gut microbiome also contributes to the development of strong communication links between the brain and the gut. As a result, studies indicate that probiotic supplements can help with a wide range of gut- and brain-related health conditions, including intestinal inflammatory response, gut motility, and stress.
While probiotic supplements support the health of the gut microbiome by directly adding “good” bacteria to the gut, prebiotic bacteria provide a different benefit. Prebiotics are short-chain carbohydrates derived from plant fibers. Depending on their chemical structures, prebiotics fall into two categories: fructo-oligosaccharides or galacto-oligosaccharides. These carbohydrates are not digestible; rather, they serve as a food source for the good bacteria in the gut, enabling these species to grow and proliferate. Thus, taking a prebiotic supplement can result in the maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome that is well-positioned to optimize the signaling that makes up the gut-brain axis.
New research suggests that vitamin B12 (cobalamin) supports the gut-brain axis by modulating the ecology of the gut microbiome. Researchers have found that vitamin B12 plays a key role in multiple biological processes in gut bacteria that support the gut-brain axis. For instance, vitamin B12 might be involved in enzymatic reactions in the metabolic and DNA synthesis pathways in bacteria. However, humans do not naturally produce enough vitamin B12 for gut bacteria to take advantage of the nutrient. Thus, taking a vitamin B12 supplement will introduce the nutrient into the gut, where its abundance is otherwise relatively low, and enable the beneficial bacteria there to utilize the nutrient to optimize their function—and, in turn, the signaling of the gut-brain axis.
There is a wide range of nutrients that are able to benefit intestinal, neurological, and psychiatric disorders associated with the gut-brain axis. For example, research suggests that taking vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, folic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids in bioavailable forms help protect against mental health conditions and alleviate a range of symptoms linked to the gut-brain axis. There is also emerging evidence that bioavailable forms of cyanocobalamin and levocarnitine might benefit autism symptoms.
The effectiveness of these supplements for alleviating symptoms might be explained by the fact that a healthy gut microbiome boosts the absorption of nutrients when they are taken in bioavailable forms. In contrast, a suboptimal gut microbiome can block the uptake of nutrients in the gut. This serves as yet another indicator of the importance of introducing good bacteria into the gut with probiotic supplements and stimulating their function by taking prebiotic supplements and vitamin B12. These strategies can help patients make the most of other bioavailable supplements they take for symptoms related to the gut-brain axis.
Overall, when it comes to providing nutritional support for the gut-brain axis, keeping the microbiome healthy is paramount. With probiotics, prebiotics, and vitamin B12 supplements, it is possible to directly support the microbial communities that facilitate the functioning of the gut-brain axis. Taking these supplements can improve the bioavailability of supplements that are indicated for the nutritional support of diseases and disorders commonly associated with the gut-brain axis.
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