A Gut Feeling
‘It all starts in the gut’. That’s the mantra we’re taught in nutritional therapy and more and more research is supporting this claim.
I love the way that language often gives us clues as to what’s going on inside our bodies, and lets us know that we know these things instinctively and have often just lost touch with these notions. Phrases like a ‘I’ve got a gut feeling’ and ‘He/She’s got guts’ speak of the connection between what’s often thought of as simply a digestive organ and our emotions- the gut is often referred to as the second brain. GP’s commonly recognise the connection between IBS and depression or anxiety, and antidepressants are often prescribed to help ease symptoms.
We have two branches of our autonomic (subconscious) nervous system: 1) the ‘fight or flight’ which is activated when we’re stressed and 2) the ‘rest and digest’ which is when we’re calm and our digestive system works best. One of the main problems is that the modern world presents us with lots of minor stressors which our bodies can’t differentiate from real danger- Someone taking too long to decide between a decaf soya latte or an iced oat milk matcha in the coffee queue in front of you can trigger a stress response which stimulates the same release of hormones as being chased by a tiger (obviously a smaller amount). Simply put, these constant minor stress responses mean we’re not in the optimal state for digestion and so symptoms of digestive discomfort become the norm, bloating and cramps, constipation or diarrhoea.
When I’m busy and stressed with work, or when I fly, my normal digestive ‘routine’ is completely disrupted. Conversely, I find that if I’m in an ultra-relaxed state on holiday I can eat and drink all sorts of foods that might normally trigger the bloat and I feel fine. It’s not just the nervous system at play here though, something much more exciting is going on involving all sorts of microscopic bugs that live in and on you, far outnumbering your human cells, collectively known as the ‘microbiome’. This collection of bacteria is unique to you.
Scientists are busy discovering the beneficial and not so beneficial role of these microorganisms. Some of the bacteria living inside you can release neurotransmitters, (just like our own brain cells do) which communicate with the brain via a direct hotline called the vagus nerve. The beneficial gut bacteria also interact on a hormonal level, helping to turn down the chronic stress response reducing the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These bacteria play a role in producing ‘brain fertilizer’ yes that’s really a thing! Brain fertilizer affects chemicals that are important in the regulation of mood and anxiety, so low levels of good bugs will adversely affect the amount of fertilizer we produce.
It’s becoming clear that these inhabitants of our gut have a profound influence on how we feel both mentally and physically. Some probiotics (the friendly guys) work within the body to help to create serotonin, which is important in that it helps to regulate mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory. Some research supports the use of probiotics with depressive disorders, and there are also strains of bacteria that affect the brain or behaviour called psychobiotics. So, knowing all of this, what does it mean in practical terms? What can we do to support our own microbiomes and promote not only better digestive function but greater overall wellbeing physically and emotionally?
Taking simple steps every day to support your gut health will have the bonus effect of improving your overall health and mental wellbeing. You might consider the following:
· Frequent antibiotic use will reduce the number and variety of bacteria you have as well as other over the counter medications such as Ibuprofen and aspirin. The oral contraceptive pill also affects the balance, and can result in digestive disorders.
· Some people may have a parasite, bacteria or overgrowth of yeast that is overcrowding the healthy bacteria and resulting in digestive and mood issues so this would need to be tackled with the supervision of a healthcare professional.
· Practicing something daily that lowers your stress levels such as yoga, meditation, walking or even just 5 minutes focused breathing will all help to support your second brain. Even just walking under trees can positively alter the balance, studies have tested the microbes before and after a run and seen an immediate improvement.
· It seems the old adage you are what you eat, is really you are what your microbiome eats! Your diet will have immediate effects on the microbes in your gut, with people who have highly refined diets having a different gut composition than those who eat more whole foods, fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols the colourful health-giving compounds in fruits and vegetables, also feed the good bacteria, so choose coloured varieties- red onions over white, red grapes over green, blue berries, green tea, cocoa, and spices are particularly rich sources. Additionally, high fibre foods like beans, legumes and pulses contain prebiotics, fibres that are indigestible by humans but that feed the gut bacteria. Eating fermented foods daily can also help greatly- things like live yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, tempeh are all rich in lactobacilli, a type of beneficial bacteria.
· We can also take probiotics, though the research is developing and there is lots to discover about which bugs do what. Some probiotics have specific therapeutic effects, but for a general boost I would vary the brands you take to introduce a variety of species to your gut.
Maya Oakley is a registered nutritional therapist and medicinal herbalist in training. For more from Maya follow @nourishedlondon on Instagram or visit Nourished London.