Gut health has become a very popular topic over the last year. The body of research that surrounds it is really very interesting. Given the close association between gut health and mental health, I thought it would be valuable to explore it on this forum.
I was surprised to learn that 70% of our immune cells reside in our gut. This therefore proves the importance of giving gut health a second thought. I know, I for one paid little attention to my gut and just simply expected it to continue to do what it already does. However, the more I learn about it, I realise that there is a lot that can be done through diet and lifestyle to enhance its effectiveness and strengthen its well-being.
The Gut has begun to be seen as the powerhouse of our body systems and as being of second importance to that of our brain. This is because the gut can communicate to all of our other organs. Unlike any other organ in the body our gut has its own control center. It doesn’t need the brain to tell it what to do. It is often referred to as being the second brain. This is because every couple of seconds the gut and brain are conversing with each other attempting to determine whether we are hungry, how stressed we are and if we are safe.
So why is gut health important?
Digestion influences everything about how our bodies work. A strong digestive tract, extracts nutrients from food, fuels activities, builds and repairs your body, removes toxins from the body and energizes your brain. Ten trillion bacteria and fungi live in our digestive tract and are called our microbiota. Most of the microbiota in our guts are beneficial to our bodies and aid digestion. They have the ability to increase energy, increase nutrient harvest and alter appetite signaling. Microbiotas also combat bad bacteria that enter our guts. Weak digestion results in an accumulation of toxins, tissue inflammation and is the precursor to every chronic disease (5). As a result of our stressful lifestyles, westernised diets and medication such as antibiotics our gut bacteria sometimes get thrown off balance.There is increasing evidence to suggest that the prolonged impact of this is associated with Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and allergies (1) & (2).
- The connection between gut health and mental health
Secondly and most interestingly to me is the connection between gut health and mental health. Dysfunction in the gut influences dysfunction in the brain and vice versa. The gut has a mind of its own which is called the enteric nervous system. The ENS is a network of neuro transmitters, proteins and support cells called ganglia like those found in the brain. It is well-known that stress has a huge impact on intestinal issues and is often a trigger for the worsening of Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms. When we look at this more closely, the worsening of symptoms occurs for a very logical reason. When in fight or flight mode our central nervous systems instruct blood to move away from the gut (where it perceives that it is not needed) and encourages it to move towards our heart to promote adrenaline pumping. When our systems perceive that we are under attack our digestive systems do not take priority in keeping us alive. The effect of this over a long period of time increases our chance of developing digestive issues and negatively impacts our gut. Therefore stress has a negative impact on gut health but poor gut health also negatively impacts stress as people with IBS tend to experience anxiety and depression at a higher rate than others.
If stress impacts our gut health negatively a diet that makes you unhappy has the potential to be damaging to gut health. While we might think we are promoting a healthy body by sticking to a rigid food plan the positive benefits from the diet may be outweighed by the stress we are incurring on our gut. This highlights the importance of balance in our life. For optimal gut health, it is so important to focus on other aspects not just diet related ones such as yoga and mindfulness or any other stress reducing techniques. A study was carried out which evidences the impact of non-diet related methods of enhancing gut health. This study focused on the power of Yoga on the gut (I know I am obsessed, I bring yoga into everything). A randomised group of people with IBS were provided with a gold standard diet suitable for their diagnosis and another group were prescribed yoga therapy. The Yoga group didn’t change their diet. Both interventions lasted 12 weeks and found that both of the group’s interventions had equal effectiveness on their symptoms. 80% had their gut symptoms under control. This highlights that Yoga is yet again another powerful mechanism in increasing our general health. It is thought that the improvement was mainly associated with the breathing aspects of yoga as it stimulates the nervous system’s rest and digest mechanism which encourages the body to calm and digest more successfully. Along with this, the gentle stretching on intestines in poses such as warrior 3 and simple seated twists also help to relax the digestive organs (6). This shows that diet is not always the answer to managing gut symptoms and again evidences that gut issues are massively impacted by stress in the body which yoga also combats.
Along with the outlined connection between the brain and gut I was surprised to read that gut bacteria produces 95 % of the serotonin in our bodies and just as much dopamine as our brain produces. These chemicals have a profound impact on our moods and even our personalities (5). A higher amount of inflammation in the gut is linked to increased anxiety and depressive behaviors in people. A clinical trial was published in Australia called ‘Smiles’ which randomised 67 people with moderate to severe depression to receive 7 dietary consultations with a dietitian versus 7 social support sessions over 12 weeks. The diet group received dietary advice in line with the Mediterranean style eating (high in gut loving fiber, antioxidants and olive oil). Those randomised to the gut diet group had significantly greater improvement in depression scores compared to the social support group. It is important to highlight however that these people had moderate to severe depression and remained on medications throughout the study. While diet has a very real role in mental health well-being, medical management is still also important. Both of these studies outline the positive effect of both diet related intervention and stress reducing intervention such as yoga on the health and well-being of our guts.
Top tips for increasing gut health.
In order to reset our brains from an addiction to overly processed foods and sugar we need to start with enhancing our gut health. To your brain a chocolate or chip binge doesn’t feel all that different to a cocaine binge. As we know, Junk food takes sugar, salt and fat way too far. It is like sugar on steroids, fat to the max and the saltiest salt. It is food transformed into an addictive drug. Worse still is that it is, always available and cheap in any season. If you are experiencing regular tummy pain, bloating, or irregular bowel movements (normal stool frequency is anything from 4 -21 per week (3) than you should seek the advice of your GP to rule out conditions such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms of IBS are often mistaken for gluten or wheat intolerances. When making healthier choices, it can be helpful to think about our microbes as like our inner pet. At every meal we could ask is there something here that is going to feed my gut.
- Increase Prebiotics and Probiotics in your diet
Prebiotics are foods that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. They are in foods which are high in a specific type of fiber, such as bananas, leeks, artichokes, onions, garlic and wheat bran. Adding in a wide variety of fruit and vegetables into your diet will help promote gut health, and also give you a healthy dose of fiber, vitamins and minerals whilst keeping you fuller for longer.
Probiotic foods are certain types of fermented food which contain a wide variety of bacteria.Examples of foods that typically contain these beneficial bacteria include; live yogurt, kefir,kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, miso and some types of cheese made from unpasteurised milk. Fermented foods have been proven to lower blood pressure and create healthy live microbes in our gut. They are really flavorsome but the tangy taste can take a bit of adjustment. They only need two ingredients to make, however take more than 24 hours to ferment. If you are already basing most of your diet on a plant-based one, it is likely that you are getting enough prebiotics and probiotics every day.
- Eat the rainbow (vary the vegetables you consume )
This insures that you are getting all of the required nutrients instead of the same ones over and over again. In our house we have a vegetable of the week and it encourages us to eat and try a new vegetable. Sometimes, even including other colours of vegetables that you like for instance get red, green and yellow peppers instead of just red ones all the time. We should be aiming for 30 different types of plant-based food a week. These include whole grain pulses, rice, quinoa, beans, lentils chickpeas, humus, and different types of mushrooms, nuts and seeds.
- Increase the amount of whole grains in your diet
Including whole grains in your diet is an important way of helping you meet your recommended fiber intake for health. UK dietary guidelines recommend that adults aim to eat at least 30g fiber per day, but according to national dietary survey data, we only manage to get about 18g. Recently the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) specifically recommended that including fiber-rich foods is essential for gut health as it reduces the risk of; Colorectal (bowel) cancer as it binds carcinogens and regulates glycemic responses (4).
- Instead of sugar laden snacks during the day, try and snack on plain popcorn, oatcake and peanut butter or rye crackers and humus
- Have oats for breakfast as porridge, muesli, or homemade granola
- Increase stress reducing activities in your life such as yoga, meditation and gentle exercise.
- Swap white flour in some of your recipes when baking for whole wheat or spelt flour, or do half and half. It really doesn’t change the taste as much as you might think it will.
If you have relied on processed food for a considerable amount of time it can take a while for your body to adjust to the change. Changing the composition of your gut bacteria will not only directly affect how well the gut works but will also make cravings easier to manage. If you are committed to making some of these changes, it is important to remember that any change we make to our systems should be slow and gradual as this gives our gut time to adapt and also makes these changes more long-term and sustainable. I hope you found this helpful and if you have any of your own tips please feel free to share them also.
(5) Chaudhary, K (2016) The Prime, Harmony Books, New York.