Have you ever wondered why it is that we get butterflies or an upset stomach before a big presentation or exam? When you’re anxious or stressed, the nerves in your stomach sense this and give you various (sometimes unpleasant!) symptoms in response to your thoughts.
But this sytem actually works both ways.
Your brain and your gut are connected by nerves; the main one is called the vagus nerve, which sends signals in both directions. We can’t discredit the effect stress has on our gut, we’ve all felt it at some time. But we’re now also discovering that it works the other way too; that the condition of our gut directly affects the way we think and feel.
A whole host of chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders have all been linked to a malfunctioning gut, but also neurological disorders such as autism, depression and anxiety.
The gut is home to trillions of bacteria that make up our microbiome and these bacteria produce chemicals that affect how the brain works. They also help to detoxify our bodies, help break down our food, keep our immune system balanced, regulate our hormones, and protect us from disease as well as keeping us in a good mental state.
There are as many, if not more, bacteria in our bodies than there are human cells. So doesn’t it make sense to want to keep these little guys happy?
See below nine easy ways you can ensure the health of your gut, leading to more happiness and productivity in your work and your personal life.
9 Ways to Keep Your Gut Happy
1. Cut the CRAP
CRAP stands for;
• Carbonated Drinks (sugar and sugar-free),
• Refined Sugars – high fructose corn syrup, pastries, cakes, biscuits, sweets, cookies, cereals and flavoured, sweetened yoghurts
• Artificial Additives – confectionary products, food colourings, sweets, candy, crisps, party foods) and Alcohol
• Processed Food – ice cream, party foods, sausages, deli meat such as ham, smoked or cured meats.
CRAP foods encourage bad bacteria, put stress on your body and do not supply you with the necessary vitamins and minerals your body needs to thrive.
2. Eat the Rainbow
The best diet is full of colour and variety, our gut bacteria thrive on diversity.
Colourful fruit and vegetables are also high in fibre, which is food for the good bacteria in our gut. Fibre also helps facilitate the removal of toxins from the body, keeps our bowels working effectively and helps us feel fuller for longer, so we are less likely to overeat.
Raspberries, blueberries, apples, bananas, artichokes, legumes and root vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and parsnips are all great high-fibre foods that have shown to be beneficial to gut bacteria.
3. Drink More Water
One of the biggest causes of fatigue is dehydration, so staying adequately hydrated helps reduce that mid-afternoon slump. Adequate hydration is vital for the mucus layer in the intestines, helping to ensure that things that should stay in the gut don’t escape into the bloodstream (aka leaky gut).
Choose green tea if you need a little caffeine as it has the added benefit of being high in antioxidants and minerals.
Research has shown that just one extra hour of sleep from six and a half to seven and a half hours can create a beneficial impact in protecting us against diabetes, cancer, inflammation and stress. If you don’t get enough sleep or have poor sleep quality, you’re more likely to suffer from symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
5. Move Your Body
If you don’t have time to go to the gym, even a brisk walk every day makes a difference. Research shows people who fit moderate activity like walking into every day burn more energy than those who make only weekly visits to the gym. Try to fit walking into your routine by ditching the car for short journeys, walking all or part of your journey to work, getting off the bus one stop early, and taking long walks at the weekend.
6. Get Outside
Vitamin D is a crucial vitamin for gut health so getting 30 minutes of sun at lunchtime can help support your levels. Also, being out in fresh air and nature can help to reduce stress. Consider taking a Vitamin D supplement through the winter months (or even better, book a winter sun holiday).
7. Increase Probiotic Foods
Many studies have shown the benefit of probiotics not just for IBS symptoms, but also for mental health. Gut bacteria have been linked to chemicals in the brain, including serotonin, our natural anti-depressant.
You don’t have to take a probiotic supplement to gain the benefits, you can support your gut with probiotic-rich foods such as natural yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha.
8. Increase Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotic foods are food for good bacteria. These are mostly found in indigestible carbohydrates such as; garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas and apples.
We tend to spend too much of our time in a sympathetic state (stressed) instead of a parasympathetic state (rest and digest), which causes our gastrointestinal system to suffer. Meditation has been shown to improve IBS symptoms by reducing stress and improving sleep.
The Calm app contains countless guided meditation sessions on everything from reducing stress and anxiety to mindful eating. It also teaches you about conscious breathing, which can help to bring calm to your body in moments of stress.
Considering how many people are diagnosed with IBS and gastrointestinal complaints in Western countries, it can be a challenge to keep your gut functioning at its best. But the main culprit of an unhappy gut is poor diet, which is actually the easiest thing to change.
If you think of your gut as its own living ecosystem, kind of like a beautiful rainforest with different plant, insect and animal life, we realise that every forkful we eat has an impact on this ecosystem. Make good choices by avoiding processed, sugar-laden foods that harm this ecosystem and instead focus on real, whole, living foods where it can thrive and help you feel your best.