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Have you heard of the ‘gut-brain connection’ or the ‘gut-brain axis’? I want to talk to you about gut health, because it is very much related to what we’re going through at the moment, even if you don’t have any gut health issues. Your brain and your gut are intricately related. There is a bi-directional communication, which means it goes both ways. There is a network around the central nervous system, which is the brain and the spinal cord, and that has a connection with the enteric nervous system, which is the nervous system around the gut. And then, of course, we’ve got our gut microbes, the trillions of critters that are living in our system with us.
“The gut-brain axis is complex, and what makes it even more complex is that it also interacts with the endocrine system.”
This is where all our hormones, including stress hormones, come into the picture, and also our immune system. We need to make sure that our immune system is as robust as possible to prevent getting things like the flu and obviously COVID-19, and if we do succumb, to allow us to get rid of it as efficiently as possible.
The gut-brain connection
We’ve got these signalling molecules, which are created by the critters that live in our guts – our gut microbes – and the cells of the intestines. They send messages to your brain along the gut-brain axis. This influences our mental state, our health and wellbeing, and our emotional functioning. The bi-directional relationship means that the signals also travel from our brain through to our enteric nervous system and in our gut. So this is where our brain and our mental and emotional state affect our gut function.
It becomes really visceral when you think about being in a stressful situation. Many people react by having gut-related reactions. Sometimes if you’re highly stressed, it can cause enhanced motility of the gut – diarrhoea. When you are nervous, you can get butterflies in your stomach and that is a visceral gut reaction to what’s going on in your brain. There is a spectrum of neurological and brain-related conditions, ranging from mild stress to chronic stress, right through to neurological conditions, such as autism, depression and high anxiety.
“Be kind to yourself, because being hard on yourself in these situations might indeed cause extra stress.”
A classic example of the extreme end of the spectrum, relating to diet, is something called the GAPS diet – Gut and Psychology diet. This diet was developed by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor. She had a child who had autism and she was not happy with the spectrum of nutrition treatment. So she developed this diet herself, which she believes has resulted in decreased symptoms and better management of her child’s autism. It’s a very structured and restrictive diet. It’s not quite in mainstream yet, but it can be useful for things like autism.
But getting back to the point, what we do know at the moment is that we are all in a state of stress, whether you like it or not, whether you feel it or not.
Some of us just have uncertainty stressors. Others have stressors about where their future income is going to come from, whether they are going to be in a job in a few weeks’ time or not, the future of the economics of the country. So very, very stressful situations.
And what we don’t want is that stress to impact on the gut more than it already does. So we want to make sure that we look after our gut.
We’re all living with the stress at the moment. So let’s see what we can do on a daily basis to look after our gut. Diet is only one of the things that can be helpful in this instance. Sleep, stress management, regular exercise and getting out in the sunshine are also important. This is the prime example of when these things all matter, to make sure that we have a very robust immune system.
What can you do to look after your gut?
Here are some key points.
- Eat whole foods.
We’ve heard it all before. Avoid foods with high inflammatory factor. These foods are packaged, processed, ‘junk’ foods, particularly foods that are high in sugar and have processed, industrial seed oils in them. Shopping around the edges of the supermarket will be very useful now because we want to get in and out of the supermarket as quickly as possible. The best way to do that is to shop for the whole foods on either end and not be tempted by the middle.
- Give your gut some natural prebiotics and natural probiotics.
Prebiotics are the fibres in the foods that you feed to the probiotics. The probiotics are the actual bacteria that live in your gut. The natural probiotics that you can have come from fermented foods, such as unpasteurised sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, tempeh, pickles and yogurt.
We find natural prebiotics in things like onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, bananas, oats, apples, barley, konjac root, flax seeds, seaweeds, lentils, cashew nuts and chickpeas.
I also want to talk briefly about synbiotics. Synbiotics have both probiotics and prebiotics. There is one natural synbiotic and it is sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is amazing. It has natural probiotics and prebiotics. It is quite expensive to buy, but you can make your own. It’s really easy. (See recipe at the bottom of the page)
- Resistant starch from carbohydrate foods can be particularly good for gut health.
Resistant starch functions in a similar way to soluble fermentable fibre. Basically, it’s not absorbed by the body, but it is fermented by your gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria will eat this starch and produce short chain fatty acids, which is like what fibre does.
Where do we find resistant starch? For example in cooked, cooled potatoes. You could cook and cool some baby potatoes and put them in your salad for lunch the next day. Other key resistant starches include oats, cooked and cooled rice, beans and legumes and dried bananas.
Diet goes hand in hand with optimal amounts of sleep; stress relief; exercise and making sure you’re getting some vitamin D. Look after your gut using the points above to make sure that the relationship between the brain and the gut is functioning, so that you are doing the best for your immune system under these conditions.
I also want to say, be kind to yourselves. Don’t necessarily use it as an excuse to eat terribly and not exercise. But be kind to yourself, because being hard on yourself in these situations might indeed cause extra stress.
Make your own sauerkraut
If you’re looking for something to do with your kids while you’re on lockdown, making sauerkraut is an incredibly useful thing to do with your time and with your cabbage.
All you need is a cabbage and some salt – not iodized salt however, because it interferes with the fermentation process (Himalayan salt is fine). You basically chop up the cabbage, add some salt and massage it with clean hands. Massage, massage massage. Wait for 10 minutes until the fluid rises, and then bottle it up tightly. It will be ready in 2-14 days.