19th March 2018 by Jess
When it comes to decision-making, we’ve all heard the term ‘go with your gut’, or ‘your gut instinct'. Is there any scientific truth in this expression? Is your gut somehow connected with your brain?
Scientific research has found that the gut (the billions of microbes, also known as bacteria strains, that make up our gut's ecosystem) and the brain communicate with each other. Our body is one inter-connected vehicle and we are only just scratching the surface of how powerful the link is between our gut and brain.
The gut has its very own nervous system, known as the enteric nervous system, which allows signals to be sent from the gut to the brain, and vice versa; it quite literally is our “second brain”.
This connection has been scientifically termed as the gut-brain axis. It explains why those with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) may notice that their symptoms worsen when they’re stressed, or why when we’re nervous we might get butterflies, or when we're anxious we might feel a feeling of sickness in our stomach.
One of the things we also know about the gut-brain connection is that around 80% of the serotonin in our body (the neurotransmitter in our brain that leads us to feel happy, calm and content) is made in the gut. Which means, if gut health is compromised, serotonin production may also very likely be altered, which will directly impact how we experience life and respond to different situations.
Ever notice how some people have this calm, happy aura about them which doesn’t change when life throws up something stressful, whereas others are wired and sprung like a tight coil, and it only takes the smallest of ’stressors’ for their ‘coil' to go? It might be that they have conditioned their nervous system to respond to life that way with years of repeatedly reacting in the same way, or it could be that their altered biochemistry is playing a part in that reaction and their emotional state.
Could something so overlooked as levels of serotonin and gut health be something we should consider if someone isn’t feeling calm, happy or content?
Over the years, as a society, we have become increasingly less connected to the way we eat and the way we live our lives and the impact that these factors have on our bodies. We don’t always consider that if we wake up feeling lousy, it may be due to last night’s dinner.
If we’re feeling exhausted at 3pm or bloated in the evening, we might not look at what we ate or the way we ate our food that day; was it in a calm environment where we took 15 minutes to sit down, appreciate our meal and perhaps enjoy a friendly conversation with someone sat beside us? Or did we shuffle our food into our mouths with one hand, responding to emails on the other on a 5 minute break before our next meeting?
We’re not taught to listen to our bodies and evaluate the circumstances which might have caused these everyday symptoms such as headaches, feeling bloated, annoyed, irritable, tired, exhausted, unexplainably unhappy.
Our emotional state and the way we eat can radically impact how we digest our food. Eating while we’re upset or on the move can potentially lead to indigestion, as digestive processes are not prioritised when the body is churning out stress hormones. Blood flow is always diverted to where our body needs it the most, and when we are stressed or walking/running, blood flow is diverted to our arms and legs in the case of walking and not the gut to facilitate digestion.
Our relationship with food is complex and often has a strong emotional component. When we are stressed, for example, we tend not reach for a health-promoting bowl of broccoli and other nutrient dense foods (even though this is what we know we ’should’ do), instead, we might find ourselves more drawn to chocolate, alcohol, or takeaways! When we’re feeling tired and irritable, caffeine and sugary pick-me-ups tend to be the go-to to give us that immediate lift of energy, rather than a nutrient dense slow burner of energy such as a boiled egg or some nut butter and vegetables.
Being mindful of our body’s messages and paying closer attention to how we feel throughout the day, including after meals, can help us to improve our intuition around what’s right for us and what’s not. Not only does this include what to eat and how to take better care of ourselves, but it also extends beyond that to having the clarity of mind to make important decisions and the ability to get through our daily tasks without feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
The good news is that our gut health is very adaptable. The gut’s microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria in our gut) changes according to what we eat, and in just three to four days eating quality food, our gut flora and therefore our gut health can be positively impacted. The same goes for poor quality food, however, it will obviously have a negative impact. Our health is in our hands, and it all boils down to the choices we make.
We all are uniquely different, and what might be nourishing for one person may not be nourishing for another. Take almonds, for example, a very ‘healthy’ nut, full of vitamin E, B-vitamin and essential fats. When I eat them I feel great, my energy levels are sky-high and my hair, nails and skin look vibrant when they’re a part of my diet. My husband, on the other hand, he experiences something completely different. When he has too many almonds, he feels run down, tired and he often gets a cold sore which is his body’s way of clearly telling him ‘go easy on the almonds’, as they run him down.
Jess, graze nutritionist
Often our body communicates in the form of gut symptoms when foods aren’t right for you, so listen up and act accordingly. Pay attention to how your body is feeling. A handy exercise which helps a lot of my nutrition clients in my online practice is to keep a food and symptoms diary for a couple of weeks where you write down what you ate, and you jot down how you feel throughout the day - it can help to build up a picture of different foods and their impact on your day-to-day feelings and it can help to flag up any common denominators that might better serve to be avoided for a trial period of time.
By Jess, graze nutritionist.
Our nutritionist extraordinaire, Jess trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and is a registered practitioner with the British Association for Applied Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She's the creator of our health badges, to help you choose the snacks and boxes that are right for you. Check out everything from Jess on our blog, with recipes and tricks to help you keep making better choices, or go to her website at jessntom.com for even more.
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