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Gut health and mood


heart-shaped bowl of fresh berries including strawberries, blackberries and blueberries

“All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates, more than 2000 years ago.

 

Experts and scientists previously scoffed, suggesting there was no way that gut bacteria could affect our mental health. Now they are investing massive amounts of time and money in research on gut health and mood to explore this further. Anyone who’s rushed to the loo moments before a speech or felt a wave of nausea after public humiliation will know the gut and the brain are closely connected. Some experts refer to the gut as the “second brain”. The link is there, we know it and they know it.

 

So, this month’s blog is looking at the link between gut health and our mood, why gut health is important and what we can all do about it. So, we have talked to our in-house naturopathic nutritionist, Alice Yeates and one of our yoga leaders, Alex Hanly, to get a nutritionist’s and a yogi’s perspective on this important issue.

 

First, Alice Yeates’s nutritionist’s comments on gut health and mood:


Alice Yeates Nutritional theraoist and Naturopath smiling in the kitchen at Green Farm Kent

Did you know that approximately 21% of adults over 16 in the UK were likely to experience depression in 2021? And


17% of the UK population are on antidepressants. These figures shocked me, and I know only too well that what we eat has a big impact on how we feel. So, I will focus on what we can do through nutrition to prevent or alleviate depression and anxiety.

 

By now, you have probably heard of the “gut microbiome” and its impact on our health. Briefly, it is the balance of microorganisms (bacteria etc.) in the gut. These weigh about 1kg, and there are more of them than we have cells in our body! When something disrupts the balance of these, then things start to go wrong. We may or may not have gut symptoms when this is happening. Amazingly, we can also adjust the bacteria to our benefit in just a few days.

 

This balance directly links the health of our gut and depression, and it works in both directions! Stress and anxiety causing the release of adrenaline and cortisol affect the behaviour of the gut, and the balance of bacteria and poor gut health will give symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

 

So why does poor gut health affect our mood? The main reason is that a large amount of serotonin and dopamine are produced there.

 

Dopamine – 50% of which is produced in the gut, regulates mood and muscle movement, and plays a vital role in the brain’s pleasure and reward systems.

 

Serotonin – 95% of which is produced by gut bacteria prevents us from being depressed.

 

Unlike dopamine, the body stores the majority of serotonin in the gut instead of in the brain. Serotonin helps regulate mood, body temperature, and appetite.

 

So, without going into any more scientific detail, let’s just say it’s important to look after your gut. The main issue that is talked about a lot is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. To be honest, this is a label that really means your gut is unhappy and needs attention. The reasons for this differ from one person to another.

 

Then, of course, we have Irritable Bowel Disease, which is more of an inflammation of the gut lining causing damage of some kind.

 

Either way, it is likely that “Leaky Gut” will be part of the problem. This means that the lining of the gut is more permeable than it should be, which results in tiny particles leaking into the bloodstream and causing an immune response. The most common of these particles is the protein from gluten and dairy, which is why so many people have intolerances to these. Both IBS and IBD are indications that the gut bacteria are out of balance and therefore not producing the levels of serotonin and dopamine to maintain our mood sufficiently.

 

The good news is that there is plenty we can do about it.

 

Of course, first on the list is sugar. Sugar feeds the less beneficial bacteria and leads to more inflammation as well. Avoiding refined carbohydrates is really important, and with other carbohydrates, having only about a fistful on your plate will prevent you from demanding too much insulin and therefore reducing the disruption to your other hormones.

 

Drinking enough water. Each one of us needs to drink at least 2 litres of water each day and more if exercising, in air conditioning or central heating and when we are unwell. I would suggest sipping water with your meal rather than gulping glasses of water, the water does help the digestion, but too much will dilute the acid. So, drinking a full glass of water before a meal and then letting it go down and then having small amounts of water with your meal will help digestion.

 

Eating plenty of vegetables. Vegetables are key to a healthy gut. They provide the fibre that feeds the beneficial bacteria, and the vitamins and minerals which keep the cells of our body healthy. So eating a rainbow of vegetables with different types of fibre and a variety of vitamins and minerals is a great way to keep your gut at it’s best.

 

Good quality fats (Omega 3) – using Olive Oil, Coconut oil, organic, grass-fed dairy, oily fish and grass-fed meat contributes greatly. Including these fats in your diet supports the brain and helps us to transport hormones efficiently and remember serotonin is a hormone. Healthy fats also reduce inflammation which means that the beneficial bacteria have more of a chance to thrive. Taking a Fish Oil supplement or vegan equivalent is also really supportive of the gut-brain relationship.

 

Prebiotic Foods and Dietary Fibre. Prebiotics in the form of fermentable dietary fibre feed the microorganisms. These can be found in foods like onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas and legumes. If you search prebiotic foods, they are easy to find.

 

Probiotics are live microorganisms that we can get from good quality yoghurt, Greek yoghurt has the most, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh and drinks like kefir and kombucha. If you don’t already eat or drink fermented foods, start with a small amount at a time and increase it as you discover your tolerance. Diving in may upset your gut!

 

Enzymes. The 3 main classes of digestive enzymes are protease needed to metabolise protein, pills for fat and amylase to breakdown carbohydrates.

 

They start working in your mouth with salivary amylase which is why chewing is an important part of keeping our gut healthy. More are at work in the stomach and pancreas, helping us to break down food. Enzymes are essential because they digest complex foods into compounds that the body can absorb. They support a healthy balance of bacteria and take stress away from the digestive tract. Because of this they can be major factor in things like indigestion, constipation, mood swings, PMS, menopause symptoms and much more. Things like dry skin and thinning hair can also be a sign that they are deficient. Suffice to say they are important.

 

Vitamins. The most important vitamins for mood are D3, B12 and folate, and it’s easy to check if you are deficient in any of these, either with the GP or a simple pinprick test that you can order through me.

 

Vitamin D acts like a hormone in the body and supports brain function and immunity as well as the health of our bones and much much more. It’s particularly important for those people that suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder or SAD for short because it also regulates the integrity of the gut lining. So, you can see it’s an important factor in depression.

 

Vitamin B12 and folate – research has shown that B12 and folate are linked to depression. Both are important for our neurotransmitters which act as messengers between neurones, and from neurone to muscles, so when deficient we often get fatigue in our muscles. Folate supports nutrient absorption, helps to reduce irritability and fights fatigue. Taking a B-complex vitamin will help to produce serotonin naturally and relieve symptoms of depression.

 

So, you can see there is a lot we can do to support our mental health through ‘what’ we eat and drink and ‘how’ we eat and digest them.

 

Now, Alex Hanly has her yogi perspective on gut health and mood:

 

Yoga instructor Alex Hanly looking down and hands closed together prayer pose

When we think of our gut we think of our intestinal health, its main functions being nutrient absorption and elimination as part of the digestive system. But our gut is the seat of our enteric nervous system or second brain.


Producing 95% of our serotonin (happy hormone), it is no surprise that a significant number of people with inflammatory bowel disease also suffer from depression and anxiety. Inflammation is the hallmark of mental health issues. Yoga looks systemically at health and sees the interrelationship between layers of the being; and how meditation and breathing can improve digestion and gut health.

 

Many people who suffer from food intolerances, IBS/IBD and other digestive issues, go on holiday and find their symptoms abate. This is one of many phenomena that confirms how significant a role stress plays in our digestive and intestinal health. Yoga views human health from a systemic perspective that each layer – be it at the physical, psycho-emotional or pranic (vital life force) – interrelate and affect each other. That means that psycho emotional stress affects ALL the layers of your body and being. Vice versa an absence of a particular microbial species in your gut also affects ALL the layers of your body and being.

 

As I said, your gut is the seat of your enteric nervous system, also known as your second brain. When you were a foetus developing in your mother's womb your brain began here in your gut and as you grew it branched out to create separate brains across the body. This second brain or gut brain is the oldest and it is said to be the place where we store our emotions and our oldest embodied experiences. Physical tension in the psoas, the pelvic floor, hips, lower back etc effects in enteric nervous system. The Psoas in particular because its fascial sling creates a hammock in which the enteric nervous system sits, tension here can be a big contributing factor to emotional dysregulation, IBD and digestive issues.

 

Yoga can offer substantial healing and give significant improvement to gut health. Simple daily practices of deep abdominal breathing along with gentle postures that bring you in touch with the lower belly and hips can profoundly improve gut health. And along with the improvements in digestions you gain a greater ability to regulate emotionally, so you are less quick to anger, less reactive and more present with your own feelings and needs.

 

The key to a successful yogic practice is to increase awareness of bodily sensations and decrease focus on the conceptual and thinking mind. What would that look like? Go into any gentle hip opening position, stay there, breathe deep into your lower belly and hips and, at the same time, allow your attention to be in the experience of the bodily sensations. Thoughts may come and go but you don’t value them in this moment you let them drift into the back of the picture of awareness and blur into insignificance. 

 

Thank you, Alice & Alex, lots to think about!



If you're interested in developing your gut health through improved diet and yoga our Green Farm Spa and Yoga Retreat days and retreat weekends are a great starting point in your journey.

You can find out more and book your retreat HERE or if you would prefer to speak to a member of the Green Farm team, give us a call on 01233 808 707.



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han gu
han gu
Jun 19

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lexi
lexi
May 09

hi

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