Have you ever heard of the strange relationship that lies between our brain and our gut?
One of the most common complaints I hear from anyone experiencing distress, or mental illness is poor gastrointestinal health. Considering the role that our gut plays, this isn’t necessarily surprising. It’s been well documented that the gut and mind are directly linked. Some would even go as far as to call the gut the body’s second brain. When we’re experiencing an upset in our digestive system it can make us feel like ‘crap’. Our gastrointestinal tract sends signals to our brain to trigger mood swings, and often if it’s in distress so are we.
*Please be aware that some changes in gut health can be the result of more than just mental health. If you’re concerned please speak to your GP. This is especially true if you experience sudden and continuing changes in bowel habits or discomfort when swallowing.
The gut to brain connection.
It’s very clear that both are very much connected physically and biochemically, and have a significant impact on each other. When it comes to identifying an unhappy gut, it should be fairly simple. We all know our bodies, and should be aware of any changes that occur such as sudden changes in bowel habits, bloating, etc. If you experience any of the following changes it could be a sign that your gut health has gone awry.
> Unintentional weight changes.
Significant weight changes in either direction without making changes to your lifestyle can be a sign of an unhappy gut. When the gut is in distress it can impair our body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar and store fat.
> An ‘upset’ stomach.
This includes stomach disturbances such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea and heartburn among other things. Although these aren’t uncommon in small spells, if they continue over a long period of time in any combination, it might be time to speak to your GP.
> Increased craving for sugar.
The imbalance of good to bad bacteria in the gut caused by poor diet can mean you are left craving sugary foods more often than you would like. Continuing to eat like this only increases the problem, creating a vicious cycle.
> Trouble getting to sleep.
An unhappy gut can play a big factor in sleep disturbances and if left unchecked can lead to chronic fatigue. Serotonin, the mood and sleep hormone, is primarily produced in our gut, therefore an unhealthy gut can cause restless sleep and even insomnia.
Although sleep disturbances can be caused by other issues it’s advisable to seek medical treatment if poor sleeping patterns continue for longer than a few weeks.
> Autoimmune conditions.
Researchers are constantly finding more evidence of the impact that our gut health has on our immune systems. An unhappy gut is more likely to increase inflammation and alter the correct functioning of the immune system, which can lead to autoimmune diseases such as IBD, MS, and type 1 diabetes.
Autoimmune diseases are characterised by the bodies inability to control it’s immune system, meaning that it can overreact frequently causing the body to attack itself.
> Food Intolerance.
Having a food intolerance means your body has difficulty digesting certain foods. It’s not to be mistaken with a food allergy which is triggered by the immune system reacting to certain foods, and often requires medical assistants.
Food intolerances are thought to be caused by low quality gut bacteria which leads to difficulty digesting certain foods such as wheat, eggs and dairy. This can lead to uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea and gas.
How can you improve your gut health?
> Get enough sleep.
Our bodies repair themselves overnight, so it’s always a good idea to keep on top of your sleeping schedule. If you’re suffering from poor sleeping patterns due to gut complaints then it’s best to see your GP or medical professional for advice. One of the first things that will start to help your gut is a good night’s sleep, and sometimes that might mean taking something to help lull you over.
It’s advised that the average adult gets between 7 – 8 hours of sleep a night. This can change depending on activity level, illness or circumstance. There are many ways you can prepare a routine to help you get to sleep at night without the help of medication.
Need help getting to sleep? How to get to sleep for night owls.
> Try and reduce your stress levels.
As I’ve learned from experience reducing my stress levels was the number one way to help my gut issues. As soon as I removed myself from a place where I was overwhelmed and afraid constantly, I was able to come off the laxatives and ‘go’ normally for the first time in 4 years.
For me it was as simple as removing myself from the stressful environment, for others it might not be as simple. There are, however, many ways you can go about reducing stress levels including;
- Avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol as these all increase stress levels.
- Exercising frequently.
- Getting enough sleep.
- Trying mindfulness, meditation, yoga or other relaxation techniques.
- Talking about it.
Learn more about managing stress here!
> Eat mindfully.
When it comes to eating we often find ourselves distracted by TV screens. The idea of mindful eating is to taste and experience food fully. By embracing the food we are giving our body permission to slow down and just do what it has to do. By eating slowly and fully chewing our food we are also giving our bodies time to react to fullness, meaning we don’t over eat and feel uncomfortably full.
- Eat slowly
- Chew your food fully
- Avoid all distractions
> Keep hydrated.
Keeping up with our water intake benefits the mucus lining of the gut and increases our good bacteria activity. It’s recommended that we drink 6-8 cups of water each day, and avoid over consumption of diuretics such as coffee and energy drinks.
Set an alarm on your phone to gently remind you to seek our hydration.
> Embrace Pre and Probiotics.
Prebiotics promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut, while probiotics introduce colonies of live bacteria directly to our intestine. Both can be taken together or separately and help create a friendly environment for good gut bugs.
My mother started on probiotics approximately eight weeks ago and since then has cornered my father into doing the same. She found such success after years of an irritated gut that she now takes them daily alongside her other medications.
Before buying anything always do your research. Speak to a GP or other specialist before spending money.
> Get checked for intolerances.
The source of your tummy trouble could be as simple as a food intolerance. Speak to your GP to get started with allergy and intolerance testing.
> Change your diet if you need to.
If you find that you are intolerant or even allergic to certain foods then it’s time to change your diet. Even if the results are all negative for the above it may still be a good idea to start playing with the foods you’re eating and how you’re eating them.
Often it could be a case of adding more fruits and vegetables to our diet, or cutting back on red meat. Sometimes your GP may advise you to seek our vitamins from your local chemist. In this case speak to you GP or pharmacist about the best course of action and go from there.