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More than a gut feeling – how the right food can improve your mental health

Our knowledge about the relationship between the gut and the brain is growing at a rapid rate.  It has the capacity to have a huge impact on how we feel and our mental health. Here, Stephanie Moore, Clinical Nutritionist, explains…

gut health mental health

What’s the relationship between nutrition and mental health?

Although it’s beginning to get out there, I think the gut brain axis is misunderstood.  It is a direct communication between the liver, gut and how brain chemistry is managed via the vagus nerve. There are studies proving that our gut bacteria has a direct impact on anxiety levels and stress resilience.

This communication only happens however, when we’re not in stress mode. When we’re relaxed we can digest well, but we can’t when we’re in fight or flight mode. We need a healthy vagus nerve, which requires healthy gut bacteria.   In turn that will help us manage the hormones that manage stress.

How do we improve gut health to improve mental wellbeing?

The way we influence the gut to influence the brain is to really take on board that we have this massive culture in our gut. We have many microbes that can hinder us rather than help if we don’t feed them properly with the right nutrients.

Which foods can help?

I refer to it as the three Fs. Our gut bacteria is 4lbs in weight, which is huge, and it needs fibre, fermented foods and fasting.

Fibre

Fibre is essential but we can’t break it down. Our gut bacteria breaks it down and the result is that they thrive and we’re healthier. Fibre is in vegetables, low sugar fruit (berries, kiwis, indigenous apples), nuts and seeds, beans and lentils. These are probiotics - fibre that feeds gut bacteria.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods are very trendy now, which makes them much easier to find. These range from live natural yoghurt and mature cheeses (not on bread or crackers), to kefir and vegetable ferments such as sauerkraut and raw apple cider vinegar.

There’s also a lovely range of fermented drinks on the market now, which are great alternative to juices - kombuchas, for example. The key is to have a variety of fermented foods, not lots of the same. These provide probiotics which feed the live bacteria.

Fasting

Intermittent fasting is the third thing that can really positively influence gut health. All that needs to be is time restricted feeding.  So it’s not necessarily eating less, but controlling the time in which you eat.

Typically this would mean eating within an eight hour period of the day to allow for a 16 hour break. This means the gut has a resting period and in the last four hours of that time it breaks down toxins and cleans up. That can be phenomenally powerful if you do it two days a week.

What are some of the more damaging nutritional habits that we have as a culture?

Sadly they are very common foods, so it’s about being more aware. The big toxins that are very aggressive are artificial sweeteners.  They’re worse than sugar, they’re highly damaging and they have a detrimental effect on blood sugar.

Wheat is quite aggressive. I am not on the gluten free bandwagon, but wheat can be really difficult to digest, largely because we’ve messed around with it.  It’s not the grain it was hundreds of years ago.

It’s been shown to cause inflammation in the gut and can kill off the gut lining.  So my advice is just not to always choose a wheat based product. It’s about going for something relatively natural - rye for example.

Sugar will preferentially feed the less desirable microbes in the gut that we all have in us. That means refined sugar but also honey and more natural ones. The sugar loving yeast can quickly become dominant and then we can get an imbalance in the gut. Other items that contain sugars are fruit, especially grapes which are very sweet and very heavily sprayed with chemicals as well.

Is there anything else we can do to improve gut health?

One of the biggest issues that we have in our modern diets is the abundance of glyphosate, which is the most widely used weed killer in the world. It’s in our water, our soil and our food. Wheat, soy and corn also have it in the seed itself if they are non organic products.

The problem is that it’s actually a registered antibiotic.  So we’re consuming them all the time, and they kill off bacteria in the gut.  That’s is why we have to be more conscientious about putting the good bacteria back in.

They are known to cause leaky gut, which causes holes in the gut wall and in turn can be linked to hyperactivity, general anxiety and depression. Alcohol will also kill of beneficial bacteria, and so will refined cooking oils.

Where possible, and I am conscious of being a food snob, go organic because the glyphosates are a lot lower in them. Ultimately, it’s about making more positive and smarter food choices.

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