Listen to your gut – It’s amazing what it might tell you about your health! – Stephen Mordue
Do you remember Gillian McKeith? She was a nutritionist and TV presenter who was fond of saying that “you are what you eat”! She had a successful TV show in the noughties examining people’s poo to tell them how healthy they were and then helped them to modify their diet to try to improve things. It turns out she might have been onto something! Science is now giving the gut the attention and status it would appear to deserve, but it didn’t start with McKeith! Hippocrates, the Greek physician and considered the father of medicine (460 to 370 BCE) reportedly believed that “all disease begins in the gut”. He is also attributed with the idea that nutrition is one of the tools that a doctor should use to treat illness.
Both McKeith and Hippocrates are now in good company. Contemporary research is establishing scientific evidence that there is a strong link between what is going on in our gut and how we feel. Your brain and gut are directly connected (along with all other major organs) by the vagus nerve. The brain uses information from the gut, sent through this nerve, to figure out how the body is doing. Giulia Enders (2014) likens it to the telephone exchange at company headquarters receiving calls from the field to update on how things are going. If things aren’t going well in the gut, then that has an impact on how we feel. Enders (2014) even goes as far as to suggest the ‘self’, our idea of who we are, is constructed by the brain as it draws on information and feelings from every part of the body, including the gut. You are what you feel as a consequence of what you eat, perhaps!
Because of this connection between the gut and our brains, it is increasingly being argued that gut health can have significant impact on how you feel emotionally, as well as physically. Research is showing that your gut biome (the bacteria in your intestines) has an impact on your mood and mental health to such an extent that some are referring to your guts as the ‘second brain’. At a biological level O’Mahony et al (2015) explain that the brain-gut connection through the vagus nerve is a two-way communication network that makes use of serotonin. Serotonin is often referred to as the happy chemical as it has been shown to contribute to wellbeing and happiness and has been found to be in short supply in the body when people are low in mood. Anderson and Yeo (2019) have explored this idea that how what we eat influences who we are and how we feel. They explain that what we eat and, more specifically, how healthy and diverse our gut biome is changes our emotional state. Because our emotions have an impact on how we think, they also affect how we feel psychologically.
Enders (2014) also points out that about 80% of our immune system is located in the gut. How healthy our gut is, and how diverse the microbes are, directly impacts both our mood and our ability to fight disease. Cryan and Dinan (2012) report growing evidence that your microbiome has a role in influencing the brain chemistry that influences susceptibility to anxiety and depression.
These things will often affect our productivity. If you are feeling unwell or low in mood, or anxious and stressed, then you are unlikely to be doing your best work and it can be a struggle to remain motivated when we’re not feeling our best.
If you are like me, when you are stressed, you may comfort eat. Why is it, I always ask myself, that I crave crisps and pizza and ice cream, rather than carrot sticks and tofu!? Partly, this is because eating the foods you love stimulates the release of dopamine, which makes us feel good. It is also possible that the composition of microbes in your gut biome look for particular types of food to satisfy themselves (if we can personify your bacteria for a moment!). If this is indeed the case, then modifying your gut biome might change the foods that you crave when stressed. It is possible to improve your gut biome in a short period of time, possibly just a few days, by eating the rights sort of foods. Getting into a good routine for about a 4 to 6 week period, the time most consider it takes to create a habit, may well be difficult but should establish a diverse gut biome. In time this is likely to lead to improved health and well-being (Anderson and Yeo, 2019).
Evidence supports the theory that improving the gut biome can have a positive impact on our overall health. Cryan (2019) repeated a Japanese experiment on sterile Mice with no microbiome (yes! Such things exist in the laboratory!). He came to the same conclusion as the previous researchers. The gut biome had the ‘power’ to affect mood. In the initial sterile state, the mice were, to all intents and purposes, depressed and showing a stress response. They colonized the mice with gut bacteria and found that their mood was improved, and their stress response diminished. Targeting the microbiome relieved stress. It has also been shown that specific bacteria have positive results. The introduction of Lactobachillis Rhamnosus, for example, has been shown to modulate the stress response, dampen down anxiety, and effect cognitive function positively. Lactobachillis Rhamnosus can be found in some yoghurt and fermented foods (Healthline, 2019).
What are some of the ways that we can improve our gut biome? It might be a good idea to start with vegetables. Chatterjee (2018) redefines the ‘five a day’ concept by stating that, while fruit is still important in a good, diverse diet, it is 5 different portions of vegetables we should be aiming for every day. The more colourful the better. Broccoli, he says, is a great example of a vegetable that, once in your gut, is feasted upon by bacteria. This interaction creates short-chain fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory and can offer some protection against heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. You can also improve your gut biome by consuming Omega 3 Fatty Acids which are found in Oily Fish, Soy Beans, Flax seed and Linseed oil. All of which can support the alleviation of stress (Perricone, 2007). The following are also good for your gut biome as they are either loved by the gut bug Akkermansia muciniphilia which may help with maintenance of a healthy weight or, contain polyphenols which may promote biome diversity (Chatterjee, 2018, Anderson & Yeo, 2019) :
- Onions, garlic and leeks
- Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower
- Dark chocolate
- Red wine
Chatterjee (2018) feels there are various places in the world where there are pockets of good health with less chronic disease and that this may be indicative of better dietary choices. The people in these places eat different varieties of food. Studies have examined the benefits of such diets and found that one ‘best diet’ was not evident. That said, the following common themes were apparent:
- None has a processed food culture. By and large, people eat fresh, unprocessed, local produce.
- People sit down and eat meals together.
- Eating vegetables which are in season, rather than grown all year.
- ‘Treats’ are limited to festival times such as Christmas and Easter, not every day after school, or every Friday or Saturday.
(Chatterjee, 2018, p. 77)
All of these things should help to improve your gut biome, making it more diverse and helping to improve your physical and mental health. This in turn might increase your productivity by helping you concentrate and focus, and improve your motivation and mood.
Stephen Mordue is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. As well as teaching about Adult Care on the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes he is Practice Learning Coordinator and Programme Leader for the Best Interests Assessment in Practice Programme. He was a social work practitioner and manager for 12 years working mainly with older people and their families. His areas of special interest are effective communication, working with people with dementia, the Mental Capacity Act, and self care and productivity for professionals.
Anderson, T. & Yeo, G (2019) It Takes Guts: Introduction to Gut Health Audible Podcast (Accessed 27.09.2019)
Chatterjee, R, (2018) The 4 Pillar Plan Penguin: Random House: UK
Cryan, J. (2019) in It Takes Guts: Introduction to Gut Health, T. Anderson & G. Yeo, Audible Podcast (Accessed 27.09.2019)
Cryan, J. F., Dinan, T. G. (2012) Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour Nature Reviews, Neuroscience Volume 13, October 2012, pg. 701 – 712
Healthline (2019) Yogurt with Lactobacillus Acidophilus
https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/yogurt-with-lactobacillus-acidophilus (accessed 19.10.19)
O’Mahony S. M., Clarke, G., Borre Y. E., Dinan T. G., Cryan, J. Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axis Behavioural Brain Research 277 (2015) 32–48
Perricone, N. (2007) Stress Reduction Equals Life Extension https://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2007/3/cover_stress/page-02