Scientists continue to discover that ramifications of an unhealthy digestive system go much further than an upset tummy. Today, I explain some of the ways our gut can influence our overall health and how you can start looking after your gut right away:
Your gut has been speaking to you your whole life: butterflies when we feel nervous, salivating when a chocolate cake enters the room. We even make important decisions based on a 'gut feeling'. You might be surprised to learn, that these messages really do come from your gut! Well, from the enteric nervous system located in your gut to be exact. The tube that goes from our mouth, through the inside of our body and out the other end is thought of as a glorified garbage shoot most of the time. Food comes in, food goes out. But the gastrointestinal tract is home to more than 100 million nerve cells and 100 trillion bacteria, it has its own independent nervous system and is often called the second brain.
Your second brain
Think of the brain in your skull as the manager of your body, the head honcho, the top dog. It oversees loads of your body functions; thoughts, memory and speech are just a few. You can think of your enteric nervous system or your gut, as your brain's assistant manager.
The brain and the gut talk to each other regularly (remember those butterflies, and messages about chocolate cake). They send information back and forth about how things are running in their particular departments. Up until recently, the gut's influence on the rest of the body was sorely overlooked (a lot like a hard working assistant manager whose boss always takes the credit). We thought the gut just gave basic information to the brain, things like "hey brain I'm full of food now". But recent research shows that our second brain has a lot more influence than we thought.
Some of the nerve cells in our gut are called viscerofugal neurones. These connect up to our spinal cord and send messages to our brain. Scientists have discovered that these viscerofugal neurones send messages to the brain whenever there are any changes in the colon, not only when it is expanded and full of food. This is an important discovery, it shows that the health of our gut (or lack thereof) influences our brain, and potentially our mood, emotions decisions and more.
Do our emotions, thoughts and feelings lead to changes in the gut?
Previously, scientists believed that our emotions, thoughts and feelings led to changes in our gut health. Meaning our mental health had the potential to cause all sorts of digestive chaos. In actual fact it works both ways. Not only does our brain influence our gut but our gut influences our brain. Irritation in the gut lining sends messages to the brain that have the potential to trigger mood changes which could lead to anxiety and depression.
This realisation has an impact on how we think about the roots of neurological illness too. Things like dementia, autism, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. A recent study showed that men who experience constipation are four times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease. These early findings could have far reaching implications for how we treat and prevent disease all over the body. It is becoming more and more obvious that looking after our gut needs to be our top priority.
Is your gut happy?
One in five Irish people suffer from I.B.S and a whopping 51% of adults in Ireland experience heartburn regularly. That's a lot of people living with unhappy guts. Take our quiz to find out how healthy your gut is and whether you need to give it a little more T.L.C.
If you want to start treating your gut with the appreciation it deserves, here are my top tips that you can implement right away:
Real Simple Food
Switching to a diet that is plentiful in simple, fresh vegetables and fruit can make a huge difference to how happy your gut is. Fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and pulses provide more nutrients for your body than convenience foods that come in boxes even if they are labelled "healthy". Convenience foods are processed and mostly stripped of key health giving components such as fibre. Fibre is so important for a happy gut. Since we do not digest it, the fibre in food passes into the intestine and absorbs water. The undigested fibre creates "bulk" so the muscles in the intestine can push waste out of the body. So fibre is key in keeping digestion ticking over smoothly and preventing constipation which as I mentioned earlier, has far reaching implications for our overall health. By adding simple, fresh fruit and veg to your diet you will increase your fibre intake and improve your gut health over time. Have a read of Emma's blog: What's the truth about fibre? for an in-depth look at all of the ways fibre is really important for us.
We also have a section on our website dedicated to inspiring recipes full of fresh, whole foods. When switching from convenience foods, the biggest hurdle is maintaining healthy cooking habits when life gets busy. I like to be prepared for these times by batch cooking big pots of healthy soups, stews and curries. I freeze these and when I know I have a busy week ahead, I take a few out to defrost. That way I'm not tempted to reach for pre-packaged food after a long work day.
Aside from eating a variety of real food and lots of veggies, a good starting point for taking better care of your gut is to take care of your good bacteria. The bacteria in your gut do lots of good things for us, from improving immune function to helping us metabolise our food. We need our gut bacteria to be really diverse and varied for best results. In the same way a garden works and looks better when its contents are varied, so does our gut. We can achieve a diverse gut environment by eating a diet full of fresh vegetables, beans, legumes and high fibre foods. As well as introducing fermented foods and probiotic and prebiotic supplements.
Probiotics are well known for improving the friendly bacteria in your gut but prebiotics are just as important. If your gut is already imbalanced, the likely hood of probiotics surviving in that environment is low. If you were planting a new garden, you wouldn't throw seeds on your lawn and expect them to thrive, you need to prepare the soil before planting.
My A.Vogel Self-Care Tip: How to use Molkosan Fruit
To prepare your gut for probiotics to flourish, eat lots of prebiotic foods such as onion, leek, chicory and artichoke. Alongside these foods, add a prebiotic tonic like Molkosan. I've made a self-care video with tips on how to add this tonic into your day:
Add your probiotics to your daily routine once you have established a healthy environment for them to grow in. Optibac for Everyday is my favourite probiotic supplement. Fermented foods are another way to add friendly bacteria to your diet. I love sauerkraut for this. I add it on top of salads, sandwiches and it gives a lovely tangy flavour on top of a creamy curry.