You may have heard the buzz around gut health lately. It seems like gut health is the new “in vogue” thing when it comes to the health industry and the products marketed to us at the moment. Luckily, this is one trend that I can really get behind, because the importance of gut health is up there as the most important thing we should be focusing on when it comes to our overall health and wellbeing.
As busy mums, we are juggling so many different aspects of running the household, plus possibly managing a job or a business as well. I don’t need to tell you that the physical load, not to mention the mental load, can really get on top of us and start to have an effect on our mental health. It is so important that we nurture our mental health and wellbeing, and taking care of your gut health is an important step in the process.
But why do we need to focus on gut health?
The health of our gastrointestinal tract (our “gut”) plays a role in the health of every system in our body, including and especially our immune system, and our nervous system. Our gut microbiota (the good and bad bacteria living in our gut) has a delicate balance, with many different species of bacteria living and thriving in the environment. If we don’t take care of this environment, it can throw off the balance of bacteria, causing inflammation, leading to various issues such as digestive upsets, malabsorption of nutrients.
This inflammation that can occur can also upset the production of antigens that help our body fight off invaders such as bacteria and viruses. That is why it is so important to be caring for your gut health when it comes to looking after your immune health. Studies have proven that a gut that is working efficiently to digest and absorb nutrients contributes to the strongest immune system.
The connection between our gut health and our mental health
When it comes to stress, anxiety and our mental health, there is no doubt that our gut health plays a role. Recent studies have revealed something called the “gut brain axis”. It means that our gastrointestinal tract is linked to our brain through the central nervous system. Our gut has the ability to send and receive signals from our brain and vice versa- the brain can also send and receive messages from our gut. It makes sense then, that the health of one will affect the health of the other. That is why when it comes to taking care of our mental health, we really need to implement a two pronged approach that considers tackling it from both sides.
Reducing stress to improve our gut health
We can concentrate on reducing our stress and anxiety by implementing techniques to reduce our cortisol levels (our stress hormone). Techniques such as breath work, meditation and mindfulness as well as my favourite – exercise, are all proven to have almost immediate effects on reducing cortisol levels, and increasing levels of the feel good hormone such as dopamine and serotonin. These help us to feel more calm, and also help us to switch off at night and have restorative sleep. Not only do these things benefit our mental health and wellbeing, they benefit the health of our gut because of that strong connection between the gut and the brain. A reduction in stress and improvement in sleep has been proven to improve the balance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, and reduce the amount inflammation occurring.
When we’re really stressed, it’s common to see symptoms arrive in the form of digestive disturbances that can lead to malabsorption of nutrients. It’s so important to get on top of this in order for our body to function properly. We can start to feel tired and really depleted, leading to illness.
Improving our gut health to improve our mental health
We can then work on improving our gut health to have a flow on effect to helping reduce the amount of stress and anxiety we feel, and how resilient we are to allowing stress to take a hold of us.
Here are some of my top tips to improving your gut health:
1. Eat the rainbow
Our good bacteria thrive by including a variety of whole foods, as they feed on having a variety of nutrients, as well as probiotic and prebiotic foods more on this in a moment) entering the gut. Try to include a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits, and include things like garlic and onion, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and vegetables like asparagus and sweet potato to help feed your good gut bacteria.
2. Include prebiotic foods in your diet
Prebiotic foods help to increase the amount of good bacteria in your gut as the good bacteria feeds on these foods. Fresh produce such as onion, garlic, asparagus, leeks, bananas as well as cooked and cooled sweet potatoes are all great foods to include weekly in your diet to help good bacteria thrive.
3. Include probiotic foods
These foods are handy for introducing more and good bacteria species into your gut. Things like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and yoghurt are all great sources of probiotics, eating a range of these foods weekly and have a huge impact on the health of your gut. You can also include the use of a daily probiotic supplement to assist with increasing the amount of good bacteria in your gut. You need to find a good quality brand that uses quality ingredients and well researched strains of live bacteria. You can ask a health professional to assist you with choosing one that is right for you.
4. Use food to reduce inflammation in your gut and improve digestion
Ingredients such as turmeric, ginger and garlic are all wonderful to use in cooking to help reduce inflammation. Bone broths are also great because they contain gelatin and glucosamine, which are compounds that work to improve the integrity of the lining of our gut and aid digestion to improve the absorption of nutrients.
If you’re vegetarian, plant based broths are also great. When they include healing ingredients such as shitake mushrooms, which are packed full of vitamin D and zinc, they work on strengthening the gut lining. Packing the broth full of ginger, turmeric, onion and garlic will have amazing anti-inflammatory effects on your gut.
5. Avoid eating lots of processed foods including lots of processed dairy
These foods can create inflammation and slow down our digestion, this has a flow on effect to other parts of our body. You will start to notice changes in the health of your skin, as well as your energy levels and brain clarity almost straight away. Too many processed foods can also contribute to a compromised immune system.
6. Avoid excess consumption of alcohol, caffeine and sugar
Again, these things create inflammation in our gut and can kill some of the good bacteria in our gut, causing digestive upsets and making us feel tired and sluggish. This will have a flow on effect on our mental health and can make us feel more anxious and stressed. More than 1-2 drinks in the week will start to impact your gut health.
7. Incorporate a daily practice to reduce stress every day
Using the techniques I mentioned above will not only help to reduce stress, they will allow your gut health to thrive.
The road to better gut health is not a short one. It takes time and consistency to really see long term benefits, so starting with small changes is the best way to start having an impact on your gut health.
About Melissa Finlay
Melissa Finlay is a holistic nutritionist specialising in women’s health. She has a special interest in helping mums overcome nutrient depletion and understand how they can use food, nutrition and lifestyle choices to get energised to feel happier and more present with their families. This is why she founded the Amazing Mums Academy, an online membership for Mums to learn how they can leverage the power of their hormones to get happy and energised. She also offers one on one coaching for women in the field of women’s health, pre and postnatal health and mental health and wellbeing.