One of the most important things I’ve learned from both naturopathic nutrition and Yoga is that every part of the body is connected. We are one big moving part. Nothing in the body exists in isolation. Gut, brain, heart, hormones, immunity, muscles, bones, lungs, liver, skin; every organ and system is communicating with one another.
Whether its via hormonal messages, nerve fibres, fascia, or microbial metabolites: communication is constant.
I recently had the pleasure of talking about these incredible interconnections for a podcast (more details to follow on this). The podcast focuses on the links between the gut, brain, hormone balance, and the immune system. I like to make notes before I do any kind of talk, so I drew a mind-map of the links between these areas. It ended up large and colourful…
And this is just the basic links, there are plenty more that wouldn’t fit on the page!
The Gut is the Foundation
The gut is always the first place to start when looking at a health issue. Whether its mental health, low immunity, hormone imbalance, or any kind of inflammation – look at the gut first. As the mind-map shows, this is where nutrient absorption takes place, and the elimination of waste (including old hormones). You can eat all the right foods and take top quality supplements, but if you’re not absorbing them well enough, or clearing out your waste each day, improvement will be very slow.
Our gut microbes (the microbiome) play a huge role in regulating our immune response, managing inflammation, and influencing mood. They communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, the ‘super highway’ communication channel between gut and brain. Anything that upsets the microbiome – stress, infection, antibiotics – can affect mood and immunity.
Hormones are the chemical messengers zooming instructions around the body. When it comes to stress, cortisol is the main player. Ongoing high levels of cortisol can compromise our digestion making us more prone to gut problems like bloating, indigestion, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It also affects immunity, increasing the risk of infections, and hampering recovery. If we don’t learn how to manage ongoing stress, our mental resilience starts to wear thin too. Eventually this can lead to anxiety, depression, and burn-out.
Fluctuating oestrogen levels during the pre-menstrual phase (PMS) and perimenopause can affect gut health and mental wellbeing. High levels of oestrogen can be a triggering factor for migraines and PMS, while low levels lead to different symptoms depending on which part of the brain is affected. For example hot flushes, one of the characteristic symptoms of perimenopause, are triggered when there isn’t enough oestrogen reaching the hypothalamus, our central temperature regulator. Too little oestrogen in the amygdala can lead to anxiety, which in turn increases our sense of feeling threatened and stressed and upregulates cortisol production.
Balancing the connections
If you can make out my scrawls on the diagram, you’ll notice there’s a lot of crossover between the nutrients that support each area – gut, mental health, hormones, and immunity. Including these nutrients on a daily basis supplies your body with the tools it needs to:
– Build hormones
– Manage inflammation
– Maintain immune balance
– Support neurotransmitters
– Detoxify hormones
– Nuture the gut microbiome
Food connects us with ourselves, and enables our internal communications to run smoothly.
If you’re dealing with symptoms in any of the areas mentioned on the diagram, look at your food choices and see where you can make some simple swaps to include more of these key nutrients. This table lists some of the top sources so you can mix and match and enjoy the variety…
Supporting Vagal tone
Alongside all these good foods, think about ways to incorporate more relaxation and mindfulness into your daily life. When we’re busy and stressed we are spending the majority of our time in the fight-flight-freeze response; the sympathetic nervous system. For our health, we need to balance this by switching to the parasympathetic response: rest-digest-heal. The vagus nerve plays a big role here, and anything that activates it will help. Taking a few slow deep breaths is the quickest and easiest way to do this because the brain thinks “ah, we can’t be in immediate danger, we’re breathing too slowly!” Singing is another good technique (not always practical in the middle of a work meeting though) and doing meditative movements such as yoga and Qi Gong.
Look at ways to fit pockets of relaxation time into your day. A short walk in the park at lunchtime, ten minutes of mindful meditation after work, taking 5 slow deep breaths before each meal – that sort of thing. The benefits of these little pockets soon builds up and you’ll feel calmer and more resilient.
It’s a familiar situation: you’ve been dashing round all day grabbing food on the go when suddenly, heartburn starts. Ouch.
Heartburn (also called acid reflux) is caused by stomach acid escaping up into the oesophagus (the tube that runs from your throat to your stomach). Normally, a ring of muscle called the Lower Oesophageal Sphincter (LOS) tightens up to keep food and acid safely in the stomach. However, certain factors can affect this ring of muscle, stopping it from closing properly and allowing some acid back up into the tube.
The oesophagus isn’t equipped to deal with this acid and it goes into spasms. Sometimes the spasms and pain are so bad they are mistaken for a heart attack. Other symptoms include a sour taste in the mouth, a sickly burning sensation at the back of the throat, bloating, nausea, and a sudden increase in saliva.
Having an occasional bout of reflux ( eg once every few months) isn’t too concerning as the trigger is usually easy to identify and resolve. Eating a large celebratory meal with a few drinks for example, or indulging in some unusual foods on holiday. But if you’re experiencing reflux more than twice a week, it’s possible you could have GORD – GastroOesophageal Reflux Disease.
What causes heartburn & reflux?
Several factors make heartburn and reflux more likely to occur. Pregnancy, for example, and being overweight. Both these conditions increase pressure on the LOS, making it easier for small amounts of acid to escape back into the oesophagus.
Caffeine, chocolate, mint, peppermint, and alcohol can reduce the tone of the LOS, preventing it from closing properly. That’s all kinds of alcohol by the way. I’ve often been asked if there’s a special type of wine or particular beer that doesn’t relax the LOS, but sorry, the answer is no! Other foods can worsen the irritation caused by reflux: this group includes spicy foods and citrus fruits, which is why curries and orange juice are often a problem.
An important thing to note here is that none of these factors causes excessive amounts of stomach acid to be produced. It’s rare to have too much stomach acid. In fact, most people with reflux and heartburn have too little, and that’s another part of the problem…
Stress & Digestion
Aside from foods, the biggest single trigger for heartburn and reflux is stress.
Stress disrupts your entire digestive process from start to finish. Imagine your digestion is like a factory production line. Each part of the line can only do its job if the part before it is working properly. So, if the very first part of digestion isn’t up to scratch, the stomach will suffer.
The very first part of digestion isn’t chewing or swallowing food, it’s SEEING and SMELLING the food. Even HEARING it being cooked (sizzling pancakes anyone?). This stage is called the Cephalic stage after the Greek word ‘kephos’ meaning head. It’s all about the senses of smell, sight, and sound.
When we use these senses, we trigger nerve impulses that go down the vagus nerve into the digestive system. These impulses tell the stomach to get ready for the arrival of food, to get busy producing gastric juices! If we skip this stage as is the case when eating on the go, food arrives in the stomach with no warning and the stomach struggles to deal with it.
Eating on the go usually goes hand-in-hand with feeling busy and stressed. The problem is, our fight-or-flight stress response runs in direct opposition to our rest-digest-heal response. We cannot do both things at the same time: we cannot digest food comfortably whilst being stressed.
This is what happens;
How to manage heartburn & reflux mindfully and naturally
Now you know what might be causing the problem, let’s look at simple ways to deal with it.
1. Make time for eating
As we’ve just discussed, eating on the go is a big trigger for heartburn and reflux so the most important step is to make time to eat. This can be 10 minutes, so long as that’s 10 minutes with no phone, emails, or TV. Just you and your food.
2. Take 3 slow deep breaths before eating
Deep breathing instantly down regulates the stress response and switches your nervous system into rest-and-digest mode. Look at your food whilst taking these deep slow breaths, enjoy the smell and sight of your meal. Engage these important cephalic senses!
It’s amazing how many people simply hoover up food. Like some kind of alien with a suction tube rather than a human with a mouthful of teeth.
Chewing stimulates even more of those important nerve signals, and also helps us to know when we’re full. If you think you’re over-eating, try chewing more to reignite your satiety signals.
4. Avoid foods that relax the LOS
Alcohol, mint, peppermint, caffeine and chocolate. I know there’s a lot of ‘treat’ foods in there, but think about how much better you will feel.
5. Enjoy a small bowl of bitter salad leaves before your main meal
Bitter foods like rocket, watercress, mustard leaves, dandelion leaves, mizuna, apple cider vinegar and lemon juice stimulate the gastric juices. Use the lemon juice and apple cider vinegar in a simple dressing with olive oil and black pepper for a delicious green salad starter.
*Please do not do this if you already have an active stomach ulcer or gastritis or are taking H2 blockers or PPI medications*
6. Eat larger meals earlier in the day
The speed at which your stomach empties is partly controlled by diurnal rhythms. It empties slightly faster in the morning than in the evening. You’re also more likely to be upright and moving round during the day: lying down after an evening meal makes it easier for acid to flow back up into the oesophagus.
Experiment with having a smaller evening meal, and eat more at breakfast and lunch instead to see if this eases your symptoms.
7. Enjoy an overnight fast
Fasting is the only way for your digestive system to have a rest and do some ‘housekeeping’. Does that sound weird? Well, the billions of bacteria in your gut have a lot of maintenance work to do, keeping your gut lining healthy. The easiest way to give them chance to do this, and for your stomach to have a rest, is to fast overnight for 12 hours. So, if you finish your evening meal at 7.30pm, don’t eat again until 7.30am the following morning. Herbal teas and water are okay, just no food.
Which steps can you take?
Have you found your own natural way of managing heartburn & reflux?
Do share in the comments below or pop over and join the Facebook Group!
Depression and anxiety can hit any of us at any time. When it does, taking time to prepare food and eat well can be incredibly difficult.
You can feel overwhelmed by life, paralysed by anxiety, and have little interest in cooking and eating.
The irony is that certain foods and nutrients can support mental wellbeing. Feeding your brain with mood-balancing nutrients is an important step on the path to recovery. The key to making these changes is to keep them practical and manageable.
Take small sustainable steps, one at a time.
Let’s look at some of the important nutrients that support mental wellbeing, and easy ways to incorporate them into your daily routine.
Go with your gut
As always, we need to start with digestion. If you’re not breaking down your food properly and absorbing the nutrients it doesn’t matter how many fancy foods and supplements you take – none of them will work.
The trillions of bacteria living in our digestive system – also known as our microbiome – are the subject of ongoing research. Our gut and brain are communicating constantly via nerve pathways and chemical messengers, many of which are produced or influenced by friendly gut flora (probiotics).
Many of the research studies looking at probiotics and mood balance are small scale but the results are promising and it is now known that certain species, including Bifidobacteria which thrive in the colon, can positively affect mood.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Nourish your microbiome by including fermented foods 3-4 times a week. Try sauerkraut, kefir (dairy or coconut water), natural plain yoghurt, or kimchi. Do not use if you have histamine problems as fermented foods are rich in histamine.
– Swap raw foods for warm, cooked foods that are easy to digest; for example swap your lunchtime salad box for a vegetable soup or reheated leftovers.
– If you have ongoing digestive problems seek help! Food sensitivities, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Coeliac Disease can all contribute to depression and anxiety, so find a BANT Registered nutrition practitioner in your area for personalised support.
Fats are your brain’s best friend
Your brain contains 25% of your body’s cholesterol, and an awful lot of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats. If you’re still buying ‘fat-free’ and ‘low-fat’ foods you are doing your brain a great disservice – please stop!
This is because fats provide structure to our brain cells and help them communicate with each other. Without enough of the right sorts of fats the messages between brain cells are like a bad mobile phone signal, all crackly and broken up, and there’s a knock-on effect on mood balance.
The long-chain omega-3 fats (most commonly found in oily fish) also have anti-inflammatory actions. Increased inflammation is associated with several mental health disorders, including depression. Inflammation is known to alter the balance of mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, and affect areas of the brain linked to motivation and perception of threat. Not every person with depression has increased inflammation but it is a key factor for many, making anti-inflammatory foods part of a brain-health food plan.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Include oily fish 2-3 times a week. Think SMASHT – salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herrings and trout!
– If you’re not keen on the taste of oily fish, sneak it into a fish pie or mix tinned sardines / mackerel in tomato sauce into a tomato based veggie sauce.
– Vegetarians & vegans: make sure to include pumpkin seeds and oil, flax oil, walnuts, or a blend like Udo’s Oil every day to top up your levels of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA). This converts to EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fats found in the brain) but a lot of it is lost in the conversion process hence the daily intake.
Proteins – brain building blocks!
Mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are made from amino acids, the little building blocks that make up proteins. If you’re not eating enough protein you might not have enough amino acids to support the production of mood chemicals in the brain.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Keep a Food & Mood diary for a week and see how often you eat good quality protein rich foods.
– Aim to include a palm-sized serving of protein with every meal: choose from eggs, good quality meat or fish, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds.
The sunshine vitamin is a big player for mental health. There are vitamin D receptors throughout our brains, and low levels are thought to play a role in the development of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Vitamin D levels are commonly low here in the UK thanks to the cloudy cool weather. Do get your levels tested before jumping in with a supplement though, so you can get an idea of how much to take. Ask for a test from your GP or use the simple home test kit available from www.vitamindtest.org.uk
Once you know your levels, you can decide whether to supplement or not. Optimum levels (based on cancer research studies) are between 75-100nmol/l.
Magnesium, folate & B6 – mental health teammates
During times of stress we need to eat plenty of foods packed with these nutrients to give our nervous system extra back-up. Magnesium and B-vitamins (particularly B6 and folate) are essential for mood chemical production and function, as well as supporting our energy levels.
Small Steps to Big Changes
– Go green. Dark green vegetables are rich in both folate AND magnesium. See if you can include 2 generous handfuls of green leafy veg everyday. Try adding a big handful of baby spinach to a smoothie or omelette. Serve broccoli or peas with your evening meal. If you haven’t got the motivation to prepare fresh veg, buy the ready chopped frozen stuff – at this moment in time it is more important for you to eat the veg than worry about it being fresh.
– Include at least two B6-rich foods everyday: choose from avocado, chicken, turkey, lentils, banana, carrots, brown rice, nuts, and seeds.
– Relax in an Epsom Salt bath. Epsom salts are rich in magnesium sulphate which can be absorbed through your skin. Make sure the water is comfortably warm, add a few drops of essential oil if you fancy, and soak for a good 20 mins. Remember to ban everyone else from the bathroom so you can bathe in peace!
I hope you find these tips inspiring, and feel able to try them out one at a time. Feeding yourself well is one of the kindest things you can do, and you are worth the extra ten minutes it takes to prep something tasty.
Hop over to the Facebook group too – it’s a friendly place to share conversations and challenges all about digestive health and mental wellbeing; find us at Nutrition in York
Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash