Nutritional Therapist, author and consultant Eve Kalinik explains the powerful two-way relationship between the mind and the gut and helps us rediscover how food can really make you feel brighter, lighter and full of vitality
Change can be good but it can also feel very uncertain. Certainly, the past months have been demonstrative of that. This momentous and pivotal time has given us all time to reflect, reset and re-evaluate in many ways. Fundamentally this has included making changes and taking ownership of our health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally, as we simply don’t have the same resources available. Most of this has been home-focused including cooking and eating at home, joining together as families over mealtimes and having to slow down. Whether we wanted to or not food has played a significant and central role for us.
And sure, giving some care and attention to what we are eating might not seem like such as revolutionary concept for everyone but it has been the very basics of cooking from scratch and sitting down to eat with families that have created much more profound positive benefits overall. These are also the ones that we had somehow lost along the way as a result of a fast paced and time poor society. However, it is these fundamental changes that will hopefully continue long after the pandemic passes. Perhaps this will also set a new tone for how we take care of ourselves physically and mentally and how we connect with others, which starts with the food we eat.
Hippocrates, deemed the father of medicine, famously said “let food be thy medicine” and perhaps this has been more relevant in recent times. However, the concept of nourishing our body and our mind with wholesome food is not just about what we feed ourselves but on a much deeper level the trillions of microbes that live in our gut – collectively known as the gut microbiota that technically outnumber our own human cells!
But, before we delve further into this fascinating microbial world that lives within us all, I’ll give you a little insight into how I found myself becoming a nutritional therapist and gut health specialist. And similarly, my story is one where I had to change and take ownership to get my health back on track…
Before my career in nutrition, my previous one in PR came with huge pressure, extensive travelling and long hours. After a decade of intense stress, I came to the point of physical and mental burn-out that had progressed over several years. It began with digestive symptoms that became cumulatively worse and widened into other debilitating issues such as recurrent infections, fatigue, insomnia and serious bouts of anxiety.Not wanting to accept ‘defeat’ I kept on with my relentless life trying various medications, supplements and other quick ‘fixes’ to manage the issues but at a very low point I had to acknowledge that my life was neither sustainable nor happy and I had to address the route underlying cause – my poor beleaguered gut. I started making small changes consistently with my diet and learning to put boundaries around my lifestyle that gradually put an end to the cycle of infections and antibiotics. I gained strength and also greater clarity to help put my gut and body back on track, and having a healthy gut supported this thoughtful process.
It is this two-way relationship that is a strong, significant and powerful one. We all resonate with phrases that highlight this such as gut-wrenching, gut instinct or gut feeling and while we intuitively know there is a real physical connection the full complexity of this bond is becoming much more evident. In fact, the gut-brain connection is much more of bi-directional relationship that joins the brain in our gut ‘the enteric nervous system’ with the one in our head including the central nervous system. And it is our gut microbiota that has a momentous and highly influential role in how our brain operates. This is because the microbes in our gut are an intrinsic part of the way in which our gut communicates to our brain and our gut microbiota use a similar ‘language’ as our brain in the form of neurotransmitters, think of these as chemical messengers. In fact, some of these you might be familiar with such as serotonin, dubbed the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter, which plays a major part in mood and cognition is in fact mostly made in our gut – around a whopping 90-95% as it transpires. Other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, GABA and the hormone melatonin which helps to govern the sleep-wake cycle are also made in both our brain and our gut which relies on the direct and indirect influence of our trillions of microbes.
These are stats which you might find quite literally mind-blowing and a major reason why we need to make sure that we provide our gut microbes with the right types of food to support their hard-working endeavours to make us both physically and mentally stronger and healthier. After all, our trillions of microbes dine with us at each meal so we need to also consider their flavour preferences for a happy gut, and ultimately a happier mind.
Eat the rainbow – aim to have as many different colours in the diet as this helps to provide our gut microbiota with myriad sources of dietary fibre and special plant chemicals in the form of polyphenols. In real terms that could look like mixing up grains for your morning oats – try buckwheat, quinoa or spelt. Vary the fruit you might have with this – frozen berries are great to have to hand and give stewed apple a go – make up a big batch. Try to have at least 2-3 different vegetables at lunch and dinner rather than gravitating to the same ones all the time to give more of a spectrum of colour. And have different nuts & seeds in the cupboard that you can rotate around and add to meals or as a snack.
Add in fermented foods – that can provide a direct source of beneficial bacteria which could be ‘live’ natural yogurt, traditional cheese, kefir (milk and water), sauerkraut and kimchi as a few examples.
Rest & digest – use meal times as pockets of recovery and take this opportunity to sit, chew and be present with your plate. Even the simple act of slowing down and properly chewing our food can alleviate digestive symptoms such as bloating, reflux and help us to better tune into hunger cues. With this resting in mind, give your gut a decent break between meals (around 4 hours) as we have different microbes that help us absorb our food and those that deal with the clean-up operation
Practise some daily mindfulness – which could be meditation, breathing exercises, stretching and/or gentle yoga. In the same way that we exercise to get fitter we have to think of ‘working’ the mind in the same way. After all we cannot always change the stressors but we can find better ways of coping with them
Aim for consistency not perfection – as that creates more stress and anxiety which doesn’t bode well for our gut or our mind. Try to be inclusive in your approach and enjoy the foods and drinks that on the face of it may not seem ‘perfect’ as there is no such thing. And well, a glass of red wine does have some polyphenol benefits for your gut microbes! Finding joy in our food is a key part of health and happiness after all.