DO you have a gut feeling you need to make some lifestyle changes? You could be right.
If you are prone to suffering from bloated belly, or uncomfortable stomach cramps are the norm – it is time to start looking after your gut.
Two in ten people suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome – with women twice as likely as men to report having symptoms – so you are not alone.
In her book, Eat Yourself Healthy, Dr Megan Rossi explains the important role of our gut and how it could be the key to a healthier you.
Here, NATASHA HARDING picks extracts from Dr Rossi’s book, which explain how to achieve that goal.
SAY hello to what we nerdy scientists call your gut microbiota (GM). I’m aware it’s not the sexiest of terms – let’s go with GM moving forward. This wonderful, complex and thriving community is made up of the trillions of microbes that call your intestine home.
Your GM is incredibly powerful – in fact, this newly appreciated organ is pretty much essential to whatever your health goal is – successful weight management, improved fitness levels, healthier skin, boosted immunity and even our happiness.
The constant, two-way communication that occurs between our gut and our brain is referred to as the gut/brain axis. The latest evidence suggests that tapping into this axis could play a pivotal role in our mental health.
The “gut feeling” phenomenon is something we’ve all experienced. In fact, long before science connected the two, we were using gut functions to describe our feelings and emotions: “I’ve got butterflies in my tummy”, “You don’t have the guts for it”, “I can’t stomach that behaviour”. Our ancestors were on to something.
Trials have shown that our GM is implicated in our mental health and that by modifying it with simple diet strategies, we can help manage mental-health conditions such as depression (alongside medication and therapy, as needed).
DO you suffer from several gut symptoms, including tummy pain, changing bowel movements and bloating? Having a collection of symptoms is extremely common, particularly in people with the gut disorder irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
For many, IBS can be extremely debilitating. It can affect your work life with more time taken off sick, your social life with cancelled events, and your self-confidence, too, as it can cause bloating that rivals the size of a pregnant belly. What further adds to frustration is the unpredictability and inability to control symptoms.
IBS is considered a disorder of the gut/brain axis. This means the communication between the gut and the brain is out of whack, which is expressed through an overly sensitive intestine. As a result, there is an exaggerated response to various things, including fluctuating hormones, food, drinks and medication.
There is no single cause for IBS. Instead, several factors can increase your risk of getting it. One of the most well-known is suffering from a gut infection like travellers’ diarrhoea or food poisoning.
Your risk of getting IBS is over four times greater if you’ve had a gut infection in the previous year. It has also been suggested that your risk is further increased by your gender (it’s higher in females), the severity of infection and a history of anxiety or depression.
SLEEP disturbance, such as shift work and jet lag, is another major factor that disrupts our GM. This is because, like us, our GM exhibits a sleep/wake cycle known as the circadian rhythm.
Studies have shown that just two days of getting less sleep than we need can impact our GM. It can also increase inflammation and stress hormones in your body, which may explain why sleep deprivation is linked with worse gut symptoms, particularly in people with IBS.
Work by my colleagues at King’s College London has shown that lack of sleep can also impact how much you eat – and not by a nominal amount either. The study suggested sleep deprivation increased daily intake by the calorie equivalent of four slices of bread.
Maintaining the same sleep time and wake time every day (give or take 30 minutes) can help your body to function at its best. Exposing your face to natural light first thing in the morning helps. But blue light from back-lit screens is disruptive to your body’s clock. It counteracts your ability to produce melatonin, which is an important hormone for sleep. Avoid these in the hours before bedtime.
We often struggle to fall asleep if we’re worrying. Allow yourself some time during your day to “worry” and write down all your to-do lists to give yourself the mental space to relax before bed.
IT’S easy to forget that our brain has a big impact on our gut, too. Non-diet approaches work on the dysfunction between the gut and brain via the vagus nerve, which acts as a communication highway.
Try scheduled inactivity. Set a timer for ten minutes. Lie on your back. Rest hands on your tummy. Take one or two deep breaths to settle yourself then just notice what happens. After the ten minutes, write down your observations.
The do-nothing exercise often throws light on our unconscious mental habits. Typically, we hold ourselves to much higher standards than we do others. This constant internal pressure is a major driver of stress and poor coping. Write down the kinder and more balanced things you would say to a friend. Then, when those critical, pressurising thoughts come up, try directing those more supportive thoughts to yourself.
Also, yoga can relax a distressed gut in several ways. Not only does the breathing activate the PNS, that “rest and digest” system, it teaches you improved control of your breathing, which can be applied to gut symptoms, breathing through the discomfort as you would through a yoga pose.
The physical movements flowing between gentle compression and stretching also sends pulses along your intestine. This can help calm overall stimulation of the muscles and nerves.
DIET has revolutionised the management of IBS, with the majority of people able to effectively control their symptoms by making changes to what they eat and drink.
The fact is that nutrition is not black or white and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t take precedence over the amazing flavours and feeling of community that come with eating and feeding your gut microbes. Food should be tasty and it should be fun.
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Eating should be a happy experience – it shouldn’t be crushed by those unhelpful thoughts, which is, sadly, something I see all too often. It’s important to be aware that we eat whole foods and not single nutrients. For example, although most people refer to bread as a carbohydrate, it still contains some protein and fat.
Foods are never black and white, despite our attempts to simplify and categorise them. Understanding the basics of food can help explain the big picture of diet, as well as safeguard you against the many diet myths out there (eg that carb-free diets are good for your gut).
Not everyone’s IBS works in the same way, and research from my team suggests that some of these differences may explain why different people respond to different therapies. Managing IBS is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Above are some things to try, including foods known to stimulate the gut.
What to avoid to ease symptoms
ALCOHOL: Response is usually dose dependent, so small amounts may be OK. Ciders, sweet wines and rum may be worse. For all sufferers, no more than one standard drink a day (330ml low-strength beer, 100ml wine, or 25ml spirit).
CAFFEINE: Although most adults can consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day without side effects (200 mg in pregnancy), some are more sensitive. Limit to one caffeine-containing drink/food a day before 3pm.
SPICY FOOD: Any dish containing chilli can exacerbate symptoms of IBS.
FAT: Fried foods and fatty meats will play havoc with the gut. Limit large portions of high-fat foods, particularly those with limited nutritional value such as fast food.
WATER: Ensure you drink 1½ to 2 litres of fluid per day (aim for mostly water).
DIETARY FIBRE: Fibre should be taken from fruit, veg, whole-grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Spread fibre intake evenly across the day. Aim for two pieces of fruit, five portions of vegetables, three portions of wholegrain and one or two portions of nuts/seeds/legumes daily.
FRUIT: No more than one piece of fruit per sitting (equivalent of 80g fresh or 30g dried) with up to three sittings daily. Limit juices and smoothies, eat whole fruits.
SWEETENERS: Avoid the sugar substitute isomalt or any sweeteners ending in “ol”. This includes sugar-free, low- calorie foods, chewing gum and other food and drinks with added mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol, sylitol or isomalt. If symptoms still don’t improve, contact your GP, dietitian and gastroenterologist. See theibsnetwork.org for added support.
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