Are you suffering from bloating, indigestion and a lack of appetite? Chances are it’s your mind that’s to blame. Here, MOJEH investigates the gut-brain connection...
There’s no arguing the fact this year isn’t quite panning out the way we planned, and as a result, more and more people are feeling down and depressed. As the physical coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, an emotional pandemic is following fast in its wake, with anxieties about health, finances, job security and parenting rearing their ugly heads in even the calmest of individuals. Perhaps one of the more surprising results of this increase in stress is something we would normally put down to that second burger we ate at last night’s BBQ or the extra cup of coffee we had to perk ourselves up before this morning’s meeting – an unpredictable gut.
“It’s been proven beyond doubt that the state of mind affects one’s state of health,” explains Khadija A. Kapasi, Clinical Dietitian Trainer in the Ministry of Health in Kuwait. “Today, every doctor and healthcare professional is advising on the importance of emotional hygiene to handle stress levels.” She puts this down to cortisol, an immune suppressor which is produced in elevated levels during period of stress, which “creates in flammation, creates havoc with our digestive system, messes up our sleep and eating habits, and a lot more.”
Many commonly experienced gut issues can stem from your head, with your stomach paying the price for an emotionally fraught day. If you’ve been suffering from indigestion or an upset stomach, have found yourself bloating more than normal or have been experiencing an increase or loss of appetite, there’s a very good chance it’s related to what’s known as the gut-brain axis, whereby negative emotions and stressful thoughts have a direct impact on the gut. “Since 80 per cent of our immunity lies in the gut, a weak gut can cause a drastic drop in immunity, making us prone to various diseases,” she adds.
With the brain and the gut in constant communication and the pandemic seemingly never ending, are we simply ghting a losing battle? The good news is that symptoms of acute stress can be temporary, and can even be banished by some simple life changes. “If you think about a fight-or- flight scenario like running away from a lion, your heart and your blood pressure rises as the blood moves to the muscles needed to run,” explains Dr Shefali Verma, a Dubai- based functional medicine specialist. “During periods of acute stress, digestion can be arrested as blood moves to the muscles required to get out of the dangerous situation. As the stress passes, digestion should go back to normal.”
The problem is when stress is chronic, when the stressors remain constant and the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on, over-exposing the body to cortisol and other stress hormones. “This chronic stress is what leads to countless health issues, including suppressed immunity,” says Kapasi. It is therefore vital to manage our stress to prevent a total body meltdown and level off the gut-brain axis.
“Something I always advise my patients to do is ‘control the controllable’,” says Dr Verma, including how you eat, how you drink, detoxi cation pathways, how you move, how well you sleep and how you think. This can be something as simple as taking time out to focus on deep breathing, which, while it won’t magically evaporate your stress, will help lower cortisol levels extensively, in turn sending a more relaxed message back to your gut. “I can’t emphasise enough the importance of breathing when it comes to managing stress and anxiety,” agrees Kapasi. “You can be in a room full of stressful people, but if you are even with your breathing pattern, you will hold a space of peace in you.”
Nicole Malick is a recovering aid worker and yoga teacher at Abu Dhabi’s Bodytree Studio who, since moving to the UAE, has relied heavily on the power of kundalini yoga to manage her stress levels and, in turn, her digestion. Unlike a typical yoga class, kundalini generally incorporates chanting or mantras, asanas (or movement), meditation and relaxation, and no two classes are the same. “This practice is great for gut health because it strengthens the third chakra, or the naval point,” she explains. “By doing practices which strengthen our third chakra, we are simultaneously keeping our digestive organs strong, exible and healthy, as well as giving ourselves the vitality to remain emotionally balanced.”
An exercise she highly recommends is simply breathing through your left nostril to help lower your blood pressure, sleep better and prevent you from overeating. “Sit up with a straight spine and block the right nostril with the thumb of the right hand,” she says. “Keep the other ngers straight up like antennae. Take 26 long, deep, and complete breaths through the left nostril. Then inhale and relax. This will soothe you and bring you to a calm state.”
Yet, like all relationships, the stress-gut connection works both ways – yes, stress affects the gut but in turn, a suboptimal gut can also result in stress and modern-day lifestyles including a diet full of convenient processed foods and non-stop stress does not a happy stomach make. After all, Hippocrates did famously advise “Let food be thy medicine,” and when your gut bacteria are out of kilter, the negative toll on your health can be worrying, leading to chronic low mood, anxiety and panic attacks.
One way of tackling this imbalance head on is through pre- and probiotics, including both supplemented and natural in the form of a varied diet rich in fibre and colour, which promotes good bacteria. Avoid junk food, re ned sugar, fried, oily and fatty produce where possible as these can increase in ammation, which, when combined with stress, can lead to constipation, bloating and indigestion. According to Kapasi, good quality dairy yoghurt, buttermilk, kimchi, pickles, fermented vegetables and fermented rice should be your go-to for probiotics, while apple cider vinegar, raw banana, garlic, onions and asparagus are all great sources of pre-biotics.
Be sure to make friends with bre, too, as the microbes in your gut use dietary bre as fuel to produce lots of positive substances that support gut health and control systemic in ammation in the body, including the brain. Avoid white, re ned foods and opt for plenty of vibrant plant-based foods to keep gut microbes happy and healthy.
Everyone is responsible for their own body and how they treat it. Realising both the head and the gut work together is vital in nding that balance to ensure harmony between the two, promoting good health and a happy mind. “About 80 per cent of our immune system lies in our gut and hence we mustn’t ignore this,” says Kapali. We’d be wise to start paying attention.