The Gut-Brain Connection

The Gut-Brain Connection

This is a piece that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. In 2017, I started making the connection with how I felt emotionally and how I was feeling physically. My IBS was severely debilitating, as I was suffering with chronic bloating, severe stomach distention, constipation and spasms in the gut that caused severe pain. My anxiety levels were through the roof, as these symptoms interfered with day to day life. I couldn’t wear the normal clothes I wanted to, I couldn’t train properly and I suffered with an IBS attack almost every day. Essentially, I felt like shit.

I started to really pay attention to what ‘triggered’ the attacks, initially focussing heavily on my diet. I soon began to realise that when I was stressed or anxious, my symptoms would manifest in the gut. My days were generally jam packed, rushing to work, college, the gym and back home again. I was constantly living by the clock, rushing around and worrying about missing buses, being late, meeting deadlines and so on. As a result of this, the stomach distention would begin, coupled with painful muscle spasms. I had spent a year or two researching IBS and how to change my diet to help with my condition prior to this. It suddenly began to click, that although I had made little progress with my diet, there was most definitely an emotional element to my condition. My research began, and I discovered the Gut-Brain Axis. This discovery changed everything for me and also changed how I view overall health today.

The gut is known as the enteric nervous system, in which it has a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. This is why it is often referred to as ‘the second brain’. The brain and the gut are connected through the Vagus nerve as they communicate through this channel. This is why it is common for someone to have a dysfunctional gut and suffer with their mental health simultaneously. As moods and emotions play a vital role in the digestion process, the influx of associated hormones like cortisol, can divert the blood flow away from the gut in times of stress. How a person is feeling can also affect the natural rhythm of peristalsis (wave-like muscle movement) of the stomach muscles. In order to survive and flee from any perceived ‘danger’, the instinctive thing to do is to drop all unnecessary weight ie. waste – this is why a person may develop the sudden ‘urgency’ to go to the toilet when they are nervous or excited.

95% of serotonin produced by the body is contained in specialised cells in the stomach. The food we eat directly influences these cells and the bacteria in our gut. Bacteria are also involved in the communication through the vagus nerve. There is new research emerging, showing the benefit food can have on our mental health. A study was conducted in which one group of patients were treated with traditional counselling, and the other with a healthy diet tailored towards increasing fibre and prebiotic foods that promote the growth of ‘good’ gut bacteria. By feeding the bacteria that are beneficial for your health, it was found the results for that group were the same as the group treated with therapy. Another study was carried for IBS patients, treating one group with traditional dietary interventions and the other with mindfulness and stress-reduction therapies. Again, both were found to have similar, successful results. These studies illustrate the power that food has on our mental health and the power our mental health has on our digestion.

I hope this piece gave you further insight into how everything is connected. It’s probably the most important discovery that I made with IBS and what’s extremely upsetting is that this element of the condition was never discussed with me by any doctors that I’ve dealt with. It’s also really important to get the message out there that the food and bacteria living in our gut have a powerful influence on our mental health. This is the first post on  IBS and while it is focussed on that, it include more information on mental health, diet and lifestyle, as everything is related.

The ‘Fitspo’ Lifestyle

How the ‘Fitspo’ Lifestyle Can Lead to Amenorrhea and Hormonal Imbalances

As a young female, hormones and periods may not seem all that important. It doesn’t become apparent until you start thinking about having children, but if you put it to the back of your mind for a few years, you may find yourself struggling to conceive. You may then need to add an extra year or two to that ‘planned age’, to regulate out-of-sync hormones. I wasn’t aware of the importance of these hormones until my body was going into complete shut-down mode.

I mentioned before that the body shuts down certain processes that are deemed as non-essential to survive when it is chronically in ‘fight or flight mode’. When the HPA-axis is out of sync, the hormones responsible for the menstruation cycle such as progesterone and estrogen are downregulated. The female body is highly adaptable, so it shuts down the menstruation cycle during these periods of high stress, as it senses it is ‘unsafe’ to conceive. Amenorrhea is the term used to describe the loss of three or more periods in a row. As the purpose of a menstrual cycle is essentially to reproduce, amenorrhea can lead to fertility issues. At the time, I wasn’t aware of just how much stress I was putting my body under. I was training 5-6 days a week in the gym, doing weight training and excessive HIIT (High intensity interval training) and LISS (low intensity steady state) cardio sessions. While I was eating a lot of healthy food, I wasn’t eating enough calories to match my energy output. Add in some more stress from college and work on top of that, and the result was the development of severe acne around my chin and mouth, insomnia and sky-high anxiety levels. This is why it’s disheartening for me to see personal trainers and ‘fitspos’ promoting information online with the message to cut down calories to unhealthy levels and to do lots of intense exercise. They are not qualified to give out nutritional advice and it’s absolutely not necessary to do so. Many young girls and women look up to these fitspos and try to imitate their lifestyle. What they don’t realise is the 2 hours of training they do is most likely the only stressor the body will experience that day. Losing your period may seem like a bonus at the time, but other than the typical symptoms I mentioned above, it can lead to more serious complications down the line – interfering with your mental health, cardiovascular health, bone health, weight and so on.

The pictures above were taken last year at my leanest, constantly chasing the goal of having abs. You could look at those pictures and think that I was a picture of health, but eating salads, having abs and being the fittest you can possibly be, does not necessarily equal health. I have spent the past year working towards getting my periods back, and adjusting my lifestyle to maintain a regular menstrual cycle – I have actually started to celebrate getting my period (currently on 4 months in a row baby). My periods are now much lighter with barely any pain, when in the past I would suffer with very heavy periods with very painful cramps. Below is a picture of me this summer with a little more weight and muscle on me, feeling as healthy as ever. The condition of my skin has drastically improved, I don’t have as much water retention and I finally have my confidence back. I spent so long researching what supplements to take, searching for the perfect skincare routine and looking for the ‘cure’, but the best thing I did was to focus on lowering stress and restoring the natural ‘balance’ of my hormones.

I hope that this post helps to break down the taboo associated with periods and raise awareness of how important it is. Amenorrhea is a big issue amongst young women these days, but it can cause unnecessary panic as it can be tackled by addressing your diet and lifestyle. However, sometimes it can indicate more serious underlying issues like endometriosis or PCOS, so it may also be a good idea to rule these out.  A good starting point is to be honest with yourself and assess just how much stress you are putting your body under. Start being kinder to yourself while you’re at it!

IBS

IBS – Collab with Thrive Festival

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gut disorder that effects the large intestine, also known as the colon. It is classified as a syndrome as it is collection of symptoms, meaning it can manifest differently from one person to the next. Symptoms can include flatulence, bloating, distention, diarrhoea, constipation and stomach cramps. How it effects an individual can depend on which subtype they have been diagnosed with; IBS-C ie. constipation dominant, IBS-D ie. diarrhoea dominant, or the mixed subtype. Alteration in bowel patterns can vary for an individual, regardless of their diagnosis.

The cause is currently unknown, but a theory is that those with IBS have a hyper-sensitive gut. Factors affecting IBS trigger symptoms by influencing gut motility ie. speeding it up or slowing it down. These factors include stress, sleep, exercise, fibre/FODMAPs, caffeine alcohol and composition of microbes in the gut. There is no cure for IBS at present, so the aim for treatment is symptom management to improve quality of life. However, new emerging research on the connection between the gut and the brain – known as the gut-brain axis – has expanded treatment options available for individuals with IBS.

Inclusion vs exclusion – When we experience symptoms like bloating or a distended tummy, we tend to jump the gun by blaming a particular food and removing it to prevent reoccurrence. While this can be useful for the like of FODMAPs, the role of food intolerances in IBS is somewhat over-stated. Myths continue to circulate online such as cutting out dairy or gluten, have played a role in demonizing certain foods or entire food groups. This restrictive mindset can do more harm than good, as an individual can develop a fear of foods as a result. This can trigger an emotional response in the body, which in turn, can further exacerbate symptoms.

Before you start restricting foods, take a look at what’s missing from your diet. Do you have a ‘balanced’ diet? Are you getting adequate amounts of fibre? Protein? Fats? Fruit & vegetables? Carbohydrates are an example of an entire food group that is often removed from the diet when cutting calories. By doing so, individuals are at risk of nutrient deficiencies, reducing the diversity of their gut microbiota and not consuming sufficient soluble fibre. The language used is also important, ensuring that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ views of food. Of course, there are foods that are less nutritious than others, but context is important. The value of food should not only be measured by the calorie content, but also by how it makes you feel. Is that bar of chocolate really all that bad if you enrich yourself in the experience, while savouring the flavour?

FODMAPs – The Low FODMAP (Fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols) diet has become somewhat ‘on trend’ lately not only for those with IBS, but for individuals with general bloating. FODMAPs trigger symptoms as consumption can increase fluid in the gut, along with gas as they’re fermented by gut bacteria. The aim of the diet is to, under supervision, identify particular foods that can trigger symptoms, specific to that individual. The first phase involves restricting all FODMAPs, followed by the re-introductory phase. Unfortunately, it is common to see Instagram accounts sharing recipes of ‘FODMAP-free diets’, when this is not the purpose of the diet. While it may seem logical to remove all FODMAPs from the diet, this is not advisable due to their prebiotic nature and the potential risk for nutrient deficiencies. This approach has proven successful for symptom relief, but should be done under the guidance of a trained nutrition professional.

Supporting digestion – Manipulating fibre is important for those with IBS as increasing soluble fibre can help prevent constipation, while decreasing insoluble fibre can help prevent diarrhoea. How you eat is also important to ensure blood flow is directed towards the gut, and not away from it. Slow down your chewing and remember not to eat while stressed, emotional or on the go. There’s no need to down tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar, simply swap those ice-cold drinks with your meal for warmer ones. Herbs like ginger can support digestion, while mint can be beneficial for symptom relief. Ensure to avoid or reduce the consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, ‘detox teas’ and alcohol that can trigger stomach cramps. Ensure to also drink adequate water to prevent dehydration of the digestive tract.

Self-care – Stress management techniques, rest & unwinding are key to preventing flares in IBS. The latest research studies have shown Mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions such as yoga and meditation, to be as effective as traditional interventions. Taking time out to unwind from our busy lifestyles is so under-rated, yet so impactful. Deep breathing methods activate the parasympathetic nervous, which can both alleviate and prevent symptoms. Making time for adequate rest is important for IBS, as poor-quality sleep can have a negative impact. Learn from my mistakes and avoid getting caught up in the ‘team no days off’ mentality.

Minding your mind – Having IBS can affect an individual’s mental health as they struggle with things like body dysmorphia and shame around their condition. Prioritizing mental health by developing helpful coping strategies and seeking professional help when required, will enhance an individual’s quality of life. Developing skills like emotional resilience and learning about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can improve their ability to cope, therefore reducing the prevalence of flares.  

Having IBS can be difficult to live with due to the multi-factorial nature of the condition. It used to hold me back as I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my body. By changing my mindset, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for my body. My sensitive gut tells me when I’m taking on too much, being too hard on myself or trying to burn the candle at both ends. A flare is a warning sign that I’m not looking after myself and that I need to slow down. I’ve tried multiple different diets, teas, lotions and potions, all with the aim to ‘fix’ myself. What I’ve discovered is that I was never actually broken, I just needed to understand my body that little bit more than the average person. I’ve learned to accept and love myself, even when I look 9 months pregnant or suffer with painful cramps. Self-love isn’t a quick or easy journey to embark on, but we are all worth the time and effort required. Show yourself some compassion, prioritize your health and tune in to your body.

Fried Potatoes

Fried Potatoes

I absolutely love fried potatoes from my favourite Thai take away and this recipe using 'spicebag' seasoning is a healthier, lower calorie recreation.

Ingredients
  

  • Baby potatoes
  • Mixed peppers
  • Garlic
  • Red onions
  • Olive Oil
  • Spicebag seasoning (purchased from Aldi)
  • Chilli powder & Cayenne pepper *Only add cayenne pepper if you like very spicy food

Instructions
 

  • Pre-heat oven.
  • Chop up all of the veg and place on a baking tray (lined with baking parchment).
  • Drizzle olive oil over the veg and add seasoning. Ensure to mix around the veg to cover entirely.
  • Cook in the oven for 25-30 minutes, flipping over half way.
  • Serve & enjoy!

Protein Pancakes

Protein Pancakes

The beauty of these pancakes is that they can be made using a bullet style blender, so no whisking and no mess! You can add more or less oats to increase or decrease the calorie content. This recipe has been created using whey protein as plant based proteins generally don't cook with the same taste or texture. The shape of the pancakes can be achieved by cooking 2-3 small pancakes in a large pan, or by using a small pan (will take longer).

Ingredients
  

  • 1.5 – 2 scoops oats (60g)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg white
  • Dash vanilla essence/ vanilla powder
  • 3 – 4 heaped tbsp quark (0% Greek yoghurt can be used too, but will reduce the thickness of the mixture)
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1.5 scoop MyProtein Cookies and Cream Diet Whey Note that any kind of whey can be used to make pancakes, diet whey is no better than normal whey or an isolate form when it comes to protein content. I find the added ingredients in this diet whey doesn't result in a dry pancake, whereas normal whey versions can. However, I tend to mix it up between this flavour and the regular Chocolate Brownie flavour. The scoop serving comes with the packet of protein (~30g per serving).
  • Toppings of choice eg. fruit, nuts, maples syrup, low calorie sauces etc.

Instructions
 

  • Blend the oats until they form a flour-like consistency. Take them out of the blender and leave them aside.
  • Blend the eggs, vanilla essence and greek yoghurt.
  • Add in the oat 'flour', protein & baking powder. Blend until there are no traces of unmixed protein or oats. Do not mix for too long or the mix will form air.
  • Heat the pan to a medium-high temperature using a low calorie spray.
  • Pour the batter to the desired shape.
  • Flip the pancakes when the underside starts to harden and bubbles begin to form on top. Turn down the heat when flipped.
  • Add more low calorie spray, more batter and repeat.
  • Once cooked, add your toppings and enjoy!

Basic Bitch Beans

Basic Bitch Beans

thehealthhun
Growing up, beans on toast was astaple meal in my household, but the traditional, ready-made baked beans tend to be full of sugar and additives. However, this doesn't mean they shouldn't make the cut. Beans are a great source of soluble fibre, protein and minerals such as iron, folate, zinc and magnesium. They are also rich in polyphenols, a type of anti-oxidant that helps protect against cancer and feeds your gutmicrobes! This recipe is by no means perfected and can be chopped and changed as much as you like.
Note: Beans are a FODMAP that may trigger IBS symptoms.

Ingredients
  

  • A mixture of beans, eg. Borlotti, Cannelini and/or Kidney beans Beans can be purchased in a tinfull of water or dried. If you are purchasing them dried, you must soakovernight. This makes them easier to digest, reducing the negative healthbenefits associated with lectins (protection protein present in plants that cancause digestive issues).
  • Cherry tomatoes The amount will depend on how saucey you like your beans. This can range anywhere from 8-20 cherry tomatoes. Passata can also be added in.
  • Small clove of garlic
  • Red onion Add as little or as much as you like
  • Peppers Add as little or as much as you like
  • Salt & Pepper

Optional Additives

  • Smoked paprika, cumin & chilli
  • 1 tbsp Maple syrup (adds sweetness)
  • 1 tbsp Apple Cider vinger (adds a tangy taste)
  • Cheese ('cause cheese)

Instructions
 

  • Chop up the veggies and allow them to simmer in the pot or pan to release the flavours.
  • When they are nicely cooked, add in the seasoning & any additional ingredients eg. passata, maple syrup & apple cider vinegar.
  • Rinse beans well through a sieve and add to the pot.
  • Bring the beans to a boil.
  • Cook at a medium-high heat for 5 minutes, ensuring to mix thoroughly and frequently to avoid the mixture sticking to the pot.
  • Allow the beans to simmer on a low heat, for another 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mixture is ready for serving, you can add in cheddar cheese if you wish (Note: this will increase the calories of the mixture).
  • Serve and enjoy!