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!