Gut instinct: How healthy digestion can help your mind

A healthy gut can contribute to a healthy mind. Picture: PA
A healthy gut can contribute to a healthy mind. Picture: PA
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FOLLOW your gut instinct, say the experts, and eat your way to better health and wellbeing

There’s no doubt about it, our gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions. Whether it’s butterflies when in love, nausea when nervous or the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with grief, our stomachs seem to sense what we’re feeling.

Alongside lifestyle choices and what we eat, our state of mind can also have an impact on our digestive system; this process works both ways, with what we eat affecting our state of mind.

With a healthy gut potentially helping us to reduce symptoms of stress, never has the phrase “listen to your gut” been more apt. Indeed, this brain-gut connection is more than just a figure of speech.

“Scientists are now revealing that there is a strong link between what happens in the gut and the brain. The bacteria that reside in the gut appear to play an important role and are able to communicate with the central nervous system,” says neuropsychology expert, Helene M. Savignac.

Inside the gut ‘bad bacteria’ and ‘good bacteria’ compete for space and nutrients, and a healthy gut requires a balance of prebiotic and probiotic foods. “One of the best ways to maintain a healthy gut is to look after your ‘good bacteria’. A natural way of doing this is by selectively feeding your ‘good’ gut bacteria with a special kind of food called prebiotics,” confirms Savignac.

Prebiotics feed the good bacteria and encourage growth. Try eating asparagus, leeks and garlic. Probiotics are lacto-fermented foods containing live ‘good bacteria’, present in foods such as cabbage and yoghurt with active cultures. You can also buy pill supplements for both prebiotics and probiotics.

Up to 70% of the body’s immune system is based in the gut. So, what we consume has a significant and direct impact on our all-round health. Studies have shown that as we age, our gut contains less ‘good bacteria’ and prebiotic supplements such as ‘Bimuno’ can help improve immune health in older people.

There are some yoga poses that are believed to ease digestive problems and the pain associated with trapped wind and abdominal cramps. ‘Apanasana’, otherwise known as the knees-to-chest position, is a gentle yoga position that can help ease gut problems. According to Casey Coviello from the Yoga Journal, many positions including spinal twists and child’s pose, teamed with deep breathing, can help soothe pain associated with digestion.

According to a study at Dalian University of Technology in China, five x 20 minute sessions of meditation led participants to a reduction in the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) released. The more relaxed we feel, the less likely we are to experience stress-related digestive problems.

Exercise helps us deplete stress hormones at the same time as releasing mood-boosting chemicals which help us cope with stress better. These endorphins that are released are often called ‘happy hormones’ and can make us feel less stressed and indeed happier - and our guts will thank us for that.

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