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Look After Your Gut Bugs and They Will Look After You - How What You Eat Impacts Wellbeing

Updated: Aug 4, 2023



Yesterday I went to a fabulous workshop all about how to improve gut health. You may wonder why I’m writing about it here, given that my blog is about mental health, but anyone who has worked with me will know that I like to take a holistic approach to mental wellbeing and look at the big picture. I’m really interested in there being a connection between the gut and the brain, as I find it fascinating to think that what we’re feeding ourselves can potentially have such an impact on our mental wellbeing.


So before I tell you about the workshop, here’s a bit of background to explain why I think that the health of our digestive system is so relevant to our mental wellbeing.

Once upon a time it was believed that physical health and mental health were completely separate things and were treated as such. But in more recent times, with the advances and continued application of research, it is now understood that physical and mental health are intimately connected – after all, the brain is an organ in the body and the mind is created by the brain, so that old saying of “healthy body healthy mind” has a lot of truth in it.


You may have heard of something called Serotonin - it is a neurotransmitter, which just means that it is a chemical which carries information between the cells in your brain (as well as having a role to play in many other parts of your body through your nervous system). It makes sense then that if Serotonin levels aren’t what they should be then there could be issues with the messaging between the cells in the brain and this could lead to problems – indeed Serotonin has been shown to be very relevant for our mood and our sleep (amongst other things), and it is considered to be a mood stabilizer. This is why many modern anti-depressant medications are what we call Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – drugs which keep the levels of Serotonin in the circulation higher so that there is more available to carry messages between the brain/nerve cells.


Interestingly though, only around 10% of Serotonin is produced in your brain, the other 90% being produced in your gut. In order to make Serotonin the body needs to take in an amino acid called Tryptophan. This is what we call an essential amino acid, which means that the body can’t make it from scratch…we have to eat things containing this chemical and then our bodies use it as a building block for making Serotonin. We can get Tryptophan from eating things like milk, poultry, oats, cheese and nuts.


Knowing this, we can start to make sense of how what we’re eating could be affecting how we feel…but there’s even more fascinating stuff going on inside than this!!


The human body is host to billions of bacteria, viruses and fungi and this collection of microbes is what we call our microbiome.


For a long time we’ve been influenced to fear bacteria and our shops are stacked full of anti-bacterial products, but only a small percentage of bacteria are what is called pathogenic (ie they are problematic for us). By far the majority live peacefully both on us and inside us, causing no problems…and some even have a symbiotic relationship with us, meaning that we need them as much as they need us! The microbiome has even been referred to as supporting organ such is its importance to our wellbeing.



The gut microbiome hangs out in the large intestine where the microbes help break down potential toxins from the food we have eaten, along with making some of the vitamins we need (like vitamins B and K) and making amino acids. Remember how earlier I said that Serotonin has to be built from Tryptophan building blocks, well research has shown that microbes in the gut are involved in this process [1] and there is a lot of research going on to look at how what’s going on in our gut influences what is going on in our brain – the so called Gut-Brain Axis.


Research into the microbiome is really in its infancy, but it is an exciting field of study that is revealing lots of fascinating information. If you are interested in finding out more about it then I can really recommend books written by Professor Tim Spector who is a leading British researcher looking into the microbiome – you can also follow him on social media (instagram/facebook)


So back to the workshop - It was hosted by two lovely ladies, Virginia and Katy, in a perfect venue. Virginia is a registered nutritional therapist, with a particular interest in women’s gut health, and hormones and Katy runs the Wasted Kitchen which has a wonderful mission of reducing food waste by getting surpluses back into the food cycle. The location was the Wasted Kitchen HQ at The Refectory in the middle of the Kent countryside.



I was greeted by a fine looking peacock in the car park and then as I walked up to towards the building I noticed another on the patio showing off his shimmering plumage – what a lovely welcome!


The location is very peaceful with stunning views out across the countryside towards the sea, which can still be very much appreciated from inside the light and airy building.


A small group of us attended which gave an intimate feel and enabled us to share stories and questions with ease. Virginia introduced us to how the digestive system works and how the microbiome plays its part, along with helping us to understand how we can cultivate our inner garden, both by introducing new microbes into our system (with probiotics) and by feeding what’s already there (with prebiotics). She taught us that diversity is key to a happy and healthy microbiome, challenging us to eat 30 or more different plants in a week (this includes herbs and spices) - research has suggested that people who eat 30+ plants have a much more diverse set of gut bugs compared to those who eat 10 or fewer [2].


A key piece of information that Virginia discussed that really stuck with me was that Covid can have a detrimental impact upon our microbiome [3], which is especially pertinent as according to the Zoe Health Study, at the time of writing there are 308,999 daily new cases and 3,565,161 active cases, so the pandemic is far from over. Her advice is to drink kefir after having Covid to help mitigate the impact. A top tip from Katy being to buy your kefir from the foreign foods section of the supermarket rather than the main dairy section, as it’s likely to be significantly cheaper, but just as good quality.


It can be one thing knowing and understanding this stuff, but quite another to actually put it into action and apply it to our daily lives; this is where Katy came in, showing us how easy it is to prepare gut friendly foods and meals, and of course, encouraging us to try the wonderful things she was creating for us. She took a lot of the fear away around trying out new ways of preparing known foodstuff (eg. fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut) or even trying new foodstuffs that we perhaps hadn’t seen before (eg kohlrabi) and how we could use them.



The session was finished off with a veritable feast of Wasted Kitchen dishes which had been prepared for us by Katy and illustrated perfectly just how tasty and satisfying it can be to feed our gut bugs to keep them happy…which hopefully in turn will keep us happy too!


Thank you Virginia and Katy for a most enjoyable and informative workshop!




References:


1. Kan Gao, Chun-long Mu, Aitak Farzi, Wei-yun Zhu, Tryptophan Metabolism: A Link Between the Gut Microbiota and Brain, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 11, Issue 3, May 2020, Pages 709–723, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz127


2. McDonald D, et al., The American Gut Consortium, Knight R. 2018. American Gut: an open platform for citizen science microbiome research. mSystems 3:e00031-18. https://doi.org/10.1128/mSystems.00031-18


3. Wang, B., Zhang, L., Wang, Y. et al. Alterations in microbiota of patients with COVID-19: potential mechanisms and therapeutic interventions. Sig Transduct Target Ther 7, 143 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41392-022-00986-0





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