The gastrointestinal system (GIT), or simply put, the gut, encompasses a large proportion of your body. It starts with the cephalic phase (thought, smell or sight of food) and ends at the anus. Its primary function is to break down food into its basic macro and micro nutrients and to further absorb and assimilate them.
Many things affect the optimal functioning of your gut and this in turn can have an effect on your mood, immunity, energy levels and overall wellbeing.
The gut is sterile at birth, however immediately after, it starts to become colonised by trillions of microorganisms. By the age of 1, each person has their unique bacterial profile which remains the blueprint for the rest of their life. While changes may occur through disease, infection, stress and diet, it will always revert back to its established infant microbiome. This does not mean however that we can’t influence the gut to have a healthier microbiome by the foods we chose, the self-care techniques we incorporate into daily life and through physical activity. [i]
There is accumulating evidence suggesting that our gut microbiome plays an important role in our mood. Research suggests that our gut microbes are involved in each individual’s neural development and function, both in our peripheral nervous system and centrally in our brain.[ii]
The mechanisms underlying gut–brain axis communication involve neural pathways as well as immune and endocrine mechanisms. The gastrointestinal tract is the point of interaction between the body’s largest concentration of immune cells, a network of 500 million neurons and the gut microbiota.[iii]
This inner world depends on cellular and molecular communication to keep the host healthy. Immune, inflammatory and neuronal cells directly respond to bacterial and viral components in our microbiome and has been associated with mood conditions such as depression and anxiety through elevated inflammatory markers.i
Secondary symptoms of disturbed sleep, mood affected appetite and fatigue are also associated with gut infections or gut dysbiosis (imbalance). Further solidifying the fact that your gut health has a direct relationship to your overall wellbeing.i
As you can see, the health of your gut can affect your mood and wellbeing at any age, depending on what it is exposed to. During adolescence though we tend to see more intense mood swings or apparent gut disturbances. This is largely thought to be contributed to increases of hormone production. However, the health of the gut also plays a vital role.
Being a young adult exposes you to a larger variety of stressors and environmental stimuli on a backdrop of significant physiological change and development, which is especially apparent in the brain.
This is the time of development where risk taking and experimenting begins, separation from family, commencement of work and earning money and increased stress due to academic and/or social pursuits.iii
All this leads to changes in diet, sleep patterns, increased cortisol production, alcohol and drug use and possibly the need for antibiotics due to infections like glandular fever. These particular stressors have been widely documented to affect the bacterial constituents of the microbiome and need to be considered when treating adolescent behaviour.iii
Supporting your gut health
The best way to support your gut health at any stage of life is through a holistic approach. This includes gut nourishing nutrition, stress reduction and self-care techniques such as mindfulness, movement to maintain a healthy weight and getting plenty of sleep.
As a Naturopath, I am trained to tailor a treatment plan specifically for you and your individual symptoms. However, from a general perspective, if you follow these basic guidelines you will notice a difference in your overall wellbeing.
Step 1: Remove factors that can be causing damage to your gut
- If you know you have an allergy or intolerance to a specific food or food group, remove it from your diet for a period of time. This will allow the body to decrease inflammation caused by the intolerance. It is best to seek a professional to guide you through this process.
- Reduce or remove processed food. This includes deli meats, sauces brought in a jar, junk food and most take-aways.
- Reduce intake of Omega-6 fatty acids. There is a specific ratio needed by the body of Omega’s 3:6:9. Unfortunately our Western diets are very high in Omega 6 and low in Omega 3. When this ratio is out of balance, systemic inflammation increases leading to an increased risk of inflammatory conditions such as mood disturbance, some heart conditions and metabolic disorders. High amounts of Omega 6 are found in vegetable oils and margarine which are common ingredients in processed foods.
- Stress plays a vital role in our gut health. As mentioned above the gut-brain axis is very strong with each affecting the functioning of the other. Exploring ways to reduce or manage your stress is extremely beneficial.
- Be mindful about medications. Obviously if you are prescribed a medication for a health condition it is very important that you follow the advice of your health professional. However, if you do have the choice to take or not take antibiotics then err on the side of caution as they can have a dramatic effect on your gut microbiota. The same goes for anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen. This type of medication may increase the permeability of your gut wall and has been linked to development of stomach ulcers and irritation if not taken carefully.
Step 2: Replace with what may be missing in your life or diet
- It is always good to start with the basics – take the time to prepare, sit and eat your meals properly. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, our digestion starts with the cephalic phase so the smell, look and taste of cooking a meal initiates our enzymes and hydrochloric acid in readiness for digestion. Chewing your food instead of swallowing it and rushing off to the next thing will also support your GIT to break down the nourishing components of what you are eating. Also, allow a decent amount of time in between meals so your GIT gets a break. Usually 4 hours is beneficial.
- Add healthy fats in to your diet. A simple way to do this is swapping your cooking oils and dressings to olive oil, coconut oil and/or butter. Other healthy fat additions are avocados, nuts and seeds and wild caught fish (especially salmon) as they help to balance the ratio of Omegas 3:6:9.
- Eat a diet high in fibre. Fibre is a great way to help diversify your gut microbiota. It also helps to reduce constipation and other bowel issues as well as keep your weight controlled. Sources of fibre include fresh vegetables, beans and pulses (kidney, black, chickpeas, lentils) and unrefined, wholegrains such as oats, millet, quinoa etc.
- Schedule in relaxation time. This is so very important for stress management and is often the first thing overlooked. Have a think about what relaxes you. Is it reading a book, seeing a movie, having a nap, having a catch up with friends, taking the dog for a walk. Really think about it and schedule it in to your every day.
- Drink plenty of water. It has been said so many times before, however it is of great value. Good hydration equals good stool elimination as the water absorbed in your gut hardens stool for easy passing of waste products. Aim for 25-30ml per kg of body weight.
Step 3: Repair damage and help protect for your future gut health
- Probiotic foods also known as fermented foods help to populate your gut with good bacteria and help keep balance of bacteria in your microbiome. These foods include sauerkraut, kim chi, kefir, miso, tempeh and live cultured yogurt.
- Prebiotic foods help to feed the bacteria in your gut in order for them to stay alive, healthy and in balance. Foods such as asparagus, eggplant, broccoli, kale, cabbage, garlic, endives, onion, artichoke, leeks, pulses and chicory are good choices.
- Anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric, leafy greens, nuts, fatty fish, tomatoes and fruit help to keep gut inflammation low increasing the integrity of your mucosal linings and optimising your guts ability to do its job.
- Glutamine is a well-researched amino acid associated with gut repair. It is found in beef, poultry, raw spinach, almonds, cabbage and organic milk products.
- Remember if you have a known intolerance to food it is best to remove it for a period of time, however seek the help of a professional to guide you.
- Sourcing your food is very important as is buying seasonal fruit and vegetables. With poultry try to purchase organic or free range. With beef chose grass feed and with fruit and vegetables chose organic or spray free.
- Everything in moderation has benefit. Try having meat free days in order to increase your consumption of pulses, legumes and vegetables.
- Enjoy your food, eat with friends or family, make it a social event where you share food and stories.
[i] Forsythe, P., et al. Mood and gut feelings. Brain Behav. Immun. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2009.05.058
[ii] Palmer, C., Bik, E.M., Digiulio, D.B., Relman, D.A., Brown, P.O., (2007). Development of the human infant intestinal microbiota. PLoS Biol. 5, e177