Healthy gut, healthy mind: The Gut-Brain connection
We hear a lot about the mind-body connection, but what about the gut-mood connection? Recent studies show that the adrenal stress response is triggered by not only stress and/ or trauma, but also a pattern of eating. Eating refined carbohydrates such as “comfort food” and craving salty or sweet snacks may feel satisfying at the time, but by switching from refined carbs (that spike our sugar levels) to low Glycaemic Index (GI) options (that do not spike sugar levels) actually controls and modifies our stress response, lowering cortisol.
When we worry or suffer stress and anxiety our gut is “switched off” in order to prioritise energy and blood supply to our heart, arms and legs to fight what it perceives as danger. We are not designed to stay in this response for long, its an emergency reaction only!
Research suggests that diet is an important modifiable risk factor for mental health. A Mediterranean diet based on plenty of fruits and vegetables, pulses, good fats and fibre is consistently associated with reduced risk of depression and cognitive impairment.
As nutritionists, we do not advocate restricting calorie intake in those with anxiety disorders as studies show it increases cortisol and so will make their anxiety worse. In fact, it is cortisol that wakes us up in the mornings (and why too much wakes us up at night, triggering Insomnia) and eating breakfast upon rising actually lowers cortisol levels to keep us balanced emotionally during our day ahead.
Feeling in a heightened state of worry or anxiety also uses energy due to the adrenaline response, so you actually deplete vital vitamins and minerals. Omega 3 from good fats such as oily fish and olive oil is anti-inflammatory. Vitamins such as the B vitamins function to balance glucose, regulate mood and are important for nervous system function. Vitamin C is used for energy, and so during stress is eliminated from the blood stream at an extremely rapid rate. The more cortisol is used, the more vitamin C is used. Vitamin C is important in our immune system response and helps fight free radical damage. So, without it we struggle to fight infections. It’s one of the reasons we get poorly easier under stress. Magnesium is a mineral that depletes under stress but is vital to help us sleep, and relaxes our muscles, which is why tension and poor sleep is a major side effect of stress.
Therefore, we advocate increasing our nutrient intake during bouts of stress and low mood, and to do this we must be able to absorb these nutrients efficiently. Starting with optimal gut health ensures a functioning gut lining and healthy gut flora. Probiotic fermented foods such as Apple Cider Vinegar, sauerkraut, coconut yogurt, crème fraiche and tempeh all help populate the good bacteria. Prebiotic foods such as onions, leeks, garlic, raw cacao, oats and apples help feed the good bacteria in our gut, which together with fibre bind to toxins and eliminate them from our system effectively. Plenty of fresh colourful fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants and fibre, healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and good proteins such as pulses and legumes and vegan protein smoothies are perfect examples of healthy options to include in your everyday food options.
“Berry nice” Protein Smoothie Recipe
1-2 scoops vanilla or strawberry protein powder
1 tbsp flaxseeds
1 tbsp chia seeds
½ ripe avocado
2 handfuls frozen berries
250ml nut milk
Blend til smooth
1 cup nut milk
1 cup gluten free oats
1 tsp ground flaxseeds
1 scoop vanilla protein powder
½ tsp cinnamon
1 small banana
Frozen berries and coconut yogurt to serve
Blend all ingredients except berries and coconut yogurt in a nutribullet, or simply whisk until smooth.
Make pancakes by warming some avocado oil in a pan and add tablespoons of mixture in even circles, flipping when browned.
To finish, add the frozen berries to warm in the pan, drizzling over the pancake stack, topping with a dollop of coconut yogurt to serve.
Lena Christou, a Beauty Therapist and a final year student of Nutritional Therapy at The College of Naturopathic Medicine. She is passionate about healthy living from the inside out.