It sounds a little strange, I know. Here I am going on week four “quarantined” in my home with my husband and 15-year-old daughter. We are riding the roller coaster of emotions…fear, hope, sadness, joy, anger, empathy, gratitude…you name it, we have probably felt it. For the first time in my life, I have no idea what tomorrow brings. None of us do.
So why would I suggest now to be a perfect time to start thinking about your gut health? Why now, when a warm, chewy, chocolate chip cookie would help you to forget all your worries? Why now, when a McDonald’s cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke (drive-through of course) would be just what the imaginary doctor ordered? Well, it’s pretty simple. While we all know the gut serves as our fuel tank, ready to take in food and process it for our daily needs, it also plays a crucial role in our mental state and immune system. What? My emotions and immunity are connected to my gut? Yes, which is why we call the gut our “second brain”. And I don’t know about you but I want the healthiest possible second brain right now, not only for my own well-being but for the well-being of those around me.
Let’s Start With the Basics
I get it! There is so much information and misinformation out there about what to eat and what not to eat. It can be overwhelming! So let’s start with the idea of bio-individuality or the idea that one person’s food is another person’s poison. Bio-individuality takes into account age, race, blood type, and level of activity when determining the best foods to fuel your body. In other words, we are all quite unique in our nutritional needs so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to proper diet and nutrition.
Through all of my research in an effort to heal my own gut I landed on a modified paleo diet that works for me. Lately, I have even dabbled in a vegetarian lifestyle but keep coming back to paleo because I function better when I get some of my protein in the form of pasture-raised poultry and beef. Do I push a paleo lifestyle on my clients? Absolutely not! I work with them through a process of elimination to find the foods that make them feel their best. Regardless of where you land in your eating style, one thing is of utmost importance. Everyone needs to get back to the basics of eating a whole foods diet. In other words, eat REAL food.
Real food can be defined as unprocessed, free of chemical additives and rich in nutrients. But that sounds so boring. I like to think it comes from a plant and is not manufactured in a plant. It includes all fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans, and legumes. It comes in the form of pasture-raised beef, poultry, and eggs from pasture-raised hens. It comes from wild-caught seafood. It comes from high-quality dairy products and healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and my personal favorite, butter (from pasture-raised cows, of course). I could go on. Even writing about real food makes me happy. I can see the brilliant colors, feel the different textures and taste the pure, exquisite flavors just thinking about them. And to know that eating real food is boosting my mood and my immune system in addition to fueling my body for maximum performance, well, that’s just an added bonus.
The Connection Between a Healthy Gut and Emotions
Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach? Have you ever lost your appetite before giving a big presentation? Have you ever felt nauseous when faced with a stressful situation? If so, you already have an awareness of the interconnectedness between your brain and your gut.
I am probably one of the least “sciency” people I know but I need to use a little science to make my point so bear with me. I’ll try to keep it simple. Our bodies contain neurons (cells that tell your body how to behave) and neurotransmitters (chemicals that control feelings and emotions) living in both our gut and our brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for sharing chemical secrets. You also have what I consider a little highway between the two called the gut-brain axis which is how the two communicate. And they are constantly communicating through neurons and neurotransmitters. So, now do you see why our thoughts and feelings can be felt in our gut and on the flip side our gut has a tremendous impact on our brain function? It’s a two-way street.
In addition to your gut-brain axis, you have what is known as your gut microbiome. Uniquely yours, the microbiome houses the bacteria in your gut, both good and bad, and it influences almost every other organ in your body. It impacts digestion, disease, immunity, inflammation and more. This microbiome consists ideally of 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria (give or take) and If this balance is maintained then we are living in a state of eubiosis. Yay! If our microbiome becomes unbalanced, however, due to factors such as a poor diet, stress and an unhealthy lifestyle, it is known as dysbiosis and this can have detrimental effects on our health and well-being. Most of us get our unique microbiome when we pass through the birth canal (thanks mom!) and it thrives on diversity. The more diverse your microbiome the healthier it is. How do you create a diverse microbiome? Eat a variety of real food, of course!
So let me put all of this together for you. One rather well-known neurotransmitter is serotonin. Serotonin contributes to your mood, helps regulate sleep cycles, and aids in digestion among other functions. It is estimated that about 90% of your serotonin is manufactured by your gut bacteria or in your gut microbiome. Think about that. If you have a healthy, flourishing gut with the proper ratio of good and bad bacteria, wouldn’t it make sense that the serotonin produced would also flourish in that environment, sending clear messages to the brain and back? It makes sense to me. I’m thinking a happy gut equals a happy me. Of, course the reverse could be said but you get the idea. I’m trying to stay positive right now. There are other-mood producing neurotransmitters produced in your microbiome as well. Two of them are dopamine (pleasure) and GABA (calming). And here is something else to think about. The role of many antidepressants is to increase levels of these same compounds…hmmmm.
The Connection Between Gut Health and Your Immune System
Ok, let’s talk about immunity because it’s a word that most of us are hearing on a daily basis. Here is a fun fact. The gut is the largest immune organ. In fact, 70-80% of the immune system resides in your gut. The job of our immune system is to serve as a gatekeeper to the outside world. It needs to be able to tell the difference between a healthy bacteria and a pathogen (such as a virus) for instance or a nutrient and a toxin. Your immune system starts in your mouth and runs the entire length of your digestive system, which can be up to 30 feet long. Oh, and here is another fun fact. If you were to measure the surface area of your gut (including the little hairlike villi) it would be approximately the size of a tennis court. Yikes!
The first line of defense in this massive system is the innate immune response. These are fast-acting little guys that quickly know when a foreign invader enters your body and get to work eliminating any potential threat. Think about what would happen if you were to step on a nail. While you are busy yelling out a few choice words, your little army is already raising your temperature and increasing blood flow to the area. Pretty cool! Sometimes this is all that is needed for healing to begin. Other times the adaptive immune system will have to take over. These are the sharp-shooters targeting specific pathogens or cells.
While the innate immune system is fast, the adaptive immune system is smart. It actually has a memory of similar previous offenses, kind of like a rap sheet, stored in its filing cabinet. So when a threat arises, it sifts through that data to quickly figure out what response worked the last time. In other words, it knows the invader’s weaknesses and uses that against him. If no data is stored then it takes a little longer to figure out what to do, as is the case with Covid-19. On a side note, this is the idea behind vaccines. A vaccine introduces inactive viruses or bacteria into the blood-stream, giving the body time to develop a plan of defense for fighting off future infections.
Remember the microbiome that we discussed? Well, not to sound like a broken record but healthy bacteria in your gut, has a pretty big impact on your immune system. Not only does it help us digest even more of our food while synthesizing vitamins, this healthy bacteria is in constant communication with your immune system, sending signals that help determine when the bad guys have gotten out of control. The keyword here is healthy. When the bacteria in your gut, is healthy then the communication is clear and concise. But what happens when the gut is in a state of dysbiosis or unhealthy? Well, the lines of communication are blurred, making it more difficult for the immune system to take the necessary action.
Where to from Here?
More than 2,000 years ago Hippocractes suggested that “All disease begins in the gut.” Today more and more evidence is proving this to be true. So during this unexpected time in our history, when we find ourselves with a little more time on our hands, I challenge you to start thinking about your own gut health. What’s already good? What could be better? What baby steps could you take to start improving it? It’s all about the baby steps. For some of you, it could be limiting yourself to one soda per day or replacing your soda with flavored seltzer water or plain water with chunks of fruit. For, others it might be adding more fruits and vegetables to your daily menu since the fiber in fruits and vegetables fills you up so you eat less processed food. There are so many little changes you can make today that will bring about bigger changes in your mood, immunity and overall well-being tomorrow. What are you waiting for?
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