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You probably realise that your food choices affect your digestion, weight, immunity – all aspects of your short and long-term physical health. But what if I told you the food you eat has a direct impact on your mind, as well as your body? That, to quote prestigious medical journal The Lancet, ‘nutrition may be as important to mental health as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology’?
It’s a new and exciting field of health and it’s all to do with something called your gut ‘microbiome’. This describes the trillions of microbes that live in your gut and the genetic material inside them. These bugs interact with the body, with the food you eat and with each other. They send messages to the brain via what’s known as the gut–brain axis. And the messages that come from your microbiome can strongly influence your mental wellbeing. If it’s healthy and happy? You are, too.
We know that a healthy microbiome is one that has both a large number and diversity of gut bugs. Studies on animals, for example, find that an absence of gut bugs increases our reactivity to stress. This has led to some scientists calling them ‘our brain’s peacekeepers’. Happy gut bugs work together to educate our immune systems and reduce a process called inflammation, which is at the heart of many serious complaints like insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and, yes, depression.
How do we help them to flourish? It’s pretty simple, really – we eat the foods our bugs like to feed on, and avoid those that wipe them out. The more abundant and diverse your gut bacteria, the healthier you’ll be and the more psychologically resilient.
Here’s a quick guide to feeding your microbiome:
Quit highly processed food. Think ready meals, takeaways, crisps, biscuits, sweets, some cereals, refined breads, anything with a long list of ingredients. They can have a terrible effect on the microbiome. Some additives, emulsifiers (chemicals added to highly processed foods to keep the texture consistent), pesticides and artificial sweeteners can decimate gut bugs as well. The same goes for too much alcohol and sugary drinks.
Try new foods, cook new recipes, find new tastes and textures. Stop eating the same old foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Next time you go out for a meal, try and order something you have never tried before.
‘Eat the alphabet’ over the course of a month. Gut bugs feed on plant fibre, so by increasing the amount and variety of vegetables, fruit and fibre-rich foods such as beans and legumes you eat, you’ll be keeping them well nourished. In my new book, The Stress Solution, I’ve created a handy chart for you to photocopy and stick on your fridge, to help the whole family do this. If you eat an apple or some artichoke, aubergine or asparagus, tick A. Have bananas, blueberries or beans and tick B – you get the idea.
Head to the Med. In 2017, a gold-standard, randomized controlled test known as the SMILEs trial put patients with moderate or severe depression who were already undergoing treatment, on a whole food Mediterranean diet. It was full of a wide variety of diverse and minimally processed foods varied that were rich in immune-supportive, anti-inflammatory oily fish, olive oil, colourful fruit and vegetables and wholegrains. Twelve weeks later, these patients had a much greater reduction in depressive symptoms than the control group who did not change their diet but were instead given social support.
Include fermented foods and drinks such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, natural yoghurt, kefir and kombucha. These are naturally probiotic foods that introduce beneficial bacteria into your body.
Eat all your day’s food within a 12-hour window (so if you finish dinner at 7pm, don’t have your breakfast until 7am). Gut microbes thrive when they get a break from food – a new set of bugs comes in and cleans up the gut wall. Limit snacks between meals and don’t worry about skipping a meal now and again.
For more advice on healthy, balanced eating to ease stress, order my book, The Stress Solution: The 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships & Purpose, out now.
Let me know how you get on with these tips using the hashtag #TheStressSolution I would love to hear from you!
DISCLAIMER: The content in this blog is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog or on this website.