That gut feeling
There is a reason your gut is often referred to as your second brain. In fact, there are more than 100 million reasons; that’s how many nerve cells line your gut to make up the enteric nervous system (ENS). Primarily responsible for digestion within our bodies, the ENS regularly communicates with our central nervous system (CNS) by sending signals along the vagus nerve.
The CNS is made up of the parasympathetic nervous system (in charge of rest and digest) and the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for our stress response). These are both really important when it comes to our physiological response to stress and we’ll talk more about this in another post.
The vagus nerve is one of the longest and most important nerves in the body and helps control a number of crucial functions; it can affect everything from your mood and stress levels to your digestion, heart rate and immune response.
When comfort eating increases our discomfort
When we are experiencing stress or anxiety it has a direct impact on our gut’s microbiome. This in turn has an influence on the vagus nerve, disrupting it from sending positive, stimulating signals back to the brain. What follows is a vicious cycle. We become more anxious; we might reach for ‘comfort foods’ to soothe that anxiety through a hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine; we also tend to eat fast when stressed. All of these factors can create an inflammation response in the body which exacerbates the situation and causes further dysregulation in the gut and brain, and so the cycle continues…
Comfort food undoubtedly has an immediate impact, lowering our levels of stress hormones and increasing dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. This kind of eating is understandable in moments of high stress but the benefit is only one of momentary pleasure – the negative impact entirely outweighs this small, positive outcome. In order to allow our bodies and brains to heal from the very real trauma of stress, we need to reverse and improve upon these dietary choices.
Steps you can take
Here are some suggestions for how to harness the healing power of nutrition within your body and step away from the cycle of disruption between gut and brain:
- Eat mindfully. Both in terms of the food choices you make and the actual process of consumption. Take the time to savour what you are eating, using as many of your five senses as possible.
- Nourish your microbiome. Eating more fermented foods; increasing your fibre intake and eating organic and whole foods (as close to their original state as possible) is a great place to start.
- Supplement your diet. Stress causes vitamin loss within our gut just at the moment when we rely on those nutrients the most, so even a healthy diet ought to be supplemented with a high dose multi-vitamin, multi-mineral supplement. Magnesium is a key element to include as stress can cause a deficiency which has been linked with adrenaline and cortisol, by products of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex associated with stress and anxiety.
- Cut out the ‘anti-nutrients’. These sweet and processed foods, made up of refined sugar, actually require more vitamins and minerals for digestion than they provide, resulting in a net loss of vital nutrients for your body.
A big area which I could write a whole other post about on its own is inflammation. Symptoms of inflammation include depression, anxiety, difficulty focusing and irritability. An easy switch to help reduce inflammation throughout the body and the brain include replacing pro-inflammatory protein sources like red meat with options like fish and eating more red, blue and purple foods but the ingredient I’m sure you’ll have heard the most about is turmeric.
It seems that almost everyone is talking about turmeric lattes at the moment but what you might not know is that this ‘wonder’ food only works when activated through combination with some form of pepper. (Knowledge courtesy of the wonderful Mighty Beetroot who’s excellent Eating for Inflammation workshop I attended earlier in the year!) So next time you opt for the golden drink in your local café, make sure their recipe will actually help it to do you some good rather than just look great on Instagram!
If you’d like to learn more about approaches you can take, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 07837993241.