The stomach and the brain are connected.
I have this thought with my head hanging over the toilet bowl. More of my lunch is bound to surface, so I decide to wait, head suspended and hair pulled back into a crude ponytail. In thirty minutes time I’m due to give a presentation at Stylist Live. No biggie, certainly not the most important event of my career so far… oh no wait….
When I’m having an anxious episode or a panic attack, the first indicator is my stomach. Before the heart palpitations or shallow breathing, my stomach “cries out” for lack of a better phrase. The severity of symptoms can range from butterflies to full-blown nausea. It cramps, wrenches and bubbles, refusing to be ignored. After Stylist Live, with my interest peaked, I decide to do some research.
A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.
Thank you very much Harvard Health!
In basic terms, the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Therefore, the stomach is like the second brain. They send signals back and forth to each other in a way that your big toe could never understand…. There are 100 million neurons in the gut, interacting with gut bacteria and carrying messages to and from the brain. So, if something is out of whack in the gut, then it’s going to have an impact on the brain.
This would probably explain the following, from my own life:
- Feeling manic after I’ve eaten
- Insomnia if I eat after 8pm
- Night panic attacks if I eat after 8pm
- Feeling sluggish and unable to concentrate after lunch
- A ‘batshit crazy’ episode, after drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
All of which, I just put up with and ignored for years. It never occurred to me that diet could make such a difference. At least, not in the same way that medication could.
Turns out, I was wrong. Anxiety expert, Chloe Brotheridge highlights that antidepressant medication (SSRIs) are designed to help increase levels of serotonin in the brain. However, the gut can actually produce this naturally, if the conditions are right. Consequently, having healthy bacteria in the gut is important to keep serotonin levels stable.
Whilst I don’t feel ready to come off my medication, I have made some serious diet changes over the last six months and the results have been incredible.
Things you can do to help your stomach
- Invest in a good probiotic. I take Symprove every morning, ten minutes before I eat or drink anything. The gut microbiomes is essentially the second brain. (Sounds more complicated than it is thanks to the jargon)! It’s made up of bacteria that help to break down food, toxins, make vitamins and aid the immune system. The Microbiome takes a battering each day, so taking a probiotic is an easy way to replenish it. If you do nothing else, do this. Read my post on Symprove here. In my opinion, no other probiotic compares.
- Cut down on coffee. I rarely drink caffeine anymore. (I know, I can literally picture you flipping me off right now). You need coffee to wake up right? You’re a zombie without it? WRONG. You’re most likely just addicted to it… the body craves a hit. If you live with a mental illness then trust me, it’s not a good idea to rely on caffeine. It absolutely batters the gut and triggers the production of Cortisol (the stress hormone), which can be in your system for up to six hours. I used to think that coffee made me more productive, but it actually just gave me a buzz. I was wired, but couldn’t harness that extra energy in an effective way. Try and get your intake down to one cup a day, and for goodness sake DON’T have it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. What your body needs first thing is water. It’s been asleep for eight hours and will be suffering from dehydration (a symptom of which is tiredness btw). So have a small glass of water and give your body a hit of something good.
- Eat oily fish. I’ve always been aware that oily fish is good for the brain, but I didn’t fully understand why. Then I was put in touch with the dietician legend that is Laura Tilt and she explained it perfectly;
If you took your brain and squeezed out all the water, 60% of what is left would be fat – and a good percentage of this is omega-3, a type of fat that helps your brain cells send messages effectively. A number of studies have linked low intakes of omega-3 with an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Humans can’t make omega-3, so we have to get them from our diet. Aim to eat oily fish two to three times a week. Other healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil also seem protective.
Hate fish? Take Omega 3 capsules. Vegan? Go for nuts or an avocado. There’s no excuse not to consume what your brain needs.
- Eat fruit, veg, and whole grains. (Look, I never promised that any of these tips would be groundbreaking, but you’d be surprised at how often we overlook the basics). Laura Tilt maintains that anything rich in fibre will help ‘good bacteria’ grow in the gut. So, basically go for whole grain instead of white, (you’ll get used to the change in taste I PROMISE). Oats are good too and seeds. I sprinkle Chia seeds on my porridge in the morning. They’re non-expensive, don’t taste of anything and are packed with both fibre and Omega 3. Fruit and veg don’t have to be expensive or time consuming either. I use frozen blueberries, and 50% of the veg I buy goes in the freezer.
In most cases, they contain as many nutrients as fresh. LT.
As always, I live by the rules of moderation and balance. As much as I respect my brain/stomach, there’s not a chance in Hell that I’ll be giving up my pizza and wine nights any time soon! However, I’ve also made a commitment to give my body the nutrients that it needs in order to function well. We only have one after all, so it’s just common sense to take care of it.