At this time of year, many of us are considering our diet, whether to lose weight or to have more energy. Trying healthy new recipes or cutting back on foods we know are bad for us is a great idea, and can often also lead to improved mental wellbeing. Research suggests there may be a strong link between anxiety and gut health.
If you are prone to anxiety and depression, you are probably all too aware of its physical side effects. A churning gut, a sense of rising sickness, or acid reflux are just some of the unwelcome symptoms of anxiety, and can often strike when you least want them to. An unhealthy gut may even be causing or exacerbating your anxiety.
The gut-brain axis is an increasing area of scientific research, focusing on the nervous system and chemicals that connect the brain and gut. People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have been found to have a reduced function of the vagus nerve, which is one of the biggest nerves connecting the brain and gut.
You may already know that neurotransmitters are produced in the brain and control your emotions, such as serotonin which supports a sense of wellbeing. Research shows that a large proportion of serotonin is produced in the gut, along with other types of neurotransmitters which help regulate emotions such as fear and anxiety.
To treat an unbalanced gut, doctors recommend taking probiotics and prebiotics, certain types of which have shown to ease symptoms of IBS and improve mental health. It is also advised to include foods such as oily fish (containing Omega-3 fats), fermented foods such as live yoghurt, and high-fibre foods in your diet.
For some people, these methods may not be enough if the source of their gut problems are in the brain. The introduction of mindfulness techniques can enhance treatment and improve the digestive system. The first way of doing this is by practicing mindful eating habits.
This involves becoming more present when you are eating, really paying attention to the whole process, rather than grabbing a quick snack and gobbling it down in front of a screen. Utilize your full senses, be aware of the appearance and smell of your food on the plate, and the textures and flavours as you chew.
Pause after you have finished a certain portion of your food and ask yourself if you are full. Do not distract yourself with TV or a book while you eat, although having a calm conversation with another person can help you to eat more slowly. If you are unaccustomed to eating slowly, you could try dissolving a square of dark chocolate in your mouth.
Another method of improving gut health is to soothe the mind with meditation techniques, such as controlled breathing, which will reduce your overall stress levels. These methods can take a bit of time and patience to master, and it may be worth seeking professional help to point you in the right direction.
If you are struggling at the moment, it can be really helpful to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, rather than going it alone. If you’d like to find out more about online mindfulness therapy, get in touch with The Mindful Therapist today.