Happy Gut, Happy Mind: how the state of your gut affects your mental health – Evening Standard

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If 2020 is responsible for anything positive at all, serving as a reminder to look after your health is one of them.

As we face the prospect of a second wave of the virus, there is no better time to start prioritising your emotional and physical wellbeing - and your gut is a good place to start.

Gut health has been the buzzword du jour among the wellness set for a while now, so you may already be familiar with the stat that 70 per cent of your immune system is found in your gut.

But did you also know that more than 90 per cent of the neurotransmitter serotonin - dubbed the happy "chemical" because it plays a vital role in your mood - is produced in your gut too?

"It's quite a startling statistic," says Eve Kalinik, nutritional therapist and author of Happy Gut, Happy Mind. "It's our gut microbiome (the trillions of good and bad bacteria that live in the gut) that has a direct and indirect influence on the levels of serotonin in our body. It helps to manage how much of the precursor tryptophan - that we take in through our diet - is available to be converted into serotonin in the brain." Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein-rich foods like turkey, chicken, eggs, oily fish, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.

In her new book Kalinik explains how the state of our guts can affect how we feel emotionally (and vice versa). The gut produces and manages the same neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers - like serotonin, GABA and dopamine which govern physical processes and emotions - that the brain does.

"We've all felt butterflies in our stomachs when we're feeling nervous or anxious about something, but what surprises most people is that the relationship between the gut and brain is bidirectional," Kalinik explains, and there is often a mirroring of symptoms, "for example, people with a sluggish gut may suffer with a low mood, and equally when you're feeling more anxious you might feel more urgency to go."

Research suggests having a healthy gut may also help you to deal with stress and even sleep better, she adds.

So, how best to look after your gut? Here, Kalinik has shared some simple and practical tips (and most will cost you absolutely nothing) towards getting back on track.

When people consider improving their gut health, people often miss the basics, according to Kalinik: "They jump straight to fermenting scobies and think it's got to be that complicated."

But taking a simpler approach may benefit you more in the long run, and it'll be easier to be consistent with.

"One of the most common misperceptions is that you need to cut things out to improve your gut health when it's actually the complete opposite for most people," she continues. "Rather than restricting yourself, and focusing on potential intolerances, instead add in enriching and nourishing foods. Ironically, a lot of the anxiety that surrounds perceived intolerances also creates more stress mentally which then effects the gut."

The single most important thing you can do to promote good gut health is eating a diverse range of fibre sources every day.

"Fibre is found in all plant-based carbs, it provides fuel for all of our gut microbes and current research suggests that the more diverse and heterogeneous our microbiome is, the stronger and healthier it is," Kalinik says.

In return for being fed, these microbes "give back generously by producing substances and messengers that help us to manage inflammation, support the health of the gut barrier, synthesise vitamins, supply mood-influencing neurotransmitters like 'happy' serotonin and also train our immune system so that it knows how to react appropriately," she writes in her book.

"The easiest way to achieve this is by taking in different sources of fibre and rotating your intake of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, because different types of fibre feed different microbes, which cultivates a more diverse gut microbiome. We naturally gravitate to the same things but I encourage my clients to have in mind eating the rainbow, and to try and get different colours into every meal."

There are easy ways to do this without having to constantly invest in piles of fresh produce, she adds. "If you like having porridge or overnight oats every morning, have a few different grains like spelt flakes or quinoa flakes stored in the cupboard so you're not always having oats. Have a good nut and seed mix to hand or several types of nut butters to add to dishes and buy frozen berries to store in the freezer."

Slow your mealtimes down. "One good thing to have come out of lockdown is it gave us more time to tune in and slow down. Take time to sit and really chew your food, this will help to alleviate symptoms like bloating, reflux gas and feeling really hungry soon after you've finished a meal. By not inhaling your food and eating rapidly, it allows your gut to function properly and also creates pockets of recovery in the day, where your body can switch into 'rest and digest' mode."

"Our guts are really thirsty and need regular watering. If you're working from home get a jug on your workstation and put some fresh herbs or fresh lemon or cucumber so it tastes better and looks more appealing."

Upping your water intake can help to relieve constipation and boost energy levels.

"Most of us breathe quite high up into the diaphragm, but taking time out at the end of the day to breathe properly - or practice any form of mindfulness - can help to relieve stress which is a massive trigger for people with gut issues." Kalinik recommends deep belly breathing, when you breathe deep into the belly for a count of five and hold for five more before breathing out for five again.

"Use that pre-bedtime hour to switch off from your devices and wind down, doing that consistently is going to help bubble wrap your mind, just like going to the gym, it's accumulative and will really help with managing stress."

Eve Kalinik's Harissa Chicken dish from her book Happy Gut, Happy Mind

Dishes dont come much more restorative and nourishing than this. The flavours are amazing and its so easy to make; you can sit back and relax while it cooks. Chicken is a good source of tryptophan, while the celeriac and leeks offer abundant fibre fuel for our microbes. With the bold flavours of harissa, jewel-like pomegranate seeds and vibrant herbs, its a delight for the senses, the mind and the microbiome.

Ingredients

Method

1. Mix together the harissa, butter, cumin, coriander, lemon juice and salt to create the marinade.

2. Put the chicken in a large bowl, add the celeriac and leeks and pour over the marinade.

3. Massage well and leave for at least 20 minutes to an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Line a large baking tray with baking parchment.

5. Place the chicken, celeriac and leeks on the baking tray and bake for 40 minutes, tossing halfway through cooking time so that everything bakes evenly.

6. To make the dressing, combine the yoghurt, lemon juice, garlic oil and water in a small bowl with a pinch of sea salt.

7. Remove the baking tray from the oven and sprinkle over the chopped herbs, haphazardly dollop over the dressing and top with the pomegranate seeds.

8. You can serve at the table in the pan or divide between two plates.

Wine Pairing: Enjoy this dish with a white Assyrtiko or a Languedoc red such as Corbires, Minervois or St-Chinian.

Happy Gut, Happy Mind (Little, Brown Book Group, 25) is available to buy at couvertureandthegarbstore.com

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Happy Gut, Happy Mind: how the state of your gut affects your mental health - Evening Standard

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