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That Gut Feeling!

Supporting gut health isn’t just about what you eat but also how you eat.

We often use phrases such as “I had a gut feeling” or “it was stomach churning” and we all understand what we mean by them and yet we are generally talking about our emotions, not our gut function. This is because our nervous system is intrinsically linked to the digestive system and therefore emotional responses impact on our digestion.  When we have an emotional response to a stressful incident our guts respond by readying us to deal with that stress.

In this day and age, stressful events are more likely to be working out how to pay that next bill or how to get to work when the train doesn’t turn up but our ancestors were more likely to be assessing whether to run away or stand and fight. In both instances, our digestive processes are not a priority and are essentially put on the back burner. Our body switches focus to pumping energy and oxygen around the body to our muscles, lungs, eyes and brain readying us for a ‘fight or flight’ situation. The digestive processes including the secretion of digestive enzymes, stomach acid and bile slow down and can grind to a halt leaving the food we have eaten sitting in our gut. In some people, stress can lead to a churning stomach and diarrhoea in others a bout of constipation and trapped wind.

This stress response would have served us well when we were faced with dealing with predatory animals or threatening people, but we rarely face this level of threat in modern-day life. The pace of life today is fast and furious with multiple stressors coming from all directions. Family life, work life, financial worries, illness or lack of energy, poor mental health as well as concerns for the environment are aspects of modern life we are all having to deal with. Continuous ‘mini-stressors’ like these taking place throughout the day can switch on and off digestive processes leaving it in a bit of a muddle. If the stress isn’t managed and doesn’t subside fully then the essential aspects of digestion may be compromised long term.

Many of us also eat ‘on the run’ as work and family life demands that we don’t take time to sit and eat our lunch. This often means we eat less nutritious and smaller meals lacking inf fibre leading to increased snacking in between meals as we’re not fully satisfied with that sandwich, we bolted down at lunchtime. Multiple factors such as lack of stress, lack of sleep and hormonal changes can mean our appetites change and we’re grazing throughout the day snacking in response to stress as a way of comforting ourselves.

How many people do you know who regularly use heartburn medications or are always reaching for that packet of antacid tablets? Heartburn is frequently not due to too much stomach acid but not enough. Stress can reduce the amount of stomach acid produced and the amount made also naturally declines with age.

Hydrochloric acid in the stomach is there for good reason as it helps to protect us from potentially harmful microbes that we may take into the body in our food and drink. The acidic environment not only kills off these invaders but also begins the process of digestion breaking down proteins. So, when we’re stressed, and the protective and digestive effects of stomach acid are limited, bacteria that would normally be killed off can start to thrive and multiply. A build-up of non-beneficial or even harmful microbes can crowd out the ones that support our gut health resulting in a compromised gut wall and digestive function.  If food is not properly digested not only, will it be difficult to access the nutrients from that food, but bacteria can begin to ferment or putrefy food causing a build-up of gas. This can for some lead to acid reflux, stomach pain, bloating, wind, constipation or diarrhoea. Long-term digestive dysfunction can also lead to nutrient deficiencies as absorption from food is hindered.

There are some relatively simple ways you can support your gut health and digestive function.

  • Whenever possible take time to prepare meals as the sight and smell of food switch on digestive processes in anticipation of food.
  • Sit and eat your food without doing something else at the same time – again for the same reasons. If you’re at work or working from home, try and go away from your desk to eat and have a proper break to focus on eating.
  • Thoroughly chew your food. There are digestive enzymes in your mouth that begin the breakdown process and the mechanical activity of your teeth smashing up the food means there is less work to be down further down the line. Chewing also stimulates gut secretions to be released in the stomach and intestine.
  • Try relaxation processes and build stress relief activities into your everyday life to reduce the impact on digestion. Mindful eating can be one way of doing this by focusing on what you’re eating and appreciating the nourishment you get from each meal.
  • Eat at regular times during the day with gaps between when you don’t snack allowing the gut to digest and then rest
  • Don’t eat late at night and give your guts a break to clear and repair overnight before you break your fast the next day.
  • If you suspect, you have low stomach acid avoid drinking lots of water with your food as this can dilute the hydrochloric acid that is there and reduce the efficacy of action.

Of course, what you eat also matters when it comes to gut health so please see ‘Feeding your second brain’ for more information on a gut-friendly diet.

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