Gut health is the buzz phrase these days. Otherwise known as the microbiome, research continues to unravel its mysteries. With Mental Health Awareness Week on the horizon, there is no better time to highlight the link between the holy trinity: the gut, mental health and sleep, backed up by some of the latest research. If ever there was a time to start caring for your gut health, it is now.
The Gut/Brain Connection
Did you know that Traditional Chinese Medicine first made the connection between the gut and brain over 500 years ago? In TCM, the gut is known as the Emotional/Second Brain. Circa. 200 years ago, Dr Edward Bach, a leading gastroenterologist researched and developed a range of specialist homeopathic remedies to support gut health. Thanks to him, these remedies continue to be used today and which, in my experience, bring about long term change in a variety of ailments.
Each of these remedies has a distinct remedy picture, developed through over 200 years of clinical proving’s and which are updated regularly. The remedy pictures guide the Homeopath to their use in clients. The remedy pictures feature physical and emotional indications for use which demonstrates the link between the gut and brain.
So, while medical research claims the accolade for discovering all there is to know about gut health, it is important to acknowledge that traditional wisdom and natural health practices that have been working with the gut/brain connection for a few centuries. What is new is the funding for technology and diagnostic instruments which are being used to research the microbiome and the results are truly staggering.
What is the Microbiome?
The microbiome is medical science’s collective name of the intestines and bowel, more commonly known as the gut. It is the powerhouse where a myriad of useful chemicals, hormones and enzymes are produced so that our body functions well and keeps us well and in a state of balance (homeostasis).
Did you know that over 70% of your immune system is located in the gut?
Microbiota (microorganisms, gut bacteria or flora) populate the gut – over 100 trillion of them! Their job is to keep less helpful bacteria at bay and help digestion and absorption of foods. Your microbiome is unique to you, with its own blend of microbiota (gut or bowel flora) and which is established by breast milk. Indeed, researchers have turned their attention to the infant microbiome and how changes in gut flora from prenatal or neonatal antibiotics can predispose babies to more serious illness and behavioural problems in later life. 1 Gut health is impacted by many factors – diet, lifestyle (alcohol, smoking, recreational drugs) sleep, mental health, frequency of medication. Antibiotics, in particular, destroy all bowel flora and long term use of steroids, painkillers and immune suppressants will impact gut health.
The gut has neurons (or nerve cells, the same as found in our brain) so that ‘gut feeling’ or ‘gut instinct’ is real and is why these phrases are an integral part of our language. 2 To demonstrate this, IBS is a digestive condition which is affected by emotions. Indeed, medical science refers to the gut as the enteric brain. Our gut communicates with our brain via the Vagus nerve which is directly wired into the brain in a constant feedback loop.
As research becomes more focussed on the infinitesimal, molecular components of the microbiome, it has identified three types of gut flora, each with distinct roles. You are probably familiar with some of them as a dietary supplements, but, as ever in the human body, everything is interconnected:
Prebiotics, Probiotics and Postbiotics
Prebiotics – the soil in which the microbiome thrives. Prebiotics are the fuel which create a healthy and diverse microbiome. Typically, they derive from plant based fibrous foods but, because our bodies can’t break them down, they collect in the lower gut to form the foundations of a microbiome. I believe this is the best place to start with supplementation – there’s little point sending in the probiotic troops if the foundation is weak of non-existent
Probiotics – the troopers or workers which use prebiotics as fuel to create metabolites that support your general health. Probiotics are found in live bacteria culture, yeast, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha.
Postbiotics – the end result of the probiotics’ activity or metabolic process. 3 Postbiotics are also known as metabolites support your gut microbiome, aiding immune and digestive health, 24/7, 365 days per year. Found in high fibre foods, fermented foods (as per probiotics above)
It is therefore reasonable to assume that without sufficient prebiotics being present, probiotic supplementation will have a limited effect, meaning that postbiotics are limited if, indeed, being produced at all.
The Microbiome & Mental Health
Researchers have demonstrated that probiotics and diet can help improve depression and anxiety. There have been several previous studies suggesting that mood can be influenced by food. 4,5 Furthermore, patients suffering from anxiety and depression received clear symptom benefits from prebiotic foods and probiotic supplementation. In studies where IBS was an issue, these results were enhanced.
We hear much of leaky gut syndrome, a condition where the gut becomes permeable. The gut is designed to store and process food, absorb vitamins and minerals, and excrete waste products and toxins via the excretory organs (bowel, kidneys, perspiration, skin, etc). In Leaky Gut Syndrome, waste products pass into the bloodstream leading to autotoxicity and is why we see a myriad of health problems, to include behavioural problems, demonstrating the link between gut and brain, or the gut/brain axis. 6
The Microbiome and Sleep
Researchers found that the gut microbiome is a major factor in sleep regulation and that it is a two-way process. 7, They concluded that poor sleep patterns were associated with significant changes in the microbiome and these would be likely to cause diabetes, hypertension and cognitive problems, all known to be linked to poor sleep.
Leading independent researcher, Chris Woollams, writes in his book ‘Heal your Gut, Heal your Life’ 8 that, just like their human hosts, gut bacteria have circadian rhythms (sleep/wake cycle). He also writes that the sleep hormone Melatonin, excreted by the Pineal Gland in the brain, instructs the gut flora when it is time for the host to sleep, but that the microbiome itself is the primary producer of Melatonin in the body which confirms the gut/brain axis. The hormone Melatonin not only keeps you asleep by controlling the sleep/wake cycle, but it is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which demonstrates that gut health helps immunity and the inflammatory process (which is primary immune response).
Know your Gut Type
Functional Nutrition has discovered from in depth research that there several gut types. As a fan of the blood type diet, it makes perfect sense that there are different gut types and that by adopting dietary, supplementation and lifestyle factors specific to your gut type, your overall health will improve. A brief overview follows but contact me for an individualised approach which will always yield quicker and longer term results:
Reasons to nurture your microbiome
To summarise, the reasons to improve gut health are:
Sea Moss 10 – this nutritional powerhouse delivers over 90% of your body’s vitamin and mineral requirements, including iodine, zinc, B vitamins and selenium – all of which supercharge your gut health and immune system
Sea Buckthorn 11 – the berries from this incredible plant has more than 190 micro- nutrients to include antioxidants and especially high levels of Vitamin C, minerals, omega oils, plant sterols and fibre. It is a natural prebiotic and supports our gut health, immunity and sleep.
Kefir – try 2-3 dessertspoons of natural Kefir yoghurt with blueberries and pumpkin seeds. Kefir is a fermented milk product and an excellent probiotic, which will help these microbes do their job well
Kombucha – a dairy free probiotic, a fermented drink made from sweetened tea and a specific culture known as a ‘scoby’. Scoby stands for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts’
Sauerkraut – fermented cabbage, made by adding salt to white cabbage but you can
also add beetroot, turmeric, cumin seeds, etc
Kimchi – fermented cabbage but with an oriental twist: added carrot, chilli, ginger, garlic, salt, fish sauce and radish. You can buy it in supermarkets or make your own. Serve with eggs at breakfast or mix with salad to get a daily dose.
Sleepability has partnered with a superb UK company – Happy Kombucha – whose website is a font of knowledge in all matters fermented! For more information click here
Eating for a Healthy Gut
Your gut thrives on a range of plant-based foods to create a diverse microbiome, each of which prefers different foods.
Eating for a Healthy Gut
The best foods to eat throughout the day to promote sleep are protein to sustain energy and build lean muscle, plus slow release – or low GI – carbohydrates.
Evening snacks should be protein based, but don’t eat any later than 1.5 hours before bedtime and only if you’re still hungry. Protein will minimise blood sugar spikes which, as they subside, interrupt your sleep. Better still, ensure your protein snack is rich in Tryptophan, an important amino acid involved in hormone and neurotransmitter production and, the one we’re interested in is the sleep hormone Melatonin.
Tryptophan-rich Foods include:
Making these simple changes in your daily diet will really improve your gut health, mental wellbeing and sleep and all of which will boost immune function. I mean, why wouldn’t you?!
Invest in your rest. Because sleep matters.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with sleep, why not check out my Top 7 Tips – the journey to natural sleep?
Sleepability acknowledges your health is paramount and recommends you update your GP and always seek medical help if you have any concerns.
Homeopathic treatment does not replace emergency medical care.
1 Infant Microbiome – article
2 Gut & Mood – article
3 Postbiotics – paper
4 Gut & Depression – paper
5 Food & Mood – research
6 Gut/brain axis – Article
7 Gut & Sleep – paper
8 Chris Woollams: ‘Heal your Gut, Heal Your Life’