A kick in the guts

As you’re probably aware by now, it’s World Health Day, which means we need to spend some time nurturing those little bods of ours. We kicked it with nutritionist Katherine Hay to ask the important questions: how does she feel when she sees people munching on some Big Macs? We also asked her actual important questions, like exactly how important is it to have a healthy gut?

The gut seems to be the current topic of choice, with many studies suggesting the importance of a healthy gut brought to the public’s attention. Basically, your stomach is your second brain; if you don’t give it some TLC, your brain is going to be one overdone, fried egg. In other words, you’ll be depressed. But how does it all work? Listen closely to find out.

 So Katherine, tell us a bit about the bacteria in gut?

Gastrointestinal bacteria are found in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of the digestive system. More than 10 trillion bacteria live in the GIT of a healthy individual.

What sort of bacteria do we have floating around down there?

Well, different bacteria are found throughout the gut and rely heavily on the pH of the stomach. The beneficial gut flora are found in the intestinal tract and reside in the subtle folds of the intestinal walls. Good gut bacteria, also known as probiotics, are essential for gastrointestinal health and are now being investigated for the role they play in preventing brain disorders and mental illness.

So hang on, probiotics play a role in preventing brain disorders? How?

Probiotic microorganisms have a positive effect in the GIT and stabilise intestinal microflora. Evidence to suggest the importance of probiotics in the treatment and prevention of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, is growing. Research suggests early intervention of probiotic use may reduce the risks of infants developing psychiatric disorders later in life.

How does the gut lead to mental illnesses like anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as an emotional state that includes feelings of apprehension, tension, nervousness and worry. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and cause GIT complaints, as well as mental health signs and symptoms. With these symptoms, inflammation pathways are activated and biochemical enzymes are released in both the brain and the GIT. Inflammatory cytokines are elevated and cognitive impairment starts to create anxiety.

What advice can you give to those who may be dealing with mental issues?

Many people suffer from undiagnosed or diagnosed mental health conditions without paying any attention to the gut and how important it is for the management of these conditions. A specific and tailored pre/probiotic therapy treatment protocol is essential for improving these conditions. Treatment also incorporates ‘food as medicine’ principles to ensure optimal gut function and healing.

You mentioned ‘food as medicine’. What does that entail?

Foods such as bone broths, fermented fruits and vegetables, kefir, yoghurt, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and gelatin are specifically good for healing the gut and ensuring its environment is optimal for good bacteria to thrive.

And how do these foods play such a vital role?

The enteric nervous system sends messages to the brain via the vagal nerve about how the gut is operating and these messages dictate emotional responses around food and your mental state. This delicate system plays a crucial role in everyone, and the gut microbes lining the GIT influence your behaviour and thought patterns every day.

Many of our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are primarily made in the gut. These neurotransmitters are essential for regulating mood, feelings of love, joy and pleasure, as well as regulating impulses and obsessions. When the gut microbes are out of balance, these neurotransmitters are affected and cannot be synthesised, which creates mood imbalances and irritability.

Any last words?

The gut and its living microbiome is an incredible area for scientific research. We’re constantly learning more and more about the diverse populations of our gut’s bugs. The brain-gut axis and understanding how our gut communicates with our brain is truly fascinating.

It’s an exciting time for nutritionists as we try to understand these pathways, as there are numerous techniques to explore when it comes to increasing optimal gut function to help stabilise mental health conditions.

Thank you.