Is your diet affecting your mental health?

When I mention my experience to Eve Kalinik, author of the new book Happy Gut, Happy Mind: How to Feel Good from Within, she isn’t surprised. She explains, ‘Just as we might notice changes in our appearance as we get older, changes in the make-up of the gut microbiome and the overall functioning of the gut are a natural part of the ageing process. And just as our obvious physical abilities, such as movement and muscle strength, wane as we get older, so too do our digestive powers and the number of different species of bacteria residing in the gut naturally decreases.’

Indeed, it was Kalinik’s own struggles with gut health that led her to become a certified nutritional therapist and functional medical practitioner. Accredited at the Institute for Functional Medicine, alongside running her own private practice in London, she is an established health columnist and author, and sits on the Gut Conversations panel with other leading health experts, including Dr Rangan Chatterjee and Professor Simon Gaisford.  So where did Kalinik’s interest in gut health come from?

‘I was working in the fashion industry for 13 years in a high-pressure environment. I was constantly travelling and surviving on huge amounts of caffeine and half a bottle of wine a night, which led to crazy adrenal fatigue and chronic kidney infections which were being treated regularly with antibiotics. My gut was completely out of whack,’ she recalls.

Kalinik’s deteriorating health, and the lack of solutions beyond medication, inspired her to seek help from alternative-health specialists, until she landed on a functional-health practitioner who put her on the road back to good health, with a plan that included managing her chronic stress, a major driver in gut imbalances. ‘Out of desperation, I saw plenty of wacky alternative therapists and underwent all manner of questionable healing ceremonies looking for answers, until I eventually found a practitioner who was able to identify the triggers that got me to where I was. It wasn’t a linear healing journey, but over time I was able to come off my medication for good and I’ve never felt better.’

Eventually Kalinik stepped back from her job in fashion PR and began training as a nutritional therapist specialising in gut health, with a focus on the mind-gut connection, the topic of her new book. ‘I began to notice that every client who comes to my practice for nutritional support always has some level of cognitive symptoms, whether it’s low moods, anxiety or panic attacks. The two aren’t unrelated,’ says Kalinik, who tellingly has a psychology degree to her name. 

Research into the ‘gut-brain axis’ is gaining credibility in the medical profession as numerous scientific studies conclude that there is a link between gut health and mental health, from Parkinson’s to depression. She says, ‘We all have an intuitivity known as butterflies in our stomach, but in the last 10 years, new science has shown how the health of the gut has a huge role to play in mental health.’ 

Kalinik says that, although treating the gut for depression is still a long way off common practice, there are many pioneering studies, including one conducted by Professor K Ray Chaudhuri at the neurology department at King’s College Hospital, London, that showed the impact of oral probiotics improving the gut microbiota on motor and non-motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease.

In her book, Kalinik also points to emerging research into ‘psychobiotics’, a  ground- breaking new area in the field of neuroscience, pioneered by Professor Ted Dinan and Professor John Cryan at University College Cork. ‘Psychobiotics refers to supporting the health of the gut microbiota and using probiotic supplementation to directly target and positively enhance brain function,’ she explains.

‘They researched how the food we eat affects the gut microbiota, and how gut microbes can in turn influence our emotions. The suggestion is that beneficial bacteria ingested from probiotic supplements or fermented foods have the potential to change the output of neurotransmitters and ultimately shape the health of our brain. This could have a major impact on conditions related to cognitive health.’  So are you ready to improve your own gut health – and feel happier at the same time?

5 steps to a healthy gut  (and mind), from Eve Kalinik 

1 Manage chronic stress 

For most of us, stress is the biggest hurdle to overcome, but Kalinik emphasises that chronic, rather than acute, stress is the baddie here: ‘Stress hormones such as cortisol are produced when the body is in fight or flight mode to alert us to danger. For this reason, it’s the overriding hormone that essentially “wins” over every other system in the body. This is fine in short bursts, but if you are living with constant stress, and producing stress hormones with no respite, longer term this can have a knock-on effect and potentially lead to issues with gut health, fertility, immunity, skin and mood. It is therefore paramount when looking to make positive effects on your health, including gut health, to try to address the underlying causes of your stress and where you can take steps to help better manage this. We cannot always change the stressors but we can try to find ways to cope with them.’

2. Don’t ‘over supplement’ 

Many probiotic supplements have been shown in studies to improve gut health, but Kalinik advises that they aren’t silver bullets. We need to get as many nutrients from our food as possible, in the form of a varied diet rich in fibre and colour, including vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds, alongside adequate sources of protein, adding in some fermented foods where possible. ‘Organic sauerkraut has become a trendy health food to buy, but really it’s only cabbage massaged with salt. These simple fermented foods are inexpensive and easy to make, tasty and  have been used for millennia to support gut health.’ 

3. Fibre is the magic ingredient   

The microbes in your gut use dietary fibre as fuel to produce lots of positive substances  that support gut health and control systemic inflammation in the body, including the  brain. ‘Inflammation has been identified as a common denominator in many cognitive conditions,’ says Kalinik, who stresses there are different types of fibre which feed different gut microbes, so variety is key. ‘Lots of white, refined foods and not enough colour in the diet could result  in a lack of dietary fibre which doesn’t provide any kind of nourishment for gut microbes, so try to include plenty of vibrant plant-based foods to keep them happy and healthy.’

4. Rest and  digest

‘It is important to give your gut a bit of a rest between meals – ideally four to five hours. We have different gut microbes that help us to absorb our food and others that come in for the “clean- up” operation, so they need some breathing space. It is only in recent decades we have had constant access to sweet treats and salty snacks. Previous generations seemed to follow a pattern of three meals per day with clear breaks. Some studies have shown that fasting periods can have a range of benefits, including improving the balance of microbes in the gut, reducing the risk of type-2 diabetes and a reduction in belly fat.’

5. Drink bone  broth   

Animal collagen in bone  broth is an amino acid that can help to support the health of all connective tissue, including in the gut. ‘Bone broth contains amino acids, including collagen and glycine, that may help to support the integrity of the gut barrier. If this barrier becomes damaged or compromised in some way, it can allow substances that should remain in the gut to essentially “leak out”. This can create heightened inflammation and impact on how the immune system responds,’ says Kalinik,  who recommends the  broth be organic and  home-made if possible.  ‘Bone broth is one of the cheapest and easiest things you can make – get good-quality bones from your butcher or save after roasting a chicken and simply boil them up.’ Or try boroughbroths.

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