This is sponsored content for Fitbit
https://www.smh.com.au-By Kimberly Gillan
Emotions and gut health are linked and have a powerful affect over the other. Credit:Getty.
If you’d told a stressed person in the 1990s to eat more fibre, they probably would have told you to take a hike. But over the past 10 years, scientists have become increasingly aware of how powerful our gut is when it comes to our psychological health.
Where a tummy upset or intolerance was once mostly considered a physiological problem, health experts now understand that our emotions and our gut health are intrinsically linked and both have a powerful affect over the other.
So, a healthy gut can actually help you handle life stressors far more easily, while stress-relieving practices can also help your gut operate more efficiently – and more comfortably.
“There’s a second brain in our gut,” explains associate professor Elisa Hill-Yardin, who heads RMIT University’s Gut-Brain Axis team.
“Our gut microbes alter the level of inflammation that we have and that can alter our nervous system and our health.”
This second brain is called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and is comprised of two thin layers of nerve cells that travel all the way from your oesophagus to your rectum.
While its main role is to control digestion and facilitate nutrient absorption, if there’s an imbalance of bacteria with not enough of the health-promoting varieties, it can send signals to the central nervous system and trigger mood changes.
“There are brain regions that are known to regulate stress and they certainly communicate with the gut,” says Hill-Yardin.
“I think everyone has experienced something like being about to give an important presentation and having to run to the toilet beforehand – that’s the brain and gut talking to each other.”
How to nourish your second brain
The aim of the gut-health game is to reduce the inflammation in your gut so that the helpful microbes can thrive and help you better absorb nutrients and manage your moods.
“You want to make sure that your microbiome is as healthy as it can be so that when stressful situations arise, you’ve got the resources to be able to manage it,” explains psychologist Leanne Hall.
“It’s almost like if you’re trying to run a marathon and you’ve got no fuel in the tank – you might push through but it’s going to be a struggle.”
Hall works closely with dietitians to take a holistic approach to gut health and stress management in people with gastrointestinal issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
“A lot of those patients don’t have an awareness of how stress is impacting their body in the way that it is,” she says.
“They find that when they increase exercise, improve hydration and manage their stress better, they start to feel a tonne better and like they can actually eat properly without feeling sick all the time.”
To help her clients get a clear picture of their stress levels, she gets them doing EDA (electrodermal activity) scans using a Fitbit Sense, which measures tiny electrical changes on your skin that can indicate your body’s response to stress.
“It helps them become more acutely aware of how stress is impacting their bodies,” she explains.
“A quick two-minute EDA scan before and after mindfulness-based activities [allows you] to see the difference between your stress levels before and after. You get real-life data that says, ‘My heartrate has decreased and my EDA response is showing that I’m less stressed now than I was before’. Being able to see how stress is impacting the body increases their awareness and empowers them to feel they can actually manage it.”
Hall says just five minutes of something like mindfulness meditation, where you practise being aware of where you are and what you are doing without judgement, can do wonders for stress levels.
Fibre is a gut’s best friend
When it comes to gut (and overall) health, the more plant foods you can eat, the better.
“Try to get 30 different plant-based foods over a week – they’re a big source of fibre and a wide array of other nutrients,” says accredited practising dietitian Joel Feren.
“Prebiotic fibre in things like whole grains, onion, garlic, leek, nuts and apples are [particularly good] fodder for the good bacteria in our gut.”
Resistant starch, which is found in green bananas, lentils, peas and cooked, cooled potatoes and pasta, is another important gut-boosting nutrient.
“Resistant starch escapes digestion and is fermented in the large bowel to create a compound called butyrate,” Feren explains. “It helps keep the lining of the gut healthy and helps to nourish the good bacteria.”
Following a Mediterranean-style diet, which is characterised by lots of plant foods, healthy fats, whole grains, nuts and legumes, is definitely worth considering given Melbourne researchers have found that people with depression who ate that way for 12 weeks had a more significant reduction in symptoms compared to people in a social support group.
But Feren says you don’t necessarily need to completely overhaul your diet overnight. “Take baby steps – make small incremental changes. Maybe it’s an extra piece of fruit over the week or fewer unhealthy foods or substituting a meat meal for a vegetarian meal,” he suggests.
Ultimately, when it comes to gut health and stress reduction, your best bet is to take a global approach from all angles.
“Be aware of your sleep, your diet, your movement and building mindfulness and relaxation into your daily routine,” Hall adds.
“That holistic approach comes together and helps people feel better.”
Fitbit helps manage and track your stress levels to give you a better understanding of your overall well-being. Fitbit’s all-new watch, Fitbit Sense, is the smarter way to transform your health and is the world’s first smartwatch with an EDA sensor. Using the EDA Scan App, Sense uses a multi-path electrical sensor to detect tiny changes on your skin which may indicate your body’s response to stress. Find out more and shop Fitbit Sense at Fitbit.com/au/Sense.