What's your gut feeling?

trust your gut.jpg

Have you observed how some meals, or patterns of eating, leave you feeling satisfied and uplifted, and others leave you sluggish or even anxious? The direct links between food and moods are increasingly well evidenced but one particular exciting area of research is the connection between the human digestive system and overall mental wellbeing.

There's a reason why the gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’. Embedded in your intestinal wall are 500 million neurons that make up your enteric nervous system (ENS).

Your ENS plays an important role in the production of 30 different neurotransmitters including serotonin which helps regulate mood and sleep. We associate serotonin with the brain as it plays a role in depression and emotions associated with wellbeing - but it actually exists in the largest concentration in our intestines. It is not surprising then that prolonged stress can disrupt the digestive system.

Furthermore an imbalance in the wealth of bacteria that resides in our intestines, may also be an influential factor in our emotional responses to situations. 

In a recent study from UCLA, a group of forty women was divided into two groups by the composition of their gut bacteria. Researchers then measured their brain activity for emotional responses to negative images and found the brains of women with different bacterial profiles reacted differently to the stimuli, with markedly higher levels of anxiety and distress being reported in the group with higher levels of a certain bacteria group called Prevotella. 

Some other ways your daily food choices affect how you feel physically and affect your mood:

  • You’re cutting out or skimping on essential food groups, which your body needs to fuel itself and produce serotonin, the brain’s “feel good” chemical.
  • You’re forgetting essential vitamins and minerals, which can contribute to depression, inability to concentrate and chronic fatigue. A diet lacking essential nutrients such as b vitamins, zinc, magnesium and iron can disrupt our biochemistry and may alter mood and behaviour.
  • You’re not getting ample omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to a lower incidence of depression.
  • You’re eating many processed foods or high sugar foods, which may contribute to a larger waistline, feeling tired and sluggish and potentially lead to insulin imbalance and inflammation when over-consumed. When weight is gained as a result, this can clearly have further negative effects on mood and self-esteem.
  • You’re not drinking enough water, and dehydration can cause headaches, mood changes, lethargy and poor concentration.

So, the key take-out point here is a well-balanced daily diet based on whole foods that contain a spectrum of nutrients can make you feel happier and calmer, quite simply by making you - and your gut microbiome - healthier.

Go with your gut

In the last blog I talked about the importance of maintaining a healthy digestive system – or a happy ‘gut’. There is one particular dimension of the body’s digestive system that is getting a lot of airtime in the media at the moment. It’s called the gut microbiome and I’d like to share with you why this extraordinary ecosystem of microbes which reside in your gastrointestinal tract is so important in managing a healthy body - and in particular your weight.

 All of our guts are densely populated with roughly 100 trillion bacteria, mainly concentrated in the large intestine. This bacteria weighs in at about 2kg! Because of its symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body, the microbes in our intestines play a critical role in our health affecting everything from our mood, to our mindset to our metabolism and weight.



I like to use the analogy of a gut garden. What we are learning is that positive health outcomes correlate with a healthy gut garden which is populated with a wide diversity and abundance of different strains of bacteria - very much like a flourishing garden full of different plants and flowers.   

Exciting new research shows that the types of bacteria that dominate your gut can determine how likely you are to hold onto excess body weight or have a slim figure. There are many ways in which gut microbes can cause physiological mischief leading to weight gain, and it’s down to the role they play in regulating the hormone insulin, and determining how much energy we actually obtain from the food we eat. And because the microbes in our guts feed off the food we eat, the fewer microflora species in your gut, the more likely you are to be controlled by a species request for its food source, which can in turn lead to cravings.

This may go someway towards explaining why some people seemingly never put on weight, while others can’t keep it off. 

But the good news is it also means diversifying your gut flora may give you the power to turn your gut into a fat-burning machine. If you suspect your gut garden has been taken over by weeds or is looking more like a dessert battered by antibiotics, other medications, chronic stress, chronic infections, alcohol misuse or a poor diet, then it’s time to restore balance.

 A great way to ‘seed’ your gut with beneficial bacteria is to incorporate ‘probiotic’ foods into your diet regularly. There are many foods retaining gut-loving living cultures but three of my favourites are:

  1. Sauerkraut (that’s fermented rather than pickled cabbage) - a generous tablespoon is really a great addition to all your summer salads.
  2. Natural yoghurt – lovely for breakfast with berries, nuts and seeds.
  3. Miso soup – yes the fermented soybean paste which is miso is loaded with active bacteria and this is a fabulous way for people who don’t eat dairy to top up their beneficial bacteria.

 So go with your gut and you may discover that a fringe benefit of restoring gut microbial balance is it also helps with re-setting the body’s metabolism.  

Getting to the core of it

What I’ve learned in my practice at Gut Reaction is that whatever the health goal or health concern that a client comes to me with, optimising their digestion, alongside developing a healthy mindset around food, is generally the best place to start to help them navigate their way to optimum health. And time and again my experience of working with people proves this.

It might be hard to believe but the state of your gut affects every aspect of your health - from managing a health weight to immunity to mood and skin health. 

Over 2,000 years ago Hippocrates said "All Disease begins in the Gut" - but we’re only now coming to understand just how right he was. And now many researchers believe that supporting gut health will be one of the most important goals of medicine this century.

To give you an analogy, it might be helpful if you think of your body as a doughnut (sorry I couldn’t think of a healthy analogy!) – essentially, you have a hole or passage right through the middle, from top to bottom. That tract is a huge interface and it comes into contact with what it ever it that passes through your lips. 

You may already appreciate that your body needs a wealth of nutrients from food in order to function. So, if your digestive capacity is working well and in the process of digestion you can absorb adequate nutrients from the right foods, you are supporting every cell and every single system in the body.

Even if you are fit and well and don’t have digestive complaints, should you care about your gut? Yes! Taking care of the gut isn’t just about tackling unwanted symptoms or managing chronic conditions. It’s at the very core of supporting a strong and balanced body, enhancing energy levels, building resilience against future illness, getting the most from the food you eat and optimal health and wellbeing.

In fact, in order to live a long and healthy life, you MUST take care of your digestive system.

And how best can you do this? Well, it all starts with eating an abundance of deliciously simple ‘real food’.

Next time, I’ll be building on this theme, explaining the link between the gut microbiome and your metabolism, and giving you top foodie tips to help you look after yours!

Your Gut loves Sauerkraut - make your own in 4 simple steps

Sauerkraut - or fermented cabbage - is a great source of fibre and bowel-loving beneficial bacteria. A bit like a tart coleslaw, it's a perfect accompaniment to Spring salads. The best sauerkraut? It's homemade of course - and the good news is all you need is cabbage, salt, a jar and 20 minutes.  

11 calories (per 25g) V, GF, DF
Makes about ½ litre
Prep: 20 minutes, plus fermenting time (3-16 days)


  • 1 white cabbage, or similar, about 650g, finely shredded
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • Equipment: a 1½-litre sterilised sealable jar

Step 1

Put the cabbage in a large glass or ceramic bowl, add the salt and massage it all together with your hands.

Step 2 

Now pound the cabbage – a good thing to use for this is the pestle from a pestle and mortar or the round end of rolling pin.

Squash and pound it for about 5 -10 minutes until plenty of water is released.

Step 3 

Spoon the cabbage, a little at a time, into the sterilised jar, squashing it down as you go, using the pestle or rolling pin and making sure it’s tightly packed.

Step 4

Make sure the cabbage is fully immersed under the water – it needs this to ferment properly.

Secure the lid and leave for 3 -16 days in the kitchen, or longer if you like a stronger flavour.

The process will be slower if you prefer it to ferment in your fridge.

If you want to jazz it up, try a Red Cabbage and Fennel Seed Sauerkraut - just take 2kg red cabbage, finely shredded, 1 tbsp sea salt, 1 tsp fennel seeds or caraway seeds and make this the same as you would the white cabbage sauerkraut. 


The 'Other' Human Genome

A surprising finding of the Human Genome Project was the small number of genes actually discovered (c. 24,000), compared to the genome of much simpler organisms.

Some researchers started to speculate that human physiology may depend to a significant extent on other genes we 'carry' - in fact, the genes of the large number of microbes residing in the human body!

In 2007, the NIH launched the Human Microbiome Project to catalog the microorganisms living in and on the human body. And another discovery - the 100 trillion bacteria in the adult human contain 4 million bacterial genes - sometimes referred to as the “other human genome.” 

The new model of genetics has already taught us that the the human genome is more fluid, dynamic and responsive to all that we experience (including what we eat, how we think, feel, speak, and act) than previously thought. How this activity changes in response to our life experiences is referred to as “epigenetics.”

Regardless of the nature of the genes we inherit from our parents, dynamic change at this level allows us more influence on our fate than we ever realised.

And now we are discovering that it's not just human genes but microbial genes that play a role in our destiny. The microbiome is intimately linked to its human 'host' by synthesising molecules with direct effects on the human immune system, such as modifying the epigenome and regulating metabolism. 

Another reason why it's all about the Gut....