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Happiness Hack: Caring for your 'second brain'

Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach? Or a gut-wrenching feeling that something might be about to go wrong? What about feeling nauseous before a big interview or presentation?

While these experiences have likely happened to us all, it's less likely that we've all taken a minute to decipher what's really going on inside our complex bodies. Instead we take it as fact and, when the feeling has left us, we think of it no more.

We simply accept that certain experiences make us queasy or that staring at our true love makes our insides flutter rather than viewing the incident as an insight into what I would call one of the most important connections in the human body; the brain and the gut.

Like two peas in pod, continuously communicating and sending both silent and sometimes more obvious messages to and from one and other. Our brain, the control centre of every being, and our gut, an unruly group of organs desperate to prove themselves as more than just 'our tummy'.

And belive it or not, understanding this relationship is absoutely crucial to your happiness and mental wellbeing!

Confused? Let me explain some more.

Sit back for a minute and think about that euphoric feeling of finally getting to cook your dinner after a hectic day. Wait, let's make this even better! You arrive home from work after reluctantly doing a couple of hours overtime. You were stuck in traffic for over an hour and when you finally get back, tired and a little hangry, you find that your dinner has already been cooked for you. And it's your absolute favourite!

Before you have even taken one mouthful your stomach has already begun its preparations. The brain has sent a message to the lining of your stomach and it has begun secreting digestive juices ahead of the feast before you have even tasted one morsel of food. Your mouth may even be watering. Why? Because hidden in the walls of your digestive system is your 'gut brain', a phenomenon that is revolutionising our understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. Some scientists even call this our 'second brain'.

Now I guess at this stage you might be questioning the significance of realising such information. I hear you scoff at the perceived irrelevance of it all. Great, I know that my gut and brain are connected, but what does this mean for me? How does it help me? Does it even matter?

If you have IBS or another digestive issue, you will likely know that symptoms will worsen during stressful times. Even those without a known digestive problem may wonder why they occasionally experience abdominal issues when they are anxious or emotional. The same principal as before applies. However, in the scenario above, the brain was content and excited for its meal so the messages it sent were positive and celebratory. But an anxious or stressed brain will undoubtedly send more erratic and harmful signals, and our gut will take the brunt of it all through pain, spasm, bloating, poor digestion and more.

Sound familiar?

If your brain can send direct messages to your stomach, then you can be sure that the process can be reversed. Yep, your gut can send messages right back! Just as a stressed brain can send signals to the gut, a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain and this is where is starts to get even more interesting.

Do you think an unhealthy gut will be capable of sending healthy messages to our brain? Of course not. A distressed gut can directly cause the brain to become distressed too by sending inconsistent and damaging signals, causing us to become nervous, anxious, stressed, emotional and even clinically depressed. We assume that the issue originates in our mind, but what if it had a physical cause right here in our gut?

It's very important to note that an unhealthy gut is not the cause of everybody's mental health problems but the gut brain connection does work both ways and it should always be taken into account in both the diagnosis and treatment of mental health and digestive disorders. A person's intestinal issues can either be the cause or the product of their anxiety, stress or depression.

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW THE MOST EXCITING PART?

WE can have a massive impact on our gut health through diet and lifestyle. WE can control the messages that are sent to our brain by understanding this complex but fascinating gut brain connection. I'm sure you're asking the big question. BUT HOW?

Here are 5 ways to optimise your gut health to boost your mood!

1) Probiotics

Our gut is home to trillions of micro-organisms called probiotics that regulate inflammation and immunity, help digest our food, extract vitamins from what we eat, make serotonin and ultimately keep us healthy. We can ensure our gut has plenty of these health-boosting bacteria by consuming fermented, probiotic-rich foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, non-dairy yoghurts or alternatively probiotic supplements.

2) Don't take antibiotics unless completly necessary

Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections, not illnesses like the common cold or flu that are caused by viruses. The problem is that as well as killing the bacteria causing your infection, antibiotics will kill the good bacteria that live in our gut too. If you do need to use an antibiotic, ensure to take a probiotic supplement afterwards to replace the good bacteria that have been eradicated.

3) Prebiotics

The good bacteria need to be fed too in order to stay alive and that's where prebiotics play a role. Most plants are a great source of prebiotics, just another reason to eat those fruits and veggies! Apple cider vinegar is an excellent supplement to reduce inflammation and feed those gut cells at the same time.

4) Identify food intolerances

If you are regularly feeling bloated after eating, don't just brush it off. Keep a food diary for a week and note if your symptoms occur after certain foods. Common culprits are gluten, dairy, eggs, yeast, soy, peanuts and even grains. This can help identify if your issue is connected to food or something else. It's also good to remember that numerous studies have shown that processed foods and refined sugars both contribute to a decrease in good bacteria.

5) Get enough rest

Each night as we sleep our digestive organs are reset and replenished. Our body detoxifies waste from the day before and also ensures that the hormones involved in digestion are being maintained. If we don't get enough sleep we can experience poor digestion, gurgling or bloating. Aim for 7 to 8 hours at minimum.

This protocol may not be an overnight fix, but reversing years of damage can take time. Whether you are dealing with mood or digestive issues or both, you should strive to sustain a healthy gut however possible. And the next time your gut is telling you to do something? Remember that it might even be your brain talking after all.

Firinna Beattie Author

Science student and Instagram food sensation

Firinna is a science student and food blogger best known for her Instagram account @nourishingfir , where she is often found photographing and sharing delicious healthy recipes!

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