Gut Health and the Mind-Body Connection

A mindful approach to promoting whole body health through balance of the gut microbiome.

As a future dietitian, I have found a passion for functional and integrative nutrition practices. I see food as healing and supportive to the body. As a lover of yoga, fresh food, farmers and the earth, I look for ways to promote whole body health through nutritious foods and stress management. One day, a little over a year ago, this light bulb went off and I came across research identifying the connection through gut balance and health. Immersing myself in evidenced based material and real life experiences, I was able to conduct and present research at my undergraduate conference on this topic. I want to continue to share the scientific proof that whole body health can be achieved through equilibrium in the gut with nutritious foods and a balanced lifestyle.

Gut Imbalance, What is it?

Essentially, the gut is filled with an internal ecosystem with thriving, living organisms that assist in our overall well-being. As humans, we are comprised largely of bacteria. When there is an imbalance, it can manifest in many ways, especially within our digestive tract.1

These gut imbalances may be related to our present day food system, which has shifted greatly compared to the way it was many years ago. Some believe this shift is good, with the surplus of food that lines the shelves in the grocery stores and its appearance in almost any public vicinity. Most of these food items are processed and contain preservatives and additives. Unfortunately, now we face many diseases and other imbalances in the body like autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, categorized as Irritable Bowel Diseases (IBD). The pathology of these diseases can sometimes be from a gut microbe imbalance, and, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and food allergies, like celiac disease, may also be present. Microbial imbalance has been shown to exist in mental illnesses as well, like stress, anxiety and depression. 1

Many individuals are seeking out care for digestive and other gut related health issues.  63 million complain of chronic constipation, 2.2 million of diverticular disease, 2 million are sensitive to gluten and others deal with gas, bacteria, genetic, immune and hormonal issues.1

Kombucha
Homemade Dandelion Root Kombucha (fermented beneficial bacteria beverage) Brewed By: Eleni Ottalagana

Probiotics and Prebiotics:  What is the difference and how do they help?

Popular live organisms or beneficial microbes are known as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, Bacteroids and Saccharomyces. These are probiotics that promote proper digestion and address the inflammation caused by the issues suggested above. When probiotics colonize the gut, they stimulate positive immune system function, good digestion, allow for proper vitamin production in the gut, help the body absorb nutrients and keep the lining of the GI tract intact by preventing leaks into the bloodstream.1

Prebiotics give fuel to probiotics by essentially feeding the probiotics within the gut. Prebiotic foods are rich in indigestible fiber; due to this and their natural occurrence in food, they are easily obtained when eating fruits and vegetables.1   Check out the chart below for ways to incorporate pre-and probiotics into a diet and which foods are best to avoid that contribute to microbial imbalance.

 

Prebiotic Foods to Eat Probiotic Foods to Eat Foods to Avoid
·         Onions

·         Garlic

·         Leeks

·        Jerusalem Artichokes

·         Beets

·         Barley

·         Oats

·         Asparagus

·         Chicory

·         Yogurt

·         Kefir

·         Sauerkraut

·         Sourdough Bread

·         Tempeh

·         Pickles

·         Kimchi

·         Miso

·         Kombucha Tea

·  Antibiotic Fed Meat and Dairy Products

·  Processed and Added Sugar

(High fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners)

· Genetically Engineered Varieties of these Foods

(Soy, wheat, sugar, corn, and, sugar beets)

· Food Additives

(MSG, artificial colors)

 

 

When a pathogen crosses the gut lining, immune cells secrete inflammatory substances, such as histamine. These ecological disturbances arise from pesticides, additives and chlorinated water.  Antibiotic resistance in humans can be caused by intake of meats by from animals that were steroid or antibiotic fed. Consumption of refined sugars and dairy can disturb the symbiotic relationship of gut microbes. Bad or harmful bacterial examples include, E-Coli, Clostrudium Difficile, Shigella and Salmonella. Drugs like oral contraceptives, antibiotics and long-term prescription use destroys the gut flora immensely. 3 Below is a simple cycle to help you understand how to keep the symbiosis or balance of beneficial bacteria within the gut present.

Diagram
The Stress Induced Cycle

 Many gut related issues may also be related to mental health along with a poor diet. Ever hear the saying, “go with your gut?” Well, when we go against what we truly feel, fuel ourselves with poor nutrition, push our limits and ignore signals our body gives us, we experience many gut symptoms related to stress. The gut holds most of our nerve endings, contributing to many of the stomach effects we feel from stress and anxiety. The gut bacteria colonization will change to a less balanced or dysbiotic state.  Stress is often correlated to IBS by increasing movement of the contents within our gut to create effects like diarrhea. An individual may even experience something called a leaky gut. Chronic stress to the gut contributes to leaks within the walls. Through an opening, substances leak out into the bloodstream and cause inflammation, which may show up as other disease states, allergies or sensitivities.1 Basically, the brain sends a signal to the body that tells the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone, cortisol, and we experience symptoms like a racing heart and increased blood pressure. This leads to faster moving colonic action, contributing to IBS and possibly a leaky gut.  Within the angst of stress and anxiety, the release of stress hormones may show up in other ways.  One may experience a forgetful brain or poor memory, frequent urination, elevated water retention, and muscle cramping or even excess belly fat. The take away here? Address the stress!

Healing the Body

The gut can be restored through a mind-body approach for better overall health. Eating nutritious, healing foods, certain spices and herbs, along with taking measures to address stress and implementing a simple exercise regime are keys to restoration.1

As I am about to begin my career as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had. Through my scientific and evidenced based education, with the passion for functional and integrative nutrition, I am eager to help others heal and live a balanced life.

 “To love your body is a very important thing”

-Rodney Yee

Elena

 

Eleni Ottalagana received a dual degree from the University Of New Hampshire in Nutrition-Dietetics and EcoGastronomy. Through this dual major, she explored the holistic nature of food and health through the integration of nutrition, gastronomy, hospitality management and sustainable agriculture in New Hampshire and Italy.  Through past and present unique job settings, classroom learning and hands-on culinary and farming related experiences; Eleni has enhanced her nutrition knowledge, cooking skills and leadership roles in the area of dietetics outside of the usual environment. As a current Dietetic Intern at Virginia Tech, she will be eligible to become a Registered Dietitian this spring after graduating.  She is passionate about whole body health and would like to incorporate care to future clients through functional and integrative approaches centered on healing foods and other alternative practices.