Anyone who is familiar with Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine, or any other ancient wisdom tradition that takes a holistic view of health and life, won’t find the idea of the mind and the body being inseparable from each other and influential upon one another strange.
It is only really in the Western tradition that we’ve lost this inherent concept of mind/body connectedness. But we are rediscovering it and what is being indicated by Western science now has been known for thousands of years by many ancient traditions: your mental health and physical health are beyond connected; they are inter-dependant.
Interestingly, many research studies are now demonstrating that brain and mental health are influenced directly by what is going on in your gut. You may know that we have millions of commensal (friendly and supportive) bacteria and microorganisms living in our bodies, which it is now becoming clearer serve to support how our body functions. For example, you’ve probably all heard of the Gut Brain Axis, the pathway between the gut and the brain that the microbiome can influence.
This pathway connecting bowels, gut, heart, lungs and brain as well as a few key glands which regulate the immune system needs supporting. Chronic over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system coupled with poor nutrition and environment toxins can lead to chronic stress and inflammation, a suppressed immune response and vulnerability to recurrent illness. It can also contribute to low mood, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
Some bacteria in the gut, so called “good bacteria”, it is now being shown, often function to produce substances eg short chain fatty acids, that act as messengers sending signals along our nerves, specifically the Vagus nerve, with its efferent and afferent branches to and from the brain and the gut, maintaining the balance between our sympathetic (fight and flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) by responding to the plethora of stimuli we are subject to around the clock.
If our gut microbiome is unbalanced, because we aren’t eating for our gut health, or we have too much stress and toxic load to deal with compromising our gut, and the opportunistic pathogenic bacteria get out of control causing problems, and those good bacteria aren’t present, or able to create those key messenger substances as a result, we can feel that emotionally as well as physically. Many, many things influence that microbiome balance, but what are some simple things we can we do to support it?
Here are my top tips:
We hear a lot about the importance of sleep in our overall health, and it is 100% true, but shaving the corners of our sleep can be a tempting way to squeeze in everything we have to do in life. Often referred to as burning the candle at both ends, even though we know, particularly as we get older, we are going to feel the aftereffects, it is a very common thing to do.
Current guidelines recommend that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Some figures indicate that the national average in the UK is more like 6- 6.5. Lack of sleep or “short sleeping” has been indicated as a risk factor in a very wide variety of conditions from obesity to depression to heart disease. Fundamentally, poor sleep negatively impacts the body’s biochemistry, which in turn is likely to have a less than optimal impact across every biochemical process in the body. In short, we are depriving ourselves of one of the most democratically available natural supports for good health.
One of the reasons a lack of sleep is so detrimental is that when we sleep, whilst we are in an altered state of consciousness, unaware of anything that is going on, a lot is actually happening in our bodies and brains. Sleep scientist and researcher Dr Matthew Walker explains in detail in his seminal work Why We Sleep, about the stages of sleep and what happens (as far as we know – and there’s a lot we don’t know) at each stage.
Sleep seems to be a time when the body is purged and detoxified, and the brain in particular seems to depend upon good sleep to clear through toxic substances, bi-products of natural functions in the brain, that are always accumulating during our waking life. The bottom line is if we scrimp on sleep and skip stages, we can’t make them up and we risk impairing our brain function, and perhaps most worryingly this may lead to permanent impairment over time in the form of, for example, mild cognitive impairment, increased stroke risk or dementia.
Of course, there are plenty of lifestyle and nutritional strategies that can support good sleep and help us to avoid that foggy tired feeling throughout the day. Here are a few tips for your better sleep and brain health:
You may want to have a look at this great article on sleep hygiene for more: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-sleep-hygiene-5085887
As with all things, making changes happens gradually and may take time. Be patient. Hopefully we’ll all be sleeping like babies in no time and feeling the benefit.
Thanks for reading and until next time…..
Infographic credit: Verywell / Laura Porter
January is the cruellest month
Forget what they say about April. January, in my experience, is hands-down, a tough slog. More so even than December with its shortest day, January is a drudge, dark, depressing and something to be waded through like treacle, with head down and teeth gritted.
Maybe I exaggerate a little, but I came down with Covid this year on New Year’s Day, or there abouts, and heralded the start of the year from my sick bed. The first 10 days of 2022 went true to form then. A washout. And the rest of the month too.
I’ve never been one for arbitrary new year’s resolutions or making grand promises to change as the year turns. It is in my view utterly pointless at this dark time to be so cruel to oneself and make the cruellest month tougher still. If this sentiment strikes a chord with you, you are not alone. Don’t get me wrong, I am not down on life. Just January in the Northern Hemisphere in Europe. In Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine system, winter is Kapha, slow, cool, sluggish and a time to be still and regenerate. We don’t have to fight that.
The good news is that February lightens up a bit – like, literally – I like February, the snow drops come out, that extra hour of daylight at the end of the day makes all the difference, the sun is marginally higher in the sky, and I stop wanting to hibernate. There are good reasons, scientific reasons, why this sense of dreariness descends and seems to take over. I take great comfort in that.
Serotonin, the hormone in our brain and gut linked to both mood and motility, drops when less sunlight is available and getting outdoors, which is also positively correlated with feeling happier, is definitely less attract an option in the short, dark days of bleak midwinter. We also tend naturally towards comfort eating and perhaps reaching for those sugary and high calorie comfort foods to cheer ourselves up at this time. It’s only natural as the body and mind are programmed to find equilibrium and soothe themselves. Quite often what we use to do so is just not terribly effective that’s all. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, but what’s a little bit?
Back to resolutions and why I don’t really hold with them. Before you can change you have to know where you are. February is the perfect time for a food and lifestyle audit and that is where I start. Tracking what goes in and, erm, what comes out (or all too often doesn’t) too. There are many, many tools that can be used for this and I like myfitnesspal.com (no affiliation whatsoever) – there’s a free version that track everything for you if you plug it in. Once you see your habits and consumption then you have the starting point.
Did you know that you can eat for your mood? Food is medicine, said Hippocrates, or words to that effect, and he definitely was on to something there. So when it comes to mood and food what are some good choices to make? And what else might have an influence during this dark time of year?
I personally wouldn’t change a great deal all at once, but every year I do find it necessary to have a reset and for me that happens at the start of February as life starts to stir and things begin to wake up again.
Here are six simple strategies you might want to consider:
For more down-to-earth, simple well-being and nutrition hints and tips, keep an eye out for my next post. Until then, take care and stay well!