It’s the Easter weekend, small mountains of chocolate await so what better time to talk about gut health?!
This is an enormous subject and this article simply explores the link between stress and an unhappy gut and suggests one simple mindfulness practice for you to try at home.
Your gut health
Going into week 4 of lockdown now and I wonder if any of you have noticed an increase in gut problems or overeating in the last few weeks?
I know I am snacking much more often and my meals seem to be getting bigger and more frequent. I am noticing more bloating and tummy cramps which I don’t usually suffer from.
Why does this happen?
What happens when we are stressed?
Stress is normal and our body is designed to deal with it well. Our Sympathetic Nervous System (‘SNS) ’kicks into action, our breath becomes shallow, we feel our heart pumping, adrenaline coursing and ready to defend ourselves or run away – ‘fight or flight’ mode. In ideal circumstances, once the immediate threat of danger is over, our Parasympathetic Nervous System (‘PNS’) takes over and soothes us back into a state of calm. As discussed in last week’s blog, this transfer from one state to another is managed by our Vagus Nerve (‘VN’).
The ideal situation is to be in PNS as our default setting and only accessing our SNS to manage stress. When we are exposed to constant stressors the function of our VN can be impaired and we become stuck in “fight or flight” mode.
How are you managing your day-to-day stress levels? Personally, I find the juggle between child care, housework, homeschooling (failing!) and keeping up with work very stressful. I feel constantly on high alert for children calling for me, falling over and fighting with each other. Although the pace of life is slower, trying to do everything as it was done before just cannot happen – but we still try!
Chuck into the pot uncertainty about Covid-19, worry about our vulnerable friends and families, panic about finances and top it off with the constant stream of social media interruptions – you can see how we are in unprecedented territory.
Why does this affect our gut health?
Last week I talked about the function of the VN in maintaining an optimal nervous system. The VN also manages hunger, our digestive system, inflammation in the gut and our immune system. This is a massive job and, suffice to say, if we have an impaired VN, our gut health suffers too. Over time this can lead to inflammatory and immune related conditions, such as IBS and colitis.
If you have trouble knowing that you are full and to stop eating, it is a big clue that your VN is not working at optimal level. We already know that the function of the VN can be improved by practicing deep belly breath as it allows the body to come back into the PNS but having a regular mindfulness practice can also help.
A simple mindfulness practice to support gut health
How often do you eat a meal automatically and finish without really noticing?
I am a terrible example of this. I usually have my phone beside me, reading or working on my laptop. I am in fight or flight mode at a time when my body needs to focus on digesting my food and sending messages to my brain when I have had enough.
It is no wonder we are a nation of overeaters, especially now when stress levels are at a peak.
This is the weekly practice for this week:
- Choose one meal every day that you can eat without interruption;
- Put away your phone, books, laptops and family (!);
- Before you start your meal, take at least 1 to 3 minutes to practice a slow deep belly breath;
- While you eat your meal, take time to chew each mouthful fully and notice the aromas and flavours of the food.
Do not worry if you become distracted, just draw your attention back to eating your meal. This is an important part of this practice and you are working on resetting your brain’s neural pathways of our brain so that it becomes easier to switch your attention on.
As always, this is something I need to practice too so I will do it with you.
I find it a struggle to focus just on eating, my mind is on a million different things, however, our gut health is so important. Our sanity is so important!
I would love to hear how you get on.