The link between gut and mental health is controversial for many IBS sufferers because so many have been dismissed by doctors who say the condition is “all in your head.” While this diagnosis feels vague at best and derogatory at worst, the reality is, there’s truth to it.
As a woman, now in my 40s, who’s been dealing with IBS all my life, I’ve learned a thing or two about digestive issues along the way. The connection between mental and gut health is one of the most important things I’ve learned, as well as the importance of eating locally produced whole foods.
Before I learned about nutrition, I thought whole foods were for health nuts; now I know they’re a health hack.
IBS Demands 24/7 Self-Care
Of course, IBS has real symptoms that cause pain throughout the abdominal area, symptoms that intensify after eating, making it clear there’s a link. But what if eating is only half the problem, or 30%? What if the reason symptoms continue no matter what you eat is because until you correct other aspects of your life, you’ll always be sick.
That was the case for me, for 15 years, or more. I’d been having symptoms for years but didn’t have the right information to make the connection between my awful diet, mood disorders and stress levels. Looking back, I made life-changing decisions in the grips of agonizing flare-ups, decisions that affect my life to this day.
Back then, I had no concept of self-care; I worked hard, played hard, and treated my body like an inconvenient passenger.
At the time I was making three key mistakes:
- I wasn’t considering the quality of food I was eating
- I wasn’t considering my mood, sleep cycles and overall wellbeing
- I had no concept of food as fuel or nourishment
Typically, I’d find something I could eat, and live on it for months, until finally, it too made me sick and I’d have to find a new thing to switch to; this went on for years.
Making the decision to cut alcohol from my diet was a moment of change for me. That was in 2014, and once I gave it up, I realised it had been poisoning me for years. Then I joined a gym, and with time, working out enabled me to start a new conversation with my body.
Because fitness and nutrition go hand-in-hand, I began to explore new ways to eat, trying out different diets including Paleo, vegetarian, carnivore, and Keto. Over the course of four years, I made my way through every diet on the hunt for one I could sustain. Nothing stuck.
What I finally learned was that until I made a conscious effort to eat in a holistic or mindful way, I’d always have problems.
What do I mean by a mindful way of eating?
Developing a diet or meal plan that is easy for me to maintain based on whole foods, with the right macro balance to fuel my body and satisfy my mental cravings, ensuring I feel full and don’t overeat or use food to manage stress.
Do You Use Food to Manage Stress?
When I’m stressed out, my body shuts down.
That means one of two things can happen:
- I stop eating, as my appetite is gone, replaced with a fireball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.
- I have no appetite but in a reckless bid to ease the fireball of anxiety in the pit of stomach, I pile in food I don’t want and can’t stop eating even though I feel sick.
Leaning how to eat properly isn’t just about eating whole foods, it’s about understanding the rhythms of your body, what it wants and when it wants it, as well as making sure what you’re giving it is the healthiest, and tastiest option for you. You have to eat food you like, food that makes you happy, food you want to prepare.
It also means learning when to eat, and how to make hunger your friend.
To achieve this, it’s really important to develop a conversation with your body that’s proactive instead of reactive. What does that look like?
It means that when you get stressed out, instead of immediately looking to food to soothe the issue, sit with the discomfort and consider where it’s coming from? What is the problem? Why is it stressful? Is there a course of action that can be taken? Is the situation hopeless? Is it best to walk away?
It also means pausing for a moment and asking, do I really need a third donut? Believe me, as someone who can eat a packet of HobNobs in one sitting I know how tough it can be to just PAUSE. But it’s like anything, a habit. I pause, and consider, am I really hungry? Why am I eating this? If I have a good reason, I eat.
No matter how bleak any given situation, you always have a choice: You choose how you’re going to react. You choose to buy those donuts and eat them all in one go.
If I find myself craving snacks in a stressful moment, it’s typically because I don’t want to deal with whatever shitty decision I have to make right now. I’m procrastinating and in search of distractions, any distraction.
If my tummy is screaming at me, that’s the distraction I tend to, though it’s not the course of action that’s going get me results or fix the situation. It’s a balm.
The same is true when I stop eating. I’m punishing myself, enduring hunger as a way to avoid relaxing and settling into whatever task I need to do in order to solve a problem.
In both situations I’m using food as entertainment or as a stopgap to avoid dealing with the real issue.
Do You Use Food to Manage Boredom?
We all use food as entertainment.
Not only is it sold to us that way, breaking bread with family and friends, is a tradition as old as the dinosaurs.
Food is so important it defines our culture, heritage and lifestyle choices precisely because it’s the most accessible form of entertainment … as well as the most endorsed anxiety drug.
On a recent train journey, I watched in horror as a group of adults at a table a few rows down from me ate breakfast, and later lunch. The morning meal was mini-chocolate croissants, plastic buns from a plastic bag.
The man sitting in my line of vision was middle-aged, balding with a trimmed beard and 40-inch waistline. He looked healthy, smiled often, and swallowed two of those mini-breads in four bites.
Lunch was wrapped in tinfoil, a baguette, more dough, stuffed with processed meat, and washed down with Coca-Cola.
As he ate, he joked with his friends, passed food to his wife at the table across the aisle, and looked like he was enjoying every morsel, blissfully unaware that what he was eating was as useful as a cardboard suitcase.
Some people are lucky and can digest these kinds of processed foods but will typically develop symptoms later in life, be it cancer or diabetes.
People with IBS are allergic to processed foods and must avoid them.
As I watched that man eat, what disturbed me most was how automatic the process was, how little thought went into it, how they were eating simply because it was time, or to pass the time.
Plus, someone – probably his wife – had gone to the trouble to make those sandwiches and wrap them in tinfoil. Would it be so hard to make a salad instead, or use fresh bread, or switch out the processed meat for cooked meat?
What is Mindful Eating?
Let’s get one thing clear: I love chocolate and eat a lot of it.
Mindful eating is not about living on steamed chicken and boiled cabbage, the opposite.
I have a sweet tooth and know that if I don’t eat a diverse diet with lots of flavour I’ll compensate by heading to the bakery to buy jam donuts for lunch.
Instead, I find mindful ways to incorporate chocolate and sugar, along with food I like, and can eat, into my daily meal plan.
That means I use pure cocoa and coconut sugar, maple syrup or local honey, purchased from local whole food shops, to make homemade brownies and cookies. I buy peanut powder to make Chinese sauces, and often make sweet marinades for dinner, experimenting with coconut oil, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon and honey.
One of the good things about IBS is that it has forced me to learn about food, what I like, and what my body needs. I used to detest cooking, now it’s therapy, quiet time to nourish me, to mother myself. We all need a bit of mothering. It’s such a simple pleasure: to know how to cook the food you like in the way you like it.
I research the brands I’m buying, and don’t buy anything without first reading the label to see what’s in it. I do this because I have to avoid foods that might trigger my IBS, but this is a good habit for everybody.
When I’m reading the label I’m looking for a few things such as sugar content, preservatives, additives, fat and carb content, and country source. For example, if I’m looking at nuts from Argentina, chances are they’ve been on the move for a long time and are packed with preservatives, meaning I avoid them. Mindful eating is common sense, too. My priority is to find food that’s as local and fresh as possible.
To help with my mindful meal planning, I have a system: I freeze portions and take it out the night before for easy preparation the next day. I either make something like homemade burgers and freeze them, or I buy salmon, and freeze individual slices to be used as needed.
I have a selection of veg in the fridge, limited to what I can eat, which I rotate for variety and flavour. I’m limited to a small selection of fruit, too, mostly berries, but also eat bananas and apples, on occasion. I make stewed apple with cinnamon, topped with Greek yoghurt and tahini. Yum! It’s amazing how creative you can be when you have to be.
Try this smoothie: Almond milk, peanut butter powder, spinach leaves, frozen berries, banana, chia seeds and hemp hearts. Boom! Tastes like heaven and packed with nutrients.
Mindful means making the right choices for you, understanding why they’re the right choices for you, and setting up your day-to-day life so that it’s easy to make the right choice.
It becomes more than habit or automatic, it becomes conscious, a conscious choice to heal. Every day.
Why is Mindful Eating Important?
What the hell has all this got to do with mental health? Bear with me.
Have you heard of the Gut Brain Axis?
In short, it’s the communication network that connects the gut to the brain, controlling all sorts of things from hormone balance and mood to inflammatory responses and brain function.
The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves in the network, and delivers messages both ways. Studies have shown that people with IBS have reduced function of the vagus nerve.
Neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are produced in the gut by the trillions of microbes living in your intestines AKA the gut microbiome, and have a direct impact on emotions such as happiness and anxiety.
The microbes produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter that controls feelings of fear and anxiety. New understanding of the gut microbiome has shown that for every message going from the brain to the gut there are nine messages going back to the brain, and it’s the microbes that are generating those messages.
The microbes also metabolize bile acids and amino acids, essential for healthy brain function, and play a key role in the strength of the immune system, keeping inflammation in check, and preventing chronic conditions like severe depression, dementia, and schizophrenia.
Long story short: the microbes are your friends. Learn how to feed them.
Health Starts with Listening
Go to any IBS forum and find hundreds of sufferers complaining that no matter what they try, nothing helps, and symptoms persist, or worsen. They’re taking a long list of pills, and trying to adhere to diets they don’t understand. Most of them also complain of issues with anxiety and depression, and many say they feel worthless or hopeless.
The problem is it’s not enough to eliminate food from the diet and expect symptoms to disappear. That’s not how it works.
Although, there’s no question that cutting processed vegetable oils, cheeses and meats from my diet was beneficial, it wasn’t enough to boost my serotonin levels or reverse the inflammation in my body.
To find true relief from my IBS symptoms, I needed a combination of nutrition, fitness, meditation, cannabis, and fasting, or what I like to call the high road to gut health.
It wasn’t enough to go to the gym, I also needed to eat the right food, and learn when to eat. Likewise, it wasn’t enough to meditate I also needed to prioritise what was most important to me, and set my day up to ensure I had time for those things.
Plus, I needed pain relief for those days when I ate the wrong thing, and got hit with a flare-up; on those days, I turn to cannabis. Studies show that cannabis has anti-inflammatory effects in patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, so it makes sense that it helps with IBS, too.
Whether I’m planning a workout, choosing food at the supermarket, making lunch, writing a blog post, or taking the dog for a walk, I’m conscious of how the activity fits into my overall health plan.
Finding ways to track progress, and reward myself for sticking to my goals are also important on the high road to gut health.
The link between gut and mental health is so profound, it has inspired a new medical field known as psychobiotics, predicted to be the future treatment for mood disorders and mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, and dementia.
In an interview with The Guardian, Jane A. Foster, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University, Ontario, explained how diet is not the only factor that shapes the microbiome but also genetic makeup as well as environmental factors such as stress, age, and gender.
Giulia Enders, author of international bestseller Gut, points out that health improves when we “eat the foods that our bacteria prefer.” Both experts agree that a varied diet along with exercise and stress management skills, are integral to gut health and a balanced microbiome.
Mindful eating is the beginning of healing from IBS, but it’s mindful living that’s the real key. When your gut health improves, so too does your mood and your zest for life. If you want to know the truth, listen to your gut, because that’s where the voices in your head are coming from, and it’s the microbes talking to you.
Shhh. Get quiet. Listen. What are they telling you to do?
#IBSawarenessmonth #cannabisheals #microbiome