BY KRISTEN SOPER, CLINICAL NUTRITIONIST.
I see more and more people presenting in clinic with a combination of digestive complaints such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoeacoupled with feelings of stress, anxiety or feeling flat.
Does this sound familiar… you get a respiratory infection, you take a course or two of antibiotics. Your infection goes away, but in the next couple of months you start feeling tired, a little bit flat or a bit more anxious than you normally would? Or perhaps as a child or a teenager you took a number of courses of antibiotics for various infections such tonsillitis, throat infections or sinus infections… and now as an adult you notice you often feel bloated, tired and stressed?
Our digestive tract is colonised by millions of healthy bacteria that assist the functioning of our digestive system, immune system and nervous system. Chronic use of medications such as antibiotics, steroids and the contraceptive pill or eating a diet high in processed foods can upset the balance of our digestive tract, leading to an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria resulting in an imbalance called ‘dysbiosis’.
Chronic dysbiosis in the digestive tract can lead to inflammation and gut ‘permeability’ which causes digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation and diarrhoea as well as an increase in food sensitivities, weight gain, skin problems and mood disturbances.
Not only can the discomfort of digestive symptoms affect our energy levels and mood, the brain and digestive system communicate with each other directly via the sympathetic nervous system and the enteric nervous system (called the gut-brain axis). For example, digestive function is suppressed during acute “fight-or-flight” stress reactions, leading to a reduction of gastric motility resulting in constipation, or in prolonged stress or anxiety states this is increased, leading to diarrhoea.
Furthermore, many of our neurotransmitters are manufactured in our gastrointestinal tract which adds another dimension to the gut-brain connection. Up to 90% of the body’s serotonin (known as our feel-good hormone) is located in our digestive tract. Low serotonin levels have been linked with constipation and low mood whilst higher serotonin levels have been linked with diarrhoea and anxiety. Thus if our gastrointestinal health is compromised the manufacturing of neurotransmitters could may be impacted, which in turn could be affecting our mood.
The good news is when I work with clients with digestive complaints to heal their gastrointestinal tract, their energy levels and mood often starts improving. Depending on the chronic nature of the client’s dysbiosis and gut permeability this can take anywhere from one month to six months or even longer if they've had the problem for decades.
Here’s an example of some of the starter tips I suggest to my clients:
- Remove dietary irritants to allow for digestive tract healing
- Add fermented foods into your diet such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso or a good-quality natural yoghurt (only for those who aren’t lactose intolerant)
- Consume a diet high in fresh vegetables and fibre as the ‘prebiotics’ in these foods help feed the probiotics and balance our good bacteria levels
- Take a multi-strain probiotic recommended by a health-care practitioner (not all probiotic formulas are created equal and different strains have been shown to help with different digestive complaints)
Important note: not all mood changes are due to digestive health. There could be many reasons your mood is being impacted such as hormonal in-balances, thyroid health, autoimmune conditions, nutritional deficiencies to name just a few… or you could just be going through a difficult time in your life. If you are experiencing a severe change in mood please contact your healthcare practitioner, GP or psychologist/counsellor for individual assessment.