We’ve all experienced it before: the nervous flutter of butterflies in your stomach before an important event or the power of love robbing you of your appetite and tying your stomach in knots. Much of our emotional and intellectual experiences are located at waist-level, and this connection is hardly surprising; after all, the human brain and gut are cut from the same cloth and share the same developmental background. There is still much more to learn about this special relationship, which is why research teams the world over are working hard to unlock the secrets of the brain, the gut, and the axis between them.
The human gut: detecting and managing stress
Deadlines, exams, anxiety. Many people report that workplace or personal stress causes havoc with their digestive system. But not only are our digestive organs – the stomach and intestines – affected by constant pressure, the inhabitants of our gut suffer too. For one thing, the increased release of stress hormones can lead to a drop in the diversity of bacterial species, and for another, the slowdown in digestive activity can cause a shift in the bacterial balance.
Conversely, studies indicate that our intestinal flora has a say in how we manage stress: whether we cope well with stress or are easily overwhelmed by it is determined to a certain extent by the state of our intestinal flora. To mitigate the risk of creating a “stress-induced vicious circle”, we recommend that you pay attention to your gut and take good care of it, especially in times of heightened stress.
Happiness begins in the gut – but what makes your gut happy?
As our gut and its ecosystem are very sensitive, it is especially important that we take good care of their health. Here are some active steps can we take to ensure the comfort of our wellness organ and its microbial inhabitants:
- Food for thought: How and what we eat affects our intestines. The best way to lighten the burden on your intestines is to choose your portions wisely, eat slowly and chew your food properly. In addition, a gut-friendly diet should include diverse, unprocessed, organic, local and plant-based foods.
- Tasty vitamins: The folds and projections of the intestinal mucosa give it an enormous surface area, making it the body’s largest contact surface with the outside world. This ensures that nutrients from food are absorbed as efficiently as possible. However, it is equally important to ensure the mucosa itself is supplied with all the proper nutrients. For example, a good supply of vitamins A, B2, niacin and biotin supports the maintenance of normal mucous membranes, including those of the intestine.
- Feeding time at the zoo: Intestinal flora may live in perpetual darkness, but they are currently in the spotlight of scientific research. Their recognition among scientists is no coincidence, as our very own menagerie of intestinal bacteria wields a tremendous power over our health and well-being. It is therefore all the more important to make sure the “good guys” feel at home in our gut. Beneficial intestinal bacteria are especially fond of soluble dietary fiber from plant-based foods (e.g. psyllium seeds, chicory, citrus fruits or apples).
- Bitter agents for digestion: Modern plant breeding methods have largely eliminated natural bitter agents from our diet. This is a pity, because bitter taste sensations can trigger quite a number of processes in our body. For example, bitter agents (e.g. from artichokes, dandelions or milk thistle) can stimulate the liver and gall bladder and thus support the intestines during digestion.
- Ready meals mean hungry microbes: You never eat alone – your bacteria join you for every meal. What is their favorite food? As we said before, it’s dietary fiber. The prevalence of fast food and ready meals, however, means that we consume a maximum of one tenth of the dietary fiber that our hunter-gatherer ancestors used to eat. This is detrimental to our microbiome, whose diversity is impoverished by a low-fiber diet. In addition, these foods usually contain lots of unnecessary additives that can have an adverse effect on the composition of the intestinal flora.
- Sugar – the dark side of sweetness: The average German eats the equivalent of 34 sugarcubes per day whereas, according to the WHO, it should be no more than eight. Sweetness has its dark sides – not least when it comes to the intestines. The harmful bacteria and fungi inside our intestines feed off sugar, and too much of it can cause them to proliferate.
- Germ-free isn’t always trouble-free: Hygiene is important, especially in times like these. That goes without saying. Too much hygiene can however come at a cost to our microbiome. There’s a reason we let children play in the dirt – it helps prevent allergies and asthma.
- Drugs and alcohol – double trouble: Recent studies have shown that a number of drugs can interfere with our intestinal flora – not just antibiotics, whose disruptive effect is already widely known, but other drugs as well. From a microbial perspective, alcohol is another troublemaker. It can damage both our gut flora and intestinal mucosa.
- Get your sneakers on: Sport is a miracle cure in many respects, including the digestive system. Three endurance training sessions (e.g. jogging, hiking, swimming) per week will not only keep your cardiovascular system healthy, but your intestines as well. Improved circulation also has a beneficial effect on the digestive system.