Health and Wellness Blog

This blog is for sharing useful information I've learned in my ongoing quest to achieve absolute health and mental well-being... I would like to share what I've learned with you.... 

An Introduction to Gut Health

Heather Murray

4th February 2019

There’s a lot of talk about Gut Health these days….

I’m a firm believer in treating all issues holistically and that includes taking a close inspection on diet and lifestyle choices. The gut is now being widely recognised as the second brain, and I wanted to investigate these claims further and explore how improving my gut health could improve my overall well-being and mental health.

I used to say I’m a healthy eater. I had the evidence to back up my claims; I exercised regularly, I took vitamins and supplements, I even added kale to smoothies. Ready meals and other processed foods were a big no-no in our household, as were things like fizzy juice and artificial sweeteners. My intentions were healthy… But I was in denial. I’m not as healthy as I initially thought.

My downfall is emotional eating. I regularly binge eat on whatever I can get my hands on whenever I feel stressed, emotional, lonely or just plain bored. Emotional eating is my one biggest weakness. It’s the reason why my weight fluctuates up and down throughout the year. I lose a stone, gain a stone, lose it again and then go through life as it steadily piles back on.

The main culprits for me are bread, chocolate and alcohol. I can’t get enough of bread. I am a self-confessed bread fiend as described by my boyfriend, Cal. With regards to alcohol, I’m not a heavy drinker, but drinking is a part of my life and I routinely drink a glass or two of wine a night, or a couple of gin and tonics, or perhaps even a wee nip of whisky before heading up to bed. When your significant other is a cocktail bartender, whisky enthusiast and fine spirits collector, it’s hard to ignore the ever-constant presence of alcohol in the house.

But to be honest, even before our cupboards were stockpiled with cask-strength whisky’s and limited-edition bottles of rum, I would routinely buy alcohol at the shops and make quick use of it at home. I am an emotional drinker, as well as an emotional eater. Whenever times are hard, my healthy eating is the first to take the hit. Out comes the wine, chocolate and bread (usually Olive Bread from Co-Op - a favourite of mine).

I knew deep down this was perpetuating an unhealthy relationship with food, but I was also in denial about it. It was only when Cal decided to radically change his diet from one which was, let’s face it, plain bad, to a low-carb, high protein plant-based diet filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, matcha green tea and raw apple cider vinegar. This was the same guy who used to eat condensed milk from the tin! Within a short space of time, he began to shed weight. His mood improved dramatically and I witnessed first-hand, a radical change in him. It got me really thinking about gut health and mental health. How much does our food really impact our mood? How much has it been impacting my mood?

When experiencing tough times have I prolonged my own negative feelings by eating badly? Just how much could I reduce the negative feelings by choosing food rich in fibre and vitamins rather than guiltily eaten chocolate, or stolen jelly beans from my daughter’s sweetie stash? How much damage am I doing to myself by binge eating?

I want to change this unhealthy relationship I have with food. I’ve had enough of feeling guilty for indulging in comfort food when I’m emotional. It’s just not worth it anymore. The regret and guilt far out-weigh any pleasure I get from comfort eating.

I have begun to make it my personal endeavour to make my gut as healthy as I can. I want to understand how the food I eat today affects my mood tomorrow.

Why am I sharing this? Because I am certain I’m not alone. How many of us are also in denial about our eating habits? How many of us have all the good intentions of eating healthy, but struggle with constant cravings for sugar? I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like it’s a constant struggle to make healthy, informed choices when sugary snacks and processed foods are so readily available. At every kiosk at every petrol station or supermarket, sugary snacks and processed junk food is promoted. Why do they never promote things like flax-seeds and spinach? I’m on a mission now to learn as much as possible so I can improve my own gut health and I would like to enhance awareness so that we can all start to feel healthier and happier in ourselves and enable us to make informed decisions when it comes down to buying food that works with our gut microbiome, instead of against it.

Why do I struggle with cravings and why is comfort food so addictive?

Heather Murray

17th Feb 2019

For years and years, I’ve struggled with my weight. I am not overweight, but I have always carried a few extra pounds around my tummy. Being unhappy with my body is a normal feeling for me. Over the years I’ve dieted and fasted, counted calories and fretted over my weight. It is almost always on my mind, no doubt contributing towards my low confidence. Like I said in my last article, my downfall is emotional eating and binge eating. I love bread, chocolate and crisps, and when I’m feeling stressed or depressed, I crave comfort food so powerfully I am fully prepared to throw in the towel on whatever healthy eating regime I have going at the time and indulge.

Severe guilt follows….

Sometimes the guilt is so bad I'm tempted to make myself throw up to undo the damage I’ve done to my body. In the time between indulging and the guilt setting in, most of the junk food I’ve scoffed has passed through the stomach and is travelling midway through my small intestine. There's no coming back when it's in there.

I often feel at the mercy of my cravings. They feel so overwhelming and powerful sometimes. Fortunately, however, I’ve discovered a solution to this problem…

Did you know that the bacteria living in our gut can actually determine our cravings? These powerful, microscopic organisms send signals to our brains which influence what foods we crave. They manipulate us! I learned this from reading a book called THE CLEVER GUTS DIET, by Michael Mosely. Reading this proved to be somewhat of a lightbulb moment for me. So that is why I crave the things I do.

The gut is a very hostile environment. The microbes in our gut are competing for space and scarce resources, fighting continually for their lives, trying to fulfil their own dietary needs. Some thrive on sugar, others thrive on fat. The more sugar consumed, the more sugar they want.

At this point I like to imagine my own gut, picturing all those sugar-loving bacteria swarming around in my stomach, starving out the good bacteria and dominating my stomach lining like a virus. I picture the bad bacteria suffocating the good bacteria by engulfing them like a scene from The Blob. This is the reason why I can’t get enough of bread and chocolate…. The bacteria in my gut are practically screaming out for it! “Gimme, gimme gimme!” they demand, and they are never satisfied. They just want more and more and more.

So, why is comfort food so addictive? And why do I feel so good when I’m eating it, only to be ridden with guilt an hour later?

Comfort food, such as chocolate, crisps and ice-cream consist of high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar. When we consume sugar, we get a massive release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. Dopamine is the same chemical that is released when we feel love, lust, motivation and pleasure. It is the chemical that gives us that sense of reward when we accomplish something. It is also the same chemical released when we consume drugs and alcohol. It may surprise you to know that eating sugar produces the same dopamine response as snorting cocaine.

Dopamine hits are short-lived. When the dopamine rush wears off we crash and are left feeling sluggish and depressed. Combine that with sugar loving gut bacteria and it’s easy to understand why cravings can feel so powerful at times. When I picture my gut now, I imagine the bad bacteria consisting of dopamine-loving sugar junkies who want to dominate the gut microbiome. No wonder why we struggle with cravings. This is addiction territory now.

All this might sound a bit bleak, but as my understanding of gut health increases, I am filled with hope. I’ve learned how I can combat the bad bacteria inhabiting my stomach. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of them manipulating me.

Don’t underestimate the importance of having a healthy gut microbiome. It is hard to appreciate just how much your belly controls your brain. Your gut microbiome is responsible for things you wouldn’t even expect. For instance, it regulates our body weight by influencing what foods we crave. It also teaches and regulates our entire immune system as well as converting food into various different chemicals and hormones that affect our mood and appetite.

So, I’ve started to flood my gut with good bacteria as I attempt to starve out the bad. Out goes the refined carbs and processed sugar, in comes the oily fish, turmeric, leafy green veg, fermented foods, apple cider vinegar and live yoghurt. It can be done. With persistence, it is possible to starve out the bad sugar-loving bacteria so that you stop having sugar cravings. Starve out the bad, manipulative bacteria and introduce good, healthy bacteria instead.

If you are like me (and I suspect many people are) and struggle with cravings for comfort food, then I urge you to start detaching yourself from your cravings. The way I see it, they are not really you. They are separate, independent organisms living inside you, fighting for survival, manipulating you to feed them. By introducing good bacteria into your system and starving out the bad, it is possible to reset your gut microbiome and begin living a healthier life without feeling like you’re constantly fighting a losing battle. 

If you would like to find out more about foods that enrich the good bacteria in your gut then I highly recommend THE CLEVER GUTS DIET, by Michael Mosely. Reading this book has completely changed by perspective on how I view food. It is well worth a read.

What happens to my hormones when I lose weight?

Heather Murray

24th Feb 2019

When we begin to lose weight our hormones play a big factor in how successful we are at sticking to our new eating regime. We may have the motivation and drive to lose weight, but our hormones can have other ideas.

The two main hormones that affect our appetite are Leptin and Ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that tells you when you’re full. Ghrelin is the hormone that creates the urge to eat. These two hormones can be the culprits behind why many diets fail. They are extremely influential.

Here are some interesting facts for you….

  • When you begin to lose body fat your fat cells respond to this by cutting their output of the hormone leptin -the hormone that tells you when you are full. So even though you may be eating healthily, you don’t feel full after each meal.
  • People who have been overweight for many years often never feel full either. This is because overweight individuals eventually become leptin-resistant, which means their body is producing the hormone, but their brain is no longer listening. This is why some people can eat continually without ever feeling full and one of the reasons why chronically obese individuals find it so hard to stop eating. There is no off-switch telling them they’re full.
  • Have you ever wondered why the moment we go on a diet we can’t stop thinking about food and we can feel constantly hungry? The reason behind this is because when we begin to lose weight, our body secretes more of the hormone Ghrelin -the hormone that creates the urge to eat. How unfair!

The good news is, if you persevere and ‘tough it out’ the troublesome hormones will eventually reset and adapt to your new lifestyle.

I believe in order to lose weight (and keep it off) we must address our whole lifestyle. This includes what food we buy, how we cook, how active we are and why and when we eat. I can't stress enough how important your gut microbiome is in determining your cravings and influencing your appetite.  I’ve focused on improving my gut microbiome by following the Clever Guts Diet, which has greatly reduced my cravings for comfort food. I found that having the awareness that my hormones would interfere initially, gave me the drive to persevere and not give up after the first hurdle. I was surprised to find that after 3-4 weeks my hormones began to adjust to my new eating habits. I’m delighted that I now feel fuller quicker and don’t feel as hungry. The consequences have been natural weight loss without me even trying.

If you want to lose weight, here are three pieces of advice that may make a difference:

  1. Take an honest look at your eating habits and pinpoint where the culprits lie. In my situation, I realised I was an emotional comfort eater who loved carbs. This needed addressing.
  2. Begin to introduce good bacteria into your gut and eliminate the bad bacteria. This will make fighting cravings so much easier. Introduce fermented foods, apple cider vinegar, olive oil and plenty of fiber for your microbiome to chew on.
  3. Remember your hormones are going to act up initially, making you feel hungrier and less full. Don’t give up! Your hormones will reset and after a relatively short period of time, will adjust to the new norm. 

It's time to have more awareness of Complex PTSD

Heather Murray

27th Feb 2019

Complex Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (CPTSD), is a more severe form of PTSD. It can occur after prolonged, repeated experiences of traumatic stress where the individual has no chance to escape or feels trapped. Survivors from abusive relationships often suffer from CPTSD, as do children of narcissistic parents or survivors of child-abuse, neglect or emotional abandonment. Complex PTSD is thought to be more severe if the traumatic events happened early on in life.

It is widely under-diagnosed.

So many of the symptoms can be disguised and incorporated into numerous other mental illnesses such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Clinical Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder and chronic stress.

People who suffer from CPTSD may suffer from the following symptoms:

  • Emotional flashbacks
  • Tyrannical inner and/or outer critic
  • Toxic shame
  • Self-Abandonment
  • Social Anxiety
  • Abject feelings of loneliness and abandonment
  • Fragile self-esteem
  • Attachment Disorder
  • Developmental arrests
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Radical mood changes
  • Dissociation via distracting activities or mental processes
  • Hair triggered fight/flight response
  • Over-sensitivity to stressful situations
  • Suicidal ideation

One of the most noticeable and dominant features of CPTSD is the emotional flashback. These are sudden and often prolonged regressions taking the sufferer back to a time in the past when they felt overwhelming feelings of abandonment, shame, isolation, grief and depression.

They are not always, as many people often think, vivid visualisations. Emotional flashbacks can take you back to a time in your life when you felt deep shame or fear and you re-experience the emotions and feelings you had back then.

Some survivors of abuse get stuck in an emotional flashback for up to weeks at a time. It’s often made worse by the fact they don’t know what’s wrong with them and don’t understand why they feel the way they do. It can be a very confusing and lonely place.

If you find yourself stuck viewing yourself as worthless, unworthy or unlovable you may be in an emotional flashback. This may also be the case if you find yourself caught in a negative cycle of critical self-talk and self-hatred.

Emotional flashbacks are not all-or-none. They can range in intensity from subtle to horrific. They can also last for a couple of moments to weeks on end. Flashbacks are often accompanied by a prolonged sense of feeling small, young, fragile, powerless and helpless -with all feelings intensified by deep, toxic shame and humiliation.

Toxic shame is a term that refers to the overwhelming sense that the sufferer is ugly, stupid or fatally flawed and unlovable. It can often lead to relationship difficulties as the individual may feel they are unworthy or undeserving of a healthy, loving relationship, and may inadvertently push their partner away for fear of being abandoned or because they don't feel deserving of love.

Toxic shame can often leave sufferers with the feeling they cannot reach out for support or comfort. They may feel they don’t deserve support or don’t want to bother people or ‘burden’ them with their problems. Those experiencing toxic shame will often self-medicate or self-sooth with comfort food, alcohol and/or other drugs. They are often at higher risk of substance misuse and eating disorders.

One of the other dominating features of CPTSD is an inner-critic that runs non-stop. It can affect those suffering by limiting their will-power and self-motivation. Someone suffering from CPTSD will likely feel as if their psyche is imprisoned by a jailer who demands constant perfection. Their daily life is driven by a hysterical chauffeur who see’s and expects danger around every corner.

And sadly, whenever the sufferer feels the natural impulse to take care of themselves and give themselves self-compassion and love, their inner critic launches into a full-scale intimidation and shame attack. Their natural instinct of self-care and self-compassion is repressed and locked away, so it becomes a dormant emotion. Many people with CPTSD are so critical of themselves that they feel they don’t deserve anything positive to happen to them.

If you identify with many of the symptoms and feelings written about here and think you may have undiagnosed Complex PTSD, then be reassured you are not alone. Although the road to recovery can be a long and daunting path, it can be made easier by learning about flashback management. One of the first steps in recovery is increasing your understanding and awareness of the illness. Once you understand what you’re up against, it is easier to manage and less terrifying. I would strongly recommend visiting your GP and asking for a psychiatric assessment to get an official diagnosis and be placed on the waiting list for treatment. If CPTSD is left unaddressed, it only becomes worse as flashbacks can increase in frequency and intensity.

I felt inspired to write ‘It’s time to have more awareness of CPTSD’ after reading an incredible book ‘Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving’ by Pete Walker. Many of the facts and references I have here are from his book, which I think is one of the most in-depth and relatable literary works on CPTSD that I’ve come across. Pete Walker suffers from Complex PTSD himself, and has learned how to not only survive, but thrive with his diagnosis. Once again, if you identify as suffering from CPTSD or know someone who is struggling with the diagnosis, I recommend this book for enhancing your awareness and understanding of the illness.

How can I help myself lose weight without dieting or counting calories?

Heather Murray

7th April 2019

Losing weight is about developing a new, healthy relationship with your body. Focus on looking after your body -treating your body with respect and nurturing it as you would a small child. Eat the most nourishing food you can afford, get plenty of fresh air and movement, rest often and speak kindly to yourself. Along with hypnosis there are a few things that you can do yourself to help yourself lose weight. Follow these steps to help alleviate cravings and lose weight naturally.

1. Focus on improving your gut health

I cannot emphasise the importance of gut health enough. Improving your gut health should be your first priority on your weight loss journey…. Did you know that the bacteria living in our gut can actually determine our cravings? These powerful, microscopic organisms send signals to our brains which influence what foods we crave and our appetite. If you find yourself craving sugar like crazy, it’s most likely down to all the sugar loving bacteria telling their host (YOU) what to eat. As you begin to introduce good, healthy bacteria into your gut microbiome, the sugar-loving bad bacteria will begin to die out…. As will your cravings.

You can improve your gut health by introducing Apple Cider Vinegar, Live Yoghurt, Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Kefir and Miso Soup. These fermented foods will flood your gut with good bacteria which will help to reduce cravings and reduce inflammation of your gut lining.

2. Eat a Mediterranean style diet

This is a diet that emphasises eating primarily plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. It consists of lots of meat such as chicken and grass-fed beef, oily fish and healthy fats, such as olive oil and yogurt. It is high in protein, but low in carbohydrates.

3. Start intermittent fasting

I swear by intermittent fasting… Intermittent fasting is an eating schedule whereby you only eat within a set eating window during the day. For beginners, aim for a 12-hour over-night fast to begin with. This would mean, finishing eating at 8pm for example, and not eating anything else until 8am the next morning. You can gradually increase your fast to 14-hours and then 16-hours. Water, black tea and coffee are the only things you can consume during your fast. It’s surprisingly easy to do.

There are numerous benefits to intermittent fasting. It can enhance hormone function, lower insulin levels, increase levels of human growth hormone (the longevity hormone) and increase the amounts of norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which all increase the breakdown of body fat and facilitate its use for energy.

For this reason, short-term fasting actually increases your metabolic rate by 3.6-14%, helping you burn even more calories

In other words, intermittent fasting works on both sides of the calorie equation. It boosts your metabolic rate (increases calories out) and reduces the amount of food you eat (reduces calories in).

4. Cut out refined carbohydrates and processed foods

This means radically reducing your intake of foods such as bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. Start to view carbohydrates as an accompaniment to your meal, not the main feature. Instead of white bread, go for organic wholegrain or rye bread as healthier alternative. Processed foods are so low in nutritional value that they are unlikely to fill us up -leading us to feel hungry later on. Focus on eating whole foods that are unprocessed and refined as little as possible and free from additives or other artificial substances.

5. Get walking

If you were to commit to walking 4,500 extra steps per day, or roughly 3 extra miles, you would start to burn an extra 300 calories a day (at least). Burning 300 calories each day leads to a weekly deficit of 2100 calories. After a month, that's roughly 9000 cal burned, which equates to approximately 2.6 pounds lost. Try and aim to walk at least 10,000 steps a day.

6. Reduce your alcohol intake

Even if you are a moderate drinker, the calories you consume from alcohol can impact your attempts at weight loss. Alcoholic beverages are empty calories as they contain no nutritional benefits whatsoever. A large glass of wine can contain up to 160 calories and a gin and tonic can contain up to 170. Calories are easy to overconsume when they are liquid and they don’t fill us up like food does. So, if you’re drinking your calories, you could easily still end up hungry and craving extra food. If you do want to have an alcoholic drink, choose red wine as this contains powerful antioxidants that benefit the gut.

7. Drink plenty of water

Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day (or 2 litres for women, 2.5 litres for men). If you struggle to drink plain water, you can fill a large jug with tap water and add some cucumber, mint or lemon to it. Put it in the fridge and refill when necessary. It makes water taste so much more interesting and refreshing. Adding apple cider vinegar to sparkling water is a nice, refreshing drink. It can help to alleviate cravings too. Herbal teas are also a must have. I like liquorice tea if I fancy a bit of sweetness. Turmeric tea is a great one as it’s a natural anti-inflammatory, which is great for your gut.

8. Eat dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate

If you’re really in the mood for something sweet, treat yourself to dark chocolate with a minimum cocoa percentage of 70%. It contains less sugar than milk chocolate and is also less addictive. Cocoa is actually beneficial for the gut so you can eat it without feeling guilty about having a treat.

9. Introduce Matcha Green Tea into your diet

This drink is high in anti-oxidants and is well known for its ability to enhance weight loss. In fact, studies show that it may help speed up metabolism to increase energy expenditure and boost fat burning. It can also suppress your appetite, making it easier to avoid snacking between meals.

10. Introduce Turmeric into your diet

Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. It is a must for boosting your gut health by reducing inflammation. Studies also suggest it can boost mood by reducing some of the symptoms of depression.

11. Books I recommend

These books are all ones that I have learned an enormous amount from. I cannot recommend them highly enough if you want to change your eating habits and lifestyle. They are all relatable, easy to read and backed by huge amounts of science and research.

  • The Clever Guts Diet – Dr Michael Mosely
  • The Fast 800 -Dr Michael Mosely
  • The 8 -Week Blood Sugar Diet – Dr Michael Mosely
  • End Emotional Eating – Jennifer L. Taitz
  • The Gut Makeover – Jeannette Hyde

12. Videos I recommend

I love binge watching interesting videos on YouTube relating to nutrition, personal development and general health and well-being. Here are a few that I found particularly useful: 

  • Benefits of Intermittent Fasting and How To Do It – Dr Josh Axe
  • “Stop Sabotaging Yourself” – TedTalk – Dr Debi Silber
  • How to do intermittent fasting – Thomas DeLauer
  • Joe Rogan – Matcha Tea, Healthy Eating and Back Pain – Joe Rogan Universe -Fan Channel 

Please note: these steps are a rough guide to help achieve weight loss. They may not work for everyone and they will not be suitable certain groups of people. I strongly advise you to do your own research and use these steps as a guide only. Please consult your doctor if you are in any doubt.