Health and Wellness Blog

This blog is primarily 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.