Children’s Mental Health Week
This week (1/2/2021) marks Children’s Mental Health Week, and whilst many things play a part in mental health, an often-overlooked factor is gut health.
Our digestive system actually has more neuronal connections than our brain, and it’s not unusual to hear the gut called ‘the second brain’. During foetal development, the gut and the brain are two of the first organs to develop, and do so simultaneously, which may begin to explain this strong gut-brain connection.
It was once considered that the brain and the gut were completely separate systems of the body, yet recent research is now unwrapping the complex interactions between the gut and all parts of the body, not least the brain. Anyone who has felt the sensation of a knot in their stomach before a stressful and exciting event can vouch that the brain can have an effect on the gut. But interestingly researchers have discovered that more messages are sent from gut to brain, than the other way round. And also, that several neurotransmitters (chemicals that send messages in the brain) are predominantly produced in the gut, including serotonin and dopamine (the so-called happy and pleasure hormones respectively.) There’s also strong evidence that healing the gut, through diet and other interventions, can improve concentration and the ability to think more clearly, symptoms that many wouldn’t associate with gut health.
So, what does this all mean? Well, gut health and factors that influence the gut can have an effect on mental health.
What do we do with this information? Whilst each case is different there are some general pointers that will improve gut health in most cases:
- Eat the rainbow. Eating as wide a variety of vegetables and fruit as possible will lead to a wider variety of gut bugs, which in general leads to improved overall health. The increased fibre that comes with eating more plants will make kids feel more satiated and less likely to want to eat other, less healthy foods. Another side benefit is that vegetables and most fruit help maintain steady in blood sugar levels, which is important in providing a healthy environment for gut bacteria.
- Reduce processed foods. This point isn’t original but worth reiterating. Added sugar, sweeteners, refined carbs (baked goods) and additives all pull our gut health in a negative direction. Try and make them the exception rather than the rule. Just like eating more vegetables results in gut bugs wanting more veg, bacteria that feed on sugar will crave more sugar. As mentioned above, sugar in the diet negatively impacts blood sugar levels, which not only impacts our environment for gut bacteria, but is upstream of health issues like obesity and type-two diabetes.
- Pay attention to intolerances and reactions. These can be subtle, but do certain foods trigger certain behaviours? If children are eating a diet with lots of processed foods, it can be really difficult to pinpoint which of these is the cause. The simpler the food the less likely they are to have reactions. Try using herbs & spices to add extra flavour and depth.
- Live dirty, eat clean. Getting outside in the dirt and exposing ourselves to bacteria can present a healthy low-grade challenge whilst, strengthening the diversity of out gut bacteria. Not only this but being outside, (away from screens) is a stress-reliever. Win-win!
If you or your child has more complex gut issues, it’s likely a more individual approach will be needed. Contact me at [email protected] to book a free discovery call to see how you could benefit from and get back to a life you love.