Our happiness lies in our gut

balance

The most common form of despair is not being who you are,” said  Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. And at some deep level, we all know it, don’t we? I remember a friend going through a divorce crying, “This is not me! I can’t be going through this. I’m not a ­depressive!” Indeed, we are not, because we have two powerful allies in us — our mind and our gut. These two can pull us out of an abyss and help us stand straight and serene on firm ground once again.

 

Work gives wings

Medicine numbs and time heals. Meanwhile, it’s wise to steer our attention to work or any activity, not only to distract our mind but to re-track it on the healing path. This de-links it from despair, from the what-will-happen-to-me fear. It’s easy to curl up and sleep all day long, and it does help as we get a quiet space-time matrix to slip into,  insulated from the pain.  After that, it’s good to get back on track with work. Here, there’s satisfaction, a ‘medicine’ that’s not often recognised.

When you get into any activity, it enables the mind to live extensively on a plane that is free of personal storms. It helps us forget things that pull us down so that we may fly. It is like being enveloped in white, fluffy clouds and when we return to land, the mind has changed. There’s confidence where there was fear, there’s lightness where there was a shroud of heaviness. The trick is to keep it there.

 

What are we?

Understanding our make-up helps. Thirty years of extensive research in 70 countries has shown an interesting break-up: Apparently, only 15 per cent of our satisfaction with life is influenced by external circumstances such as financial and social status, education, hobbies, ethnicity and age; 25 per cent appears to be determined by genes; and 60 per cent is subject to how we think and operate, how we react, our lifestyle and so on. It is also very important to know that our genes are only a blueprint. They get triggered by our ‘thinkstyle’ and lifestyle. This is fascinating. It means, with the right-for-me lifestyle, we can let the negative genes lie in a passive mode in the blueprint and activate the positive genes to play out happy tunes.

This discovery has made psychiatrists ponder extensively and connect the dots to come to some intelligent and useful conclusions. Since our gut  has 39 trillion microorganisms that contain a certain amount of genetic material, could our pre-disposition to happiness lie in our intestines? And could we activate them? If so, how?

Interestingly, researchers discovered that, through a procedure called FMT, on introducing healthy bacteria from a non-depressed person into a depressed patient’s gastrointestinal tract, the patient’s disposition improved tremendously! So, what’s the connection between our gut and depression? It is that: our gut and brain communicate with each other.

The microorganisms in our gut or intestines comprise bacteria, viruses and fungi. When we eat, these organisms produce useful chemicals. They message the brain through the network of the vagus nerve. This nerve starts in the brain stem, travels down the neck alongside the carotid arteries to the chest, then branches out to our organs including our intestines. This nerve, thus, controls the contraction or peristalsis of the gut during digestion and it also controls our heart rate.

 

The gut-brain buzz

The communication is a two-way street. An uncomfortable intestine that is troubled by the food we eat can send distress signals to the brain. And a brain pressured by anxiety, worry or sadness can send distress signals to the intestines. These two-way signals, when negative, increase or stimulate the bad bacteria in the gut. The bad bacteria produces inflammatory chemicals and sends them to the brain. So, you see the connection? In sum: gut distress can cause or be a result of anxiety and depression. We all know and have experienced this connection at some time or the other: butterflies in the stomach from nervousness, feeling nauseous on hearing some bad news… Mental health specialists say that the ideal scenario is to have a diverse population of bacteria strains in the gut and a relaxed brain. This is good physical and mental health.

 

Good bacteria, bad bacteria

We do well for ourselves when the good and bad bacteria are balanced. The good bacteria is so named because it not only helps digestion, it also keeps the bad bacteria in check. So, to keep a high level of good bacteria, we need to look at our diet and medication. Many medication, including antibiotics, can change the bacteria population in our gut for the worse. Some bacteria disappear, some increase beyond healthy parameters and in the new balance, we get bacteria that are able to resist medicines. Age is another factor — as we grow older, the bacteria diversity decreases, so we have to look even more closely at our medication. Anyway, whatever our age, we need to lead a happier, healthier life that keeps both gut and brain at their optimum. Here are some useful and practical suggestions:

 

  • Adopt a friendly diet. Rid yourself of processed foods, sugar and red meat. It gives the gut a fair chance to heal as quickly as it can. Studies show that post-antibiotics, healthy individuals take two months to return to baseline; non-healthy individuals take anywhere between 1–2 years.
  • Go for prebiotics. These contain fibre, inulin, fruit sugars that nourish the gut and keep the good bacteria active. Nutritionists advise onions, garlic, bananas, walnuts, raisins, oily fish and oats.
  • Eat probiotics too. These contain actual bacteria that the gut absorbs and they boost the good bacteria population. These include curd, idli, paneer, green peas and apples. You also get probiotic supplements which work best on an empty stomach and should be had well before a meal. The reason: they protect good bacteria better and help it to survive the stomach acid. If had just before or after a meal, the food dilutes their effect. I got this wonderful idea to combine prebiotic and probiotic food from the celebrated dietitian Rujuta Diwekar. Sprinkle the bottom of the bowl with black raisins (prebiotics). Pour lukewarm milk in it. Stir 32 times Now, add a bit of curd to set it. It’s ready to eat in a few hours in summer and next morning in the cold season. I feel better and stronger since I started it a week ago. No digestive problems, no weakness, no rise in blood pressure despite being on a course of antibiotics recently for tooth extraction. Rujuta says this combination is good for teeth and gums, bones and joints, eases constipation, regulates cholesterol levels, brings down blood pressure and promotes weight loss. If you want a variation, you can replace raisins with dates. Caution: Don’t overdose on raisins or dates, especially if you have diabetes or are diagnosed as ‘pre-diabetic’.
  • Walk off blues. Walking in nature is always a beautiful experience. You come away feeling calm and relaxed. These tranquil feelings are heightened after a bath. The good news here is that any aerobic activity improves the diversity of your gut population. Experts suggest a 30-minute brisk walk or a ­15-minute run, five days a week.
  • Regularise habits. Today, there are specialists in ‘functional lifestyle medicine’ like Dr Ryan Barish who say, “Our bodies like consistency and predictability, meaning we should go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day. We should eat at the same times and be consistent even on weekends.’ This regularisation decreases stress, reduces inflammation and keeps the gut easy and relaxed.

Take care of your gut population and the gut population takes care of you.

The writers are authors of Fitness for Life and Simply Spiritual – You Are Naturally Divine and teachers of the Fitness for Life programme

 

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