This week, systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC explain the relationship between mood and food, and how better digestive health can enhance and support wellbeing and brain function.
Being a lawyer is physically tough. The pressures of the job, and the physical neglect that comes with long hours, take their toll on the body. Since the practice of law is generally seen as an intellectual exercise, the physical effects are easily overlooked. Lawyers tend to view their physical health as perfectly adequate if it allows them to get on with job. Very few regard their body as a positive resource to be nurtured and harnessed in support of their work.
If this sounds familiar, then it’s time to think again.
One part of the body where the physical effects of a lawyer’s work are seen is in the digestive system. Stress and nervous tension tend to manifest themselves in the gut, causing anything from butterflies and indigestion, to more serious conditions such as irritable bowl syndrome and stomach ulcers. The traditional response of western medicine is to medicate to relieve the symptoms, so that the mind can be left in relative peace to go about its daily work.
But what many people do not realise is that the heath of their gut has a direct relationship with the health of their brain. Science has shown that the microbiome of the gut – that is, the microorganisms in our digestive system – have a critical role to play in the functioning and health of the central nervous system. This has given rise to what neuroscientists have nicknamed “the gut-brain”. Just as our brains can send signals to our gut, for example, the well-known feeling of butterflies when we are anxious, so too can the gut transmit feelings of well-being or anxiety to the brain.
Remarkably, it is estimated that some 80-90 per cent of the serotonin in the human body is produced not by the brain but by the digestive tract. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with the maintenance of wellbeing, mood balance, sexual desire and happiness. Poor levels of serotonin have been associated with lack of motivation and depression.
This understanding opens the way to so-called “mood-foods” – aspects of our diet that can support a healthy gut and hence healthy brain function and positive wellbeing.
Dietary recommendations to support the gut include:
- Drinking plenty of water: good hydration is essential for health generally, including digestive health. Filtered water that has had chemicals such as chlorine and fluorine removed is recommended. Make placing a bottle of water and glass on your desk part of your daily ritual when you set yourself up for work in the morning. This will help ensure that you drink plenty of water during the day.
- Eating pro- and pre-biotic foods: pro-biotics are live bacteria that support good digestive health. They are found in foods such as live yoghurt, and fermented foods such a raw apple cider vinegar, kefir and sauerkraut. Pre-biotics are foods that support the growth of pro-biotic bacteria. These include onions, garlic, chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke.
- Reducing sugar and processed foods: unfortunately, snacking on sugary foods has become ingrained in office culture, particularly at meetings. In meetings, try substituting the plate of biscuits with a bowl of beautiful fruit. Not only will this be more supportive of digestive health, but the presence of Nature in a bowl can often make people feel more grounded and relaxed.
Of course, it should come as no surprise to us that our mental health is profoundly influenced by our diet. Commonly used phrases such as “we are what we eat” and “healthy body, healthy mind” testify to the importance of diet for wellbeing and mental health.
So, next time you get that gut feeling, think about what it might be telling you.
After all, why use just one brain, when you have two?
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC