The digestive system does a lot more than just break down your food – it impacts your mental health, mood and ability to function as leader. Louise Chunn, founder of welldoing.org, outlines how a healthy gut will help you to become a better boss
If you acted on everything you read about new health discoveries, you’d never have time to run your business. But the newest research about the role of the gut in wellbeing can’t be flicked past; it’s potentially life changing. What you eat won’t just help you stay healthy, it can help make you a better leader.
Here’s the science: the bacteria living in and on our bodies is called the microbiome, made up of around 100 trillion bacterial cells, most of them in the gut. The digestive system is like a ‘second brain’, passing signals from gut to head, not just the other way around. And while an unhealthy gut leads to inflammation, a weak immune system and allergy-style symptoms, a healthy one is key to improved mental and physical wellbeing – and probably a slimmer body too.
A report published in the New York Times said much of the composition of the microbiome is established early in life, “shaped by forces like your genetics and whether you were breastfed or bottle-fed. Microbial diversity may be further undermined by the typical high-calorie diet, rich in sugar, meats and processed foods. But a new study in mice and people adds to evidence that suggests you can take steps to enrich your gut microbiota.”
London-based nutritional therapist Jeannette Hyde is a firm believer in the ability to radically change overall health through diet and her 2016 book The Gut Makeover explains the latest research and advises about changing your eating.
Her four-week gut makeover plan involves two weeks of ‘repair’ – lots of vegetables, fruit, protein – followed by two weeks to ‘reinoculate’, adding in dairy and complex carbohydrates. Coffee, sugar and alcohol are out for the full four weeks. Your home, most cafés and all restaurants could provide you with the prescribed food: scrambled eggs for breakfast, say, or stir-fry chicken and vegetables for supper.
I tested her makeover for my therapy start-up welldoing.org, which focuses on mental health. I was amazed that – after the initial caffeine-withdrawal headaches – the vegetable and protein-rich diet made me sleep better, feel alert, stay focused and lose 3kg without feeling hungry. A huge boost for someone in the early stages of a new business with all the inner stress and public performance that involves.
The gut and your mood
The psychology department at St Mary’s University, Twickenham is researching gut and mood symptoms and has found the responses of test subjects to this diet dramatic. “If these were the results of a drug it would be front-page news,” said lead researcher Dr Kate Lawrence.
Much of the research is done on mice rather than humans, but it is clear the gut-brain axis is much more important than previously realised. We now know, for example, that around 90 per cent of receptor sites for serotonin – the neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy, confident and motivated – are in the gut.
As Australian psychologist and nutrition expert Delia McCabe wrote in Feed Your Brain: “The nutrients required to ensure serotonin synthesis are B vitamins, as well as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C and amino acids (protein). If these nutrients are not available in the quantity required, serotonin synthesis cannot occur, and mood and appetite challenges can result.” In other words, if you don’t eat the right elements, the chemistry of your brain will be unable to do its best work.
Business life, it is now clear, isn’t designed for gut health or brain feeding. Pastries and coffee on the boardroom table; heavy lunches; snacks eaten on the run; boozing after work – these are anathema to your wellbeing, not just suit size, but brain capacity, emotional resilience, ability to deal with anxiety and stress, and ability to keep your blood sugar level rather than soaring and crashing intermittently. The behaviour of many businesspeople is driven as much by their stomachs as their brains, as they struggle to cope with the wrong ‘medicine’.
It may all sound a bit like the green juice and ‘clean eating’ fad, but the science is clear: there is a link between your brain and gut, and it works in myriad ways with different consequences. For example, when eating a favourite food such as chocolate, dopamine levels rise. But eating too many treats leads to a decrease in the effects of dopamine as the brain tries to turn down the signal. Suddenly, it takes more chocolate to feel the same rush, just as it does with drugs.
How to build yourself a healthy gut flora? Part of the plan would be to stay away from the most damaging foods – sugar, processed foods, refined carbohydrates – and add in more fruit and vegetables. And not just your usual apples and carrots, but everything from aubergine to zucchini, artichokes to yams. It shouldn’t feel like a slog, but an adventure. Because it’s not just how food tastes, but what it can do for you and your ability to do your work at the peak of your abilities. Now, as a business leader, that should be reason enough for you to investigate further.
5 steps to a healthy gut
1 – 12-hour fast between dinner and breakfast
It leaves time for your food to be digested, and for you to feel hungry
2 – Eat at least seven fruit or vegetables a day
The key to a healthy gut is variety, so don’t eat the same things every day
3 – Avoid processed foods
Look for whole foods, with plenty of protein and not many grains
4 – Watch coffee
Too much caffeine can raise your cortisol levels and affect your gut health equilibrium
5 – Go alcohol-free for at least two days a week
Alcohol is filled with sugar, which damages essential gut flora
To find out more about Chunn’s work helping you to improve your mind and body visit welldoing.org
To view clips of Jeanette Hyde discussing The Gut Makeover, visit instagram.com/jeannettehydenutrition