I was feeling desperate. I had visited numerous doctors, dermatologists, opticians and even a Chinese medicine practitioner but no one could figure out what was causing my symptoms. I was suffering from anxiety, itchy break outs after eating certain foods, terrible digestion, IBS and to top it all, one half on my left eye had gone completely red.
Finally, I contacted a nutritional therapist. Within four days of following her advice, my symptoms had improved: my eye was back to normal, and my digestion had got better. It was through this experience that I learned first-hand the power of the gut when it comes to our health.
Looking back, I realise now that I had gut issues for years and I wonder how my unhealthy gut might have impacted my anxiety levels. Since my teenage years, I would have regular panic attacks, obsessive bouts of worry and social anxiety that held me back in friendships and relationships; when I started to research the link between the gut and the brain, I was fascinated. The gut is an incredible place. It houses over 100,00 neurones, the same as in a cat’s brain. There are more bacteria in your gut than there are cells in your body; bacteria that send messages through the nerves up to your brain.
But all the courses of antibiotics we take throughout our lives can wipe out the good and harmful bacteria. And with no good bacteria to crowd out the bad, harmful bacteria can start taking over the gut. Add to that the fact our diets are often high in sugar, refined carbs and alcohol feed the bad bacteria in our intestines, and it’s easy to see how things can go wrong.
Currently, more and more studies are emerging that suggest our gult health can impact our chances of developing anxiety and depression. Many researchers have theorised it’s down to serotonin – the 'happy hormone – 90% of which is created by our beneficial gut bacteria.
I was particularly fascinated by the power fasting appears to have on both our gut and mental health. Not only is there evidence it could improve the diversity of your gut bacteria, thus helping you produce more serotonin, but it could also help lower inflammation, which has been linked to mental health issues.
When we fast, something called ‘autophagy’ (or ‘self-eating) happens – where the body ‘eats' damaged or faulty cells, such as damaged immune cells. "When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that aren't needed, especially those that may be damaged,” says Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology and the Biological Sciences at the University of California. In one of his studies, Longo found that just three days of fasting was enough to completely regenerate the immune system.
And the healthier your immune system, the lower the chance of chronic inflammation, which scientists believe could be a major factor in depression. Carmine Pariante, Professor of Biological Psychiatry at King’s College London says there's a large amount of research linking the two, explaining that if you measure inflammation in the blood in a depressed patient, you’ll likely find higher levels of ‘inflammatory biomarkers’ than in those who aren’t experiencing the condition.
To learn the art of fasting myself, I visited the spa hotel Fonteverde, nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany, to embark on a fast-mimicking diet for four days. The programme aims to switch the body into repair mode, through eating very little, to activate autophagy, which in turn will help heal the gut and reduce inflammation.
The irony of eating so little in somewhere like Tuscany was not lost on me. But Fonteverde’s chef did a inimitable job at creating dishes that were low calorie but interesting and sent my body to go into fasting mode. Hunger was kept at bay with delicious soups and plates of spiralized courgette with fresh tomatoes and cauliflower rice.
While some people might have the resilience to develop the ability to fast at home, I knew I’d need to be away from temptation to learn how. A doctor took my blood pressure, and a nutritionist asked me about my current diet and lifestyle habits, measured my weight and height and designed a food plan around my preferences. Plus, I was comforted by the fact I would be under medical supervision, with doctors on hand and regular check-ups. While fasting is considered safe, it’s not for everyone.
Four day later, I felt elated. Sticking to the diet was easier than I expected (no doubt helped by the Tuscany landscape to distract me) and I left motivated to continue my gut healing journey.
Back home, I saw a nutritional therapist, who amongst other things recommended I include more cultured vegetables in my diet. Enter: sauerkraut. While the idea of eating bacteria-laden cabbage sounds less than appealing, I gave it a try. And despite sauerkraut being an acquired taste, I’ve come to love it and am constantly plonking a spoonful on the side of most meals. While it can be pricey to buy, it’s simple to make at home. So I attended a workshop where myself and 15 others cheerfully made our own. We 'massaged’ shredded cabbage with our bare hands, pushed it into jars to create an ‘aerobic environment for good bacteria to flourish’ and then took it home to ferment in the fridge for a week…. Tasty and certainly cost effective but not all that short on time.
Next up, kombucha – something which these days is being served over ice in trendy London bars, but up until a few years ago was largely unheard of outside of LA wellbeing circles. Again, ready-made at great expense, or if you’re feeling you can make it at home. I ordered a kombucha kit online, complete with what’s known as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) an unattractive lump of matter which works to ferment the sugar in a green tea solution and create the effervescent, health-giving drink. I think I still have much to learn about kombucha brewing, given the wincing faces of my friends I served it to in a champagne flute. Beware: kombucha can ferment too far and turn out tart and vinegary.
While sharing my kombucha woe with someone at a gut health event, I learned 'kefir' is a lot easier to make. A cultured, fermented drink made of milk which helps to restore levels of good bacteria, a new book published by Hay House, The Kefir Solution, suggests drinking kefir could protect you against a host of ailments, from IBS to anxiety and depression. I order some live goat’s milk kefir online from Chuckling Goat, but it’s also possible to make it yourself with ‘kefir grains’ added to milk.
And finally, my nutritional therapist recommended taking a probiotic supplement to reintroduce good bacteria into my gut – a particularly important step for anyone who’s recently taken antibiotics. I opted for is Symprove – it’s a liquid that's stored in the fridge and drunk first thing in the morning before you eat any food, ensuring that your stomach acid digests as little bacteria as possible (NB: nothing comes cheap, but your health comes first).
So did it all work? Unsurprisingly, my digestion has hugely improved, but I've also found myself clearer-headed and calmer than ever. Bloating and skin issues are a thing of the past and I'm convinced that healing my gut alongside 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation twice a day and 30 minutes of exercise daily are to thank.
One final tip? While you're adding in good bacteria, it’s also essential to reduce the bad bugs' favourite food – sugar. While I don’t believe you need to ditch the sweet stuff completely, cutting down is key to seeing results, along with choosing slower releasing carbohydrates such as whole grains.