There are more microbes inside our gut, than all of the human cells that make us. That’s right, we’re more than half microbe! So, how can they NOT impact our health?
Let’s unpack some of the exciting (and preliminary) new research about the link between gut health, mood, and stress. We’ll talk about your friendly resident gut microbes, probiotic foods, and supplements, as well as offer some simple recipes to keep your gut and taste buds happy.
There are trillions of microbes that happily live in our gut. These friendly microbes do more than help us digest foods, make vitamins, and protect us from the not-so-friendly microbes – they have mood-boosting and stress-busting functions too!
It’s a hot topic of research right now and we’re finding out more about their awesome health and mood/stress benefits every day. And, while the research is just starting to figure out the many gut microbe-brain connections, it’s such a cool new topic that we couldn’t wait to share it with you!
GUT MICROBES AND PROBIOTICS
The microbes that live in our guts are known as our “gut microbiota”. The microbes that we can ingest are known as “probiotics”.
“Probiotics” are live organisms that you can eat, drink, or take as a supplement. They turn milk into yogurt, and cabbage into sauerkraut; and they are great for both your gut health and mental health. Special probiotics that have mental health benefits are called “psychobiotics,” (psycho = mental health, and biotics = live). They are live organisms that can benefit our psyche.
PROBIOTIC-RICH FOODS AND SUPPLEMENTS
Probiotics can be found in yogurt, sauerkraut (and other fermented veggies), miso, tempeh, and kimchi. You can drink them in kefir or kombucha. Be sure to choose unpasteurized ones that will be refrigerated in your local grocer. Unpasteurized foods are not recommended if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, so please check with your healthcare provider.
Of course, there are several probiotic supplements available too. Check with your healthcare provider to identify which one is best for you. Generally, we look for one that’s refrigerated and has at least 10 billion active cultures. We also suggest you look for one that has been “third party tested,” which means someone outside the company has tested it and says it’s a quality product.
Also, be sure to read the label before taking any supplements. The probiotics with the most research are of the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus types. But we still don’t know enough about the psychobiotic effects to make specific mood-boosting recommendations yet.
SIMPLE, PROBIOTIC-RICH RECIPES
Confetti Vegetable Salad with Miso Dressing
Cauliflower Olive Salad with Yogurt
Strawberry Almond Chia Pudding
It may not seem obvious or intuitive, but your body is interconnected in many ways and more research is focusing on the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” It’s the very complex connection between your gut, its microbes, and your brain. This new field has been called a “paradigm shift in neuroscience” (Dinan, 2017).
In fact, there are a number of ways that we’re beginning to understand how our gut microbes can affect our brain. One is via the “vagus” nerve, which is a nerve that directly connects your gut to your brain. The other ways are through “biochemical messengers.” Biochemicals that are made in your gut and travel throughout the body to communicate with other organs, including your brain. Examples of biochemicals include short chain fatty acids, cytokines, and even tryptophan (the amino acid that the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin are made from).
The exciting thing is that this may help us with not only mood and stress, but the microbiota-gut-brain axis may one day prove to be helpful for other conditions like autism and Parkinson’s.
MOOD, STRESS, AND YOUR MICROBES
Several studies show that stressed rodents not only have increased stress hormones and stressed behaviors; but they also have different gut microbes! This has also been studied, to a small extent, in people too. One study showed that moms with high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy had infants with more of the “bad” gut microbes.
But, can it work the other way around? Can changing our gut microbes affect our moods and stress responses?
Studies of rodents that grow up without any gut microbes at all (in a “bacteria-free” environment) respond to stress more than mice with normal gut microbes. Then, when they’re given either a probiotic or gut microbes from non-stressed mice, their stress responses often go back to normal.
“Gut microbiota and probiotics alter behavior and brain neurochemistry.” (Ait-Belgnaoui, et. al., 2012) That’s a powerful statement.
Many animal studies show positive effects on behavior when they get probiotic supplements. For example, after a probiotic, stressed rats had lower levels of both stress hormones and an inflammatory molecule associated with depression (“LPS” – lipopolysaccharide). Human studies show that after a few weeks of taking probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people have reduced stress hormones, feelings of stress, negative thoughts, and sad moods.
One fascinating study showed that when people took probiotics, brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests showed reduced brain activity for negative and aggressive thoughts!
There is some exciting research on the positive effect that probiotics can have on moods and stress. So, what can you do to nurture your own healthy gut microbes?.
In Part 1 we talked about the benefits of consuming probiotic-rich food. Once the gut microbes take up residence in our guts, we need to feed them!
PREbiotics are food for gut microbes and, when fermented in the gut, produce specific changes in bacterial composition or activity. They are your friendly gut microbes’ favorite delicacies, so they’ll happily grow and multiply. Prebiotics are basically foods that contain fiber. Things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Even dark chocolate (preferably with at least 70% cocoa). Foods that are particularly high in prebiotics include jicama, asparagus, avocado, whole grains, and allium vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots.
Giving animals prebiotics has shown to reduce stress hormones, and anxiety-related behaviors. In people, studies show that taking psychobiotics along with prebiotics can improve both the microbes in our gut, as well as our mood.
Asparagus with Lemon Thyme Dressing
Triple Greens Soup with Avocado
Creamy Mediterranean Garlic Chicken
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Wondering… Do you have to exercise to lose weight?
Overweight and obesity are so common today that two-thirds of adults and one-third of children experience these in the United States right now. That’s hundreds of millions of people, so please don’t feel alone. Overweight and obesity can increase the risk of many health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Achieving a healthy weight, eating nutritious foods, and being physically active can help improve your health and reduce your risks. If you are wondering… do you have to exercise to lose weight? You are in the right place.
There is so much more to the old advice: eat less, move more.
Weight loss is very challenging for many reasons:
- There is an abundance of food available around most of us 24/7
- Eating isn’t just something we do for sustenance; it’s gratification, a social activity, and sometimes even a reward
- Computers, cars, and other modern conveniences have contributed to a lot more sitting—we don’t all need to be physically active farmers to survive anymore
- Reducing calories voluntarily is really, really hard; it’s a huge challenge to change habits
- Many diets work in the short term, but fail later on because they’re simply unsustainable
- After losing weight, maintaining weight loss is extremely difficult. Did you know that losing weight decreases your metabolism?
Let’s go over some strategies to overcome the challenges of weight loss.
What is metabolism and how can I lose weight? Do I need to exercise to lose weight?
Your weight is based on several factors, some are controllable, and others are not. For example, your genetics, family history, and hormones can impact your weight, but there’s not too much you can do to significantly change those. On the other hand, how much and what you eat, the medications you’re taking, the amount of stress you’re under, and how much sleep and physical activity you get also contribute to weight and are a bit more controllable (albeit not completely controllable).
Here’s where metabolism fits with weight. There are so many things that your body does at rest: breathing, pumping blood, adjusting hormone levels, maintaining your body temperature, and growing and repairing cells. The amount of energy (calories) your body uses to perform these essential functions is called your “basal metabolic rate.” Overall, your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or metabolism, accounts for about two-thirds of the calories your body burns each and every day.
“Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Your metabolism is influenced mostly by your body size and composition. This means that people who are bigger and/or have heavier bones and more muscle mass burn more calories at rest. Because men tend to be bigger and have more muscle, they naturally tend to have a higher metabolism than women. This also goes for younger people. Because bone and muscle mass naturally tend to decrease (and fat mass naturally tends to increase) with age, if you don’t take steps to maintain bone and muscle mass, your metabolism likely will decrease which results in increased weight.
Certain medical conditions can also affect your metabolism. For example the hormonal conditions of Cushing’s syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can slow your metabolism down. These conditions often come with a range of other symptoms beyond just weight gain. If you suspect that you have an underlying medical condition, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor or healthcare professional about tests to confirm these diagnoses.
A slow metabolism may be one factor that influences your weight, but it’s not the only one. How your body processes what you eat or drink and how active you are also play roles in your weight. The process of digesting food burns calories. About 10 percent of the calories in carbohydrates and protein are used to digest them. Plus, the amount of physical activity you do also accounts for some of the calories you burn every day.
While some people may gain or lose weight easier than others, in general, the balance of your “energy equation” counts for your weight. That is, the amount of energy (calories) you take in minus the amount of energy (calories) you burn can determine whether you gain or lose weight.
Weight loss strategies
Before you start a weight-loss program, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider. Many weight-loss products or programs can be harmful depending on your current state of health and goals. Be particularly wary of products or programs that promise quick, long-lasting, or effortless weight loss.
Your behaviors and habits have a huge influence on your weight, and you are empowered to adjust them as you see fit. It’s recommended that if you experience overweight or obesity and want to lose weight, try cutting 500 calories per day from what you eat. And, if you can add in some of these other strategies (including adding physical activity) you may be able to reach your weight-loss goals even faster.
Here are my top six strategies for weight loss/maintenance:
1 – Set specific, realistic, forgiving goals
- Instead of a goal to “lose weight,” try smaller and more specific goals that you can attain.
- Daily or weekly goals can be, for example, to cook a vegetable-rich meal on the weekend, decrease food cues (hiding cookies out of sight or disregarding food ads), or walk at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days a week.
- Try to stick with a new habit for at least a week or two to start making it routine. Then when one habit becomes consistent, add another one.
- Remember, it’s not uncommon to take 6 months to lose 5% of your body weight, so that may be a more realistic goal to aim for.
2 – Ditch the “diet” mentality and focus on making lasting improvements for sustainable health
- Focus on improving your food choices for overall health, rather than “dieting” for weight loss.
- Enjoy lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
- Replace saturated and trans fats with healthier choices such as olive oil, nut butters, avocadoes.
3 – Try eating a different way and see what works for you
- Ideally, each meal should take at least 20 minutes to eat, so eat slower. Enjoy your food more and listen for fullness cues that subtly signal when you’re getting satisfied and it’s time to stop eating.
- Eat more mindfully by focusing on and enjoying what you’re eating while you’re eating it. Pay attention to your food’s smell, taste, and texture as you’re eating it.
- Try putting your fork down or sipping water between bites and thoroughly chewing before swallowing.
- If you have a habit of snacking in front of the TV or computer screen, try getting used to replacing that with a glass of water or unsweetened beverage instead.
4 – You don’t have to do exercise to be more physically active (but you can)
- Boost your activity; move for at least 30 minutes per day (even three 10-minute sessions can help); more movement can bring greater benefits.
- Aerobic activity (e.g., walking, bicycling, etc.) is the most efficient way to burn calories.
- Weight training (e.g., using weights or pushing your body against gravity) builds your muscles which increases your metabolic rate; ideally, you’d include at least two weight training sessions per week.
- Don’t forget you don’t have to do “exercise” to be physically active, you can take the stairs more often, park further away, walk a bit faster, or do housework or gardening—they all count toward your physical activity.
- Fidgeting counts, too. Your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), like shaking a leg, tapping a foot, or even twirling a pen, also burns some calories.
- Remember that any physical activity is better for your health (and weight loss goals) than none.
5 – Reward your successes
- According to the National Institutes of Health, “frequent small rewards, earned for meeting smaller goals, are more effective than bigger rewards that require a long, difficult effort.”
- Each time you reach a goal, however small, reward your success with a non-food activity or item.
- For example, you may want to buy yourself that book, movie, music, or game that you’ve wanted for a while. Or re-read, re-watch, or re-listen to an old favorite.
- Perhaps you can put a small amount of money away to save up for a larger reward.
- Rewards don’t have to be monetary. You can take some time for yourself like have a bath, do your nails, or enjoy a craft or hobby you love (or try a new one).
- Maybe you’d prefer some time to watch comedy skits or funny animal videos online.
6 – Persevere
- Losing weight is very hard and most people have to keep trying before they find a way that works for them.
- Every day is a new day. If you go off track, get back on track and try again.
- Don’t give up. A study published in September 2020 found that trying to lose weight over and over again (also known as “weight cycling”) can significantly reduce your risk of dying. According to the National Institutes of Health, “repeatedly losing and regaining weight was better than giving up after one or two attempts or, worse still, never trying to lose weight at all.”
My final thoughts… activity, not necessarily exercise, will help you lose weight
While weight is but one measure of health, it is a big concern for many people. Losing weight is not easy. Your metabolism is influenced by many different factors—some you can’t control (e.g., your genes) and others you can (e.g., what and how you eat).
The fundamentals of weight loss include enjoying healthier, nutritious foods more often and being more physically active, but there are so many approaches that help you make this happen for you. The way you approach dieting and eating, the way you set your goals and reward yourself, and the way you persevere are all totally customizable so you can try and see what works for you.
Harvard Health. (2018, May). Burning calories without exercise. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/burning-calories-without-exercise
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Harvard Health. (2019, March 19). The lowdown on thyroid slowdown. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-lowdown-on-thyroid-slowdown
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Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Is a slow metabolism the reason I’m overweight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/slow-metabolism/faq-20058480
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Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2020, November 10). Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508
NIH Intramural Research Program. (2020, Dec 8). Attempting Weight Loss Linked to Reduced Risk of Death. Retrieved from https://irp.nih.gov/blog/post/2020/12/attempting-weight-loss-linked-to-reduced-risk-of-death
NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Healthy. (2017, September). Weight Control. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/weight-control
NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Aim for a healthy weight. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/index.htm
NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Guide to Behavior Change. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/behavior.htm