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Nutritional tips for the return to "normal"

Gut Health 101 • Gut Health Tips • Nutrition

Nicola Moore, Nutritionist and Gut Health Expert, shares her tips on how to handle the "back to the office" and "back to school" period, as we emerge from our extended time at home.

Autumn signifies the return to school and work, and the restoration of routine for many people.

However, many of us are slowly emerging into a tentative new world. Restrictions to the way we’ve needed to live over the past 18 months seem to be lifting, but what we have been through is likely to have shaped us – and our children - into adapted people. This does not come without its stresses, and I’ve certainly seen an increase in anxiety with clients, and hear reports of their children feeling more anxious too.

So, if you or your family are feeling a degree of worry about returning to your place of work or school, it might be helpful to understand a little about what’s going on behind the scenes when it comes to anxiety – and what we can do about it - in the hope that you’ll be able to support your physical and emotional health better through the autumn and into winter.

Adrenalin and Anxiety

A major chemical player when it comes to anxiety is the hormone adrenalin. It is adrenalin that makes our heart beat faster and gives us butterflies in our tummy when we are nervous. By understanding ways to tame our adrenalin production, we have an opportunity to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Interestingly, certain lifestyle choices can trigger adrenalin production and therefore exacerbate anxiety. I often refer to these as ‘silent’ stressors, because we may not be actively aware of them, vs, say, running late for a meeting. Straightforward examples include:

  • Caffeine consumption (coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks, chocolate)

  • Skipping meals

  • Poor nutrition (including inadequate intake of protein and magnesium)

Anxiety and The Gut

The impact of stress on digestive health is far reaching, and when chronic, stress may lead to a range of gut-led symptoms including how we feel emotionally. A physiological consequence of stress on the digestive system is a general trend towards slowing it down.

This slowing down starts in the stomach in relation to its production of stomach acid. Stomach acid has a number of important jobs to perform, including protecting us against unwanted bacteria and starting the process of digesting the proteins we eat.

Likewise, stress inhibits the workings of the small intestine. It appears to slow down its movement (a very gentle ripple-like action needs to take place to continually move food along and - crucially - allow it to clear-up afterwards). The production of enzymes needed to help us digest proteins, fats and carbohydrates also decreases in times of stress.

This slowing down of movement and reduction in enzymes - not to mention the burden placed from low stomach acid further up the chain - sets the scene for changes to the bacterial ecology of the gut, and generally reduces the diversity of the microbiome.

The potential issue here, with regards to anxiety specifically, is that an ever-decreasing circle could then occur when it comes to the gut-brain axis. This is because gut bacteria produce anxiety managing neurochemicals including serotonin, dopamine and GABA. With an unbalanced ecology or lack of diversity, the production of these gut chemicals may be reduced.

Tips for managing anxiety

Establish an eating routine

When we are anxious or stressed it can be easy to skip meals, or move to snacking and grazing, rather than sitting down to eat regular meals. However, making time to eat at regular points in the day - such as focussing on balanced, satisfying meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner - is likely to better support our gut microbiome, and ultimately the production of the brain chemicals that help emotional wellbeing.

This applies to all age groups, young and old, and for children and young adults, skipping breakfast is correlated with negative changes in behaviour and mental health. Eating a balanced meal simply requires us to include a mix of protein, natural fat and fibre. So, as examples of breakfast, consider eggs on a wholemeal slice of toast followed by a small bowl of berries, or a low-sugar granola with whole, natural yoghurt with extra nuts and seeds on top.

Reduce caffeine intake

This one change alone can have the most powerful, beneficial impact. If you have an anxious child, do remember that they may well be consuming caffeine without you really thinking about it as it’s found in chocolate and soft drinks like cola. I have seen transformations in anxiety reduction when clients have curbed the caffeine cycle.

Switch to decaf where you can, or try soothing herbal teas such as chamomile instead. If you like soft drinks, experiment replacing with traditionally made Kombucha as an alternative. This naturally fizzy, probiotic drink is useful for helping the diversity of the gut microbiome, as is the case for other probiotic foods and supplements.

Eat protein

Including protein in meals and snacks is so helpful for supporting brain chemistry, as the amino acids it provides are used to make happy and calming neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA.

I have found that giving my children some protein in their breakfast and packed lunches makes a huge difference to how they feel emotionally. The same applies to adults.

Protein is found in meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy products, tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, pulses, chickpeas and peas.

Eat green vegetables

Enjoying green leafy vegetables every day can be really supportive for reducing feelings of anxiety. Magnesium, found in green veg, is essential for responding appropriately to daily stresses. It appears to modify how we respond to stress – and its emotional impact - in many different ways. For me, it’s the mineral of choice for helping to manage anxiety. Green vegetables to focus on include broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, lettuce, cucumber, sugar snap peas, green beans, asparagus and Brussels sprouts.

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Nicola Moore, Nutritionist

Nicola Moore spent the last 20+ years in the sector of nutrition and lifestyle medicine as a forward-thinking nutritionist and held the role of a senior academic at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) for over 12 years, and overall Head of Clinics for 4 years.