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How to tackle indigestion and heartburn

How to tackle indigestion and heartburn

Struggling with indigestion and heartburn?

Indigestion is a common problem that’s often viewed as a niggle and something to put up with rather than complain about or put the effort in to treat. We have all experienced indigestion at some point and there are many reasons why it occurs but if you feel this type of discomfort regularly after eating then it can become a real hindrance on day-to-day life and your overall feeling of wellness.  Even though numerous reasons for indigestion exist, there are many simple changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to avoid it.

What is indigestion and heartburn?

Although they share the same type of triggers, they’re not the same as indigestion is the condition of which heartburn is a symptom. Indigestion is characterised by a feeling of discomfort in the upper abdomen, which occurs after you’ve eaten, causing symptoms such as bloating, excess wind, belching and nausea.

Heartburn is characterised by a burning sensation in your chest and throat as excess stomach acid makes its way up the oesophagus, which is also referred to as ‘reflux’.  If heartburn occurs regularly throughout the week then you may be diagnosed with a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD.

Who is more at risk of indigestion and heartburn?

Anyone can experience indigestion and most of us have encountered it during the festive season as we overindulge in rich food and a few too many glasses of vino.  Common diet and lifestyle factors that encourage indigestion include:

  • Overeating
  • Eating too quickly
  • Medication – aspirin, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
  • Stress
  • Eating ‘on-the-go’
  • Smoking
  • Excess alcohol
  • Excess coffee
  • Health conditions – cholecystitis (inflammation in the gall bladder), gastritis (inflammation in the stomach), stomach ulcers
  • Spicy foods

Heartburn shares a similar set of triggers but is particularly common in people carrying too much weight or pregnant women, where the pressure put upon the abdomen forces fluids back up the oesophagus.

Bloating is a symptom of indigestion, but it’s important not to confuse heartburn with bloating.  Common treatments for bloating include herbs and spices such as mint, fennel seed and caraway seed.  These are often used in teas to help with bloating after eating as they relax the valve that connects the stomach and oesophagus.  This effect helps to release excess gas but if the issue is heartburn then it will make matters worse as fluids find their way up the oesophagus more easily.

Losing weight will help with heartburn and by following a healthy diet you can help to ease indigestion.  Addressing other diet and lifestyle factors will help to combat indigestion, which in turn will also help to reduce the risk of heartburn.

Start by changing the way you eat

Eating habits can be just as important as the food and drink you include in your diet when it comes to tackling indigestion.   Start by making changes to the way you eat.

  • Serve smaller portions of food in a single sitting and eat little and often if this helps.
  • Avoid eating large meals immediately before you go to bed as lying down will only make digestion more difficult as well as encouraging heartburn.
  • Don’t rush your food as this can encourage more air to enter the stomach and encourage bloating.
  • Chew your food slowly to allow the enzymes that aid digestion to be stimulated.
  • Avoid eating ‘on-the-hoof’.
  • Make the time to sit down with your meal and focus on the job in hand. Distractions and stress can cause indigestion; eat at the table rather than in front of your computer whilst you’re frantically trying to meet a deadline.
  • Try not to skip meals or go for long periods of time without eating as this can encourage bloating, especially if you suddenly eat a large meal.

Now look at what you’re eating and drinking

If changing the way you eat has made little difference, then take a look at the food and drink in your diet.  You can keep a diary for a few days to track your diet and jotting down how you felt after eating will help you identify culprit food and drinks.  I get that this takes quite a bit of motivation and to be honest, in the context of your overall diet and eating habits, it may be that a certain food affects your digestion one day but not the next.

What you may identify is the effect of a potential food intolerance. Lactose (found in dairy foods) and gluten (found in grains such as wheat) are common food intolerances that can cause bloating and other symptoms of indigestion.  A very stressful lifestyle can also encourage the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes digestive upset.  If you suspect either of these things to be causing the issue, then you can seek the advice of a dietitian.

Diet strategies

There are plenty of diet strategies that you can follow, which have been shown to help with indigestion and heartburn.

  • Try to follow a low-fat diet as high-fat (rich) foods such as full fat dairy, fatty cuts of meat or rich puddings and sauces can take longer to digest and leave the stomach, causing more stomach acid to be produced and increasing the risk of heartburn.
  • Make you meals from a good balance of starchy foods, vegetables and lean protein (protein helps to stimulate the gall bladder to produce more bile that aids digestion).
  • Include oily fish in your diet each week as they contain omega 3 fatty acids that may help to tackle inflammation in the gut wall, which contributes to indigestion.
  • Try to avoid raw vegetables initially to see if this helps with indigestion as they can be difficult to digest.
  • Beans, pulses and lentils are very high in fibre and can cause bloating, especially if you’re not used to eating. Introduce these foods into your diet slowly and make sure you drink plenty of water to allow the fibre to swell and do its job.
  • You may want to try and cut back on ‘windy’ vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts to help with bloating associated with indigestion.
  • Other foods that have been shown to trigger heartburn specifically include citrus fruits, spicy foods and caffeinated drinks, which can all increase the production of stomach acid.

Don’t underestimate the effects of stress

Stress has become a common side-effect of our modern way of living and the ripple effect on health has been shown to reach many areas of health.  Stress not only impacts on mental health but encourages inflammation in the body, which is now understood to be a key risk factor for many diseases.  Stress is also a key factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (1).

It may seem obvious that trying to eat when you’re highly stressed is likely to cause digestive complaints and studies have shown that people with GERD report stress as something that exacerbates the condition (2,3). However, whether the effect of stress is due to excess stomach acid is up for debate as many scientists are of the opinion that GERD makes people more sensitive to smaller amounts of acid in the oesophagus (4,5).

Stress can also lead to erratic eating patterns that may cause indigestion.  Diet and lifestyle choices can also be affected by stress and choosing unhealthy foods, gaining weight, smoking and drinking excessively can all lead to indigestion. Sleep is also affected by stress and can lead to low mood and a lack of motivation to follow a healthy diet.

Try to address your stress by practicing breathing or relaxation techniques such as meditation.  There are many apps available that can help you to do this.

Can you still drink alcohol?

Alcohol is known to contribute to indigestion, especially heartburn, but it does affect people differently and you may not necessarily need to give up your favourite tipple completely.  Start by cutting alcohol out completely to see how you feel then introduce it back in slowly as you may find your heartburn is not affected by the odd glass of vino.  Avoid mixing your booze with fizzy drinks as this can encourage bloating and don’t drink too close to bedtime as lying flat can encourage reflux.

There are so many different reasons why you may suffer with indigestion and heartburn.  As a ‘one-off’, indigestion may be anticipated as a result of over-indulgence, but if it persists then there are plenty of ways you can tackle the issue by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19961344
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25832928
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8420248
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18206149

 

More fuss over fat but is focusing on individual foods and nutrients the real issue?

More fuss over fat but is focusing on individual foods and nutrients the real issue?

More fuss over fat!

The world of nutrition is fickle taking little for a food to go from friend to foe and  recent headlines have done just that as coconut oil puts fat back in the firing line.  During a recent presentation given by Dr Karin Michels of Harvard University she described coconut oil as “pure poison” continuing to say that it was “one of the worst foods you can eat” (1).  These comments were made in reference to the fact that the type of fat found in coconut oil, mostly saturated fat, raises levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

Dr. Michels received a fair amount of media attention from her comments but set in the right context of her presentation these were part of a wider opinion of the health food industry, questioning the marketing and attitudes towards so called ‘superfoods’.  During her presentation, Dr. Michels deemed them “unnecessary” and pointed out that we can get the same nutritional benefits from everyday foods such as carrots.

I agree.  We can all get sucked in by the hype and this recent story in the press does give rise to important issues surrounding the marketing of foods and how they’re perceived by consumers.  However, the fact that coconut oil became the focus of the headline illustrates how our current approach to health and nutrition has become more focused on individual foods and nutrients rather than overall diet quality.

What is a balanced diet?

A balanced diet includes plenty of vegetables alongside lean proteins, high-fibre starchy foods (brown rice, oats, wholemeal bread and pasta, wholegrains) and healthy fats (olive oil, oily fish, nuts, seeds). Within the context of this diet there’s plenty of room for the odd sweet treat and if you want to add in a few ‘on-trend’ foods then that’s cool too but you should focus on getting the basics right first

Is fat that bad?

It was over 50 years ago that fat became a key focus of public health, mostly in relation to its impact on heart health.  Heart health is the leading cause of premature death and in the decades that followed, nutrition advice was defined by the message that we should all be following a low-fat diet.  In response to this we all turned to choosing margarine, sunflower oil and ‘low fat’ foods to keep our health in check.  Fast forward to the present day and sugar has become a greater health concern. Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2) have revealed that the average intake of fat amongst adults is within the recommended guidelines but that our intake of sugar is twice the recommended amount. It also became quickly apparent that many of the popular ‘low-fat’ foods people were choosing to eat were in fact high in sugar.

It’s taken a while for the nation to adapt to the message that fat isn’t all that bad and research has broadened our understanding of the role this nutrient plays in the diet and its impact on disease.  Studies have shown that certain fats such as monounsaturated (MUFA’s) and polyunsaturated (PUFA’s) are better for our health, especially with respect to heart disease (3)(4).  Foods rich in these fats include extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds, which are key components of the Mediterranean diet, considered by many to be the ‘gold standard’ (5).

Fat is just one component of the diet and any type should be eaten in moderation as they’re the most calorific component of the diet. Putting ketogenic diets (high fat, low carb) to one side, a diet high in fat has the potential to cause overweight, which in itself a risk factor for many diet related diseases.

Saturated fat

The average adult still eats too much saturated fat but the impact of this on heart health has come under scrutiny.  A landmark scientific review published in the British Medical Journal found no association between saturated fat consumption and all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes (6).  This study sparked the saturated fat debate and further studies have contributed to a growing body of evidence that has changed the dialogue on saturated fats.

The impact this study had on the topic of saturated fat in the diet and the relevance of current dietary guidance led to the publication of a report carried out by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). The Saturated Fats and Health report was published in May (2018) after an extensive review of data from high quality cohort studies and clinical trials (7). Their findings strongly support the current dietary guidance of limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of the total energy from the diet.  This is translated in dietary guidelines as no more than 30g per day for men and 20g per day for women.

SACN found that there were significant limitations in the available data, which may have helped to be fuel the debate on saturated fat. They also said that lowering saturated fat in the diet was needed to improve serum lipid profiles and events related to cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.

Fat intake in the UK

The latest NDNS survey (2) showed that the average daily total fat intake in adults is 33.2% of total energy, which is below the guidance of 35%.  It was also shown that the average daily intake of saturated fat in adults is 11.9% of total energy, which is above the 10% guidance. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition also agreed that we should be choosing foods rich in ‘healthier fats’ such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados over those containing high amounts of saturated fat.  Given total fat intake in the UK is within the guidance it was suggested that the focus should still be on reducing saturated fat to achieve a better balance of fats in the diet.

So, what does all of this actually look like in practice?

I get that this issue needed to be resolved in order to support the current recommendations about saturated fat intake, but in practice it’s not that complicated.  I’m a fan of whole foods and I choose to eat full fat Greek yoghurt over low fat, spread butter on my toast, and enjoy the odd bit of cheese, but they make up a small part of my diet.  According to the NDNS, they make up 27% of the nation’s diet (2).

I choose not to eat other foods that are high in saturated fat on a regular basis.  These foods include pies, pizza, pastries, sweet puddings, ice cream, cakes and chocolate, which are also high in calories, salt and refined carbohydrates such as sugar.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get that none of these foods are ever going to be considered as healthy, but eating them in moderation, within the context of a balanced diet is fine.  The problem with redefining saturated fat is that it can easily cause confusion and if taken out of context may only contribute to unhealthy food choices that increase the risk of weight gain and disease.

What about coconut oil?

Coconut oil is sourced from the meat of mature coconuts and is mostly made up of saturated fatty acids.  Whilst saturated fat is considered to be something we should be cutting down on in the diet, those found in coconut oil are different in structure and called medium chain fatty acids (MCFA’s) as opposed to the long chain variety found in food like cheese and fatty cuts of meat. It’s these MUFA’s and in particular, lauric acid, which are thought to be at the root of the many health benefits associated with coconut oil.

Medium Chain Fatty Acids are more easily digested and directed to the liver (bypassing the gut), where they’re converted into energy rather than being stored as fat. Research has suggested that coconut oil can increase levels of HDL (bad) cholesterol as well as possessing anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Coconut oil is also commonly touted as supporting weight loss, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to back this claim.

The popularity of coconut oil

It’s easy to get seduced by food and health trends given the attention and interest they generate in the media and especially when accompanied by a flurry of health benefits.  The research questioning saturated fat and heart health has helped to position coconut oil as a healthy food.  Coconut oil has also made its way into the mainstream like other foods trends that came before it such as quinoa and green juices.  The popularity of coconut oil has been helped by its promotion amongst healthy eating chefs, social media and the ‘clean eating’ revolution.  Evidence of its popularity is reflected in sales, which have grown four-fold since 2014 with predicted sales this year thought to hit £24 million.

Whilst popular, the science surrounding coconut oil doesn’t tally with its associated health benefits, and the effect of coconut oil on heart health is still not clear, which has contributed its controversy.

What oil should you be using on a daily basis?

Whilst polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower oil have always been considered to be the best choice of cooking oil, some have questioned the impact they have on our omega 6 intake, which in excess can impact on inflammation.  Extra virgin olive oil is popular and even more so since becoming more widely available and cheaper to buy.  Speciality oils such as those from nuts and seeds have also become more widely available but not as popular given the fact that many people are unsure how to use them.

In my opinion, extra virgin olive oil is still the best choice.  Time and again, large studies have highlighted the close relationship between the Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular disease (5).  Extra virgin olive oil, which is a major component of this diet, has been shown to be very relevant in lowering the incidence of heart disease and stroke. The majority of fatty acids found in extra virgin olive oil are monounsaturated that have been proven to increase HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.  Compounds found in extra virgin olive oil such as a polyphenol called oleocanthal have been shown to help reduce inflammation (8), which is thought to be a risk factor for many diseases including heart disease.

Given the evidence to support the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, it only goes to prove the power of marketing that someone would choose any other oil over this one, especially one that is wrapped in controversy.

There are many other oils on the market that offer unique flavours that can be incorporated into cooking such as nut and seed varieties (these work well in dressings and drizzling). Despite the fuss over coconut oil, likening it to poison is a bit harsh and only adds to the ‘kill or cure’ culture surrounding foods in relation to diet and health. Used in moderation, coconut oil can add a unique flavour to dishes that works particularly well with Asian and Indian cuisines.

And what about Superfoods?

Most of us have ‘wised up’ to the notion of ‘superfoods’ and understand that this is nothing more than a marketing ploy, but the word has still become commonplace and seen as a descriptor for foods that may be particularly nutritious.  The idea that one food is more nutritious than another or focusing on a single food or nutrient to protect your health is never a good idea as it’s the overall diet that counts.  Marketing foods as such is of course misleading and food labelling and health claims legislation has helped to create some degree of transparency.

It’s the overall quality of your diet that counts

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2) has shown that many people are not eating the right foods to meet their dietary needs.  Only a third of people in the UK manage to eat 5-a-day and very few eat oily fish on a weekly basis.  The average adult is also eating twice the recommended amount of added sugar, too much saturated fat and less than 10% are meeting the guidance for fibre.

Nutrition research tends to look at the effects of individual components of the diet, but it’s worth keeping in mind that people eat food and not nutrients.  Don’t assume that a single food or nutrient is going to be a panacea or antidote to an unhealthy lifestyle, ‘superfood’ or not.  These false expectations are completely redundant as it’s the overall quality of your diet that is going to have the most significant impact on your health.

And the debate on fat?

As far as the debate on fat is concerned, the consensus still seems to be that we should be eating less saturated fat in our diet, whilst focusing on foods that contain PUFA’s and MUFA’s.  Regardless of this, the debate on fat is just one of many in the world of nutrition that all raise important issues.  The downside is that they have the potential to cause further confusion amongst people as to what foods they should be eating, particularly as the science is often not clearly understood or the outcomes are taken out of context or misrepresented in the media.  The wider issue is still how to get people to make better choices to improve the quality of their overall diet and part of this is making food the focus and not nutrients.

 

References 

  1. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/nutrition/diet/now-coconut-oil-poison-fat-should-using-cooking/
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4198773/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20351774
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20810976
  6. https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3978
  7. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/saturated-fats-and-health-draft-sacn-report
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21443487

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking With Soul – Soul Sisters Fitness & Rob Hobson Nutrition

Cooking With Soul – Soul Sisters Fitness & Rob Hobson Nutrition

Cooking With Soul

I’m very excited to be collaborating with my buddies on this new venture.  Sisters, Alex and Maddie are the talented, fun and inspirational duo behind Soul Sisters Fitness.  The girls are top of their game in the world of wellness and run the Adidas female fitness studio on Brick Lane, London, where all the classes are FREE.

Diet and fitness has evolved into something that some people may view as being unachievable, but the bottom line is that it shouldn’t be a chore and with the right attitude, anything’s possible.  Diet and fitness should be fun and there’s something for everyone.  Without wanting to sound ‘preachy’, we all have our own journey and the key to developing and sticking with good diet and fitness habits is found within the right inspiration and a little bit of expert knowledge.  It’s naive to think it’s that simple and we get that (we certainly don’t get it right ourselves all the time!), but let us show you how to approach diet and fitness uninhibited, with a focus on confidence, fun and positive energy.

Time to inject more excitement into the wellness industry 

Alex, Maddie and I want to inject more excitement into the wellness industry with cheesy grins, high energy and a general ethos of ‘keeping it real’ rather than worrying about balancing your macros, overdosing on protein or other ways of trying to micro-manage your diet and fitness.  If you complicate your diet and fitness too much then you’re more likely to lose the fun element.  That’s when you start to set unrealistic goals. That’s when you start to put too much pressure on yourself.  That’s when it can all become a bit of a chore and when you risk losing the long-term routine and consistency of diet and fitness, which is essential for long-term health. That’s the most important thing right?  Your health is your wealth.

Common barriers to diet and fitness

Do you need to splash your cash on so called ‘Superfoods’ to be healthy?
Do you need to be an expert chef to cook healthy food?
Do you need to dedicate hours in the kitchen to prepare healthy food?
Do you need fancy gym gear or an expensive gym membership to exercise?

The answer to all these questions is ‘HELL NO’ (although the Soul Sisters do love a snazzy outfit!)

 

Cooking With Soul is a weekly YouTube feature and we’ll show you how to cook delicious, nutritious and sometimes a little bit fancy, healthy food.  We want to make the most of foods that can save a few quid and create dishes that anyone can prepare in a flash.

Cooking With Soul will explore all areas of health and fitness.  As a qualified and registered nutritionist, and qualified PT’s, we’ll use our 30 years of combined experience as experts in the industry to share insight and answer the questions we commonly get asked in our line of work, and of course, bring it back to the kitchen!

Just a few examples include:

What’s veganism and can I get enough protein on this diet?
How can I get more iron in my diet?
How much protein do I actually need and should I be drinking shakes?
What’s the best way to lose weight?
What are the best foods for women’s health?
What’s the best way to ‘bulk up’?
What fats should I be cooking with?
What’s the deal with snacking?
Can my diet help with sleep?
What’s inflammation?
Do I need to go dairy-free?
How can I reduce my sugar intake?
Why am I always bloated?
Are carbs bad?

Got a question that you want answered? Get in touch and we’ll make a video for you!

We’re also planning a new concept of supper clubs throughout London where you’ll train with the girls and then get fed by me.  Any level of fitness and no fancy gym gear required, but I will make you all eat my food! Just bring a smile and we’ll take care of the rest!

Fancy a corporate supper club with me and the girls to improve the health of your workforce?  Get in touch!

You can contact me through the website or at rob@robhobson.co.uk
You can also contact me or the Soul Sisters via Instagram:

Soul Sisters Fitness

Rob Hobson Nutritionist

Here’s a quick snapshot of our first video..

 

You can access the full video at our YouTube pages (Cooking With Soul page to come)

Soul Sisters Fitness

Rob Hobson Nutritionist

Come and get involved.  Start Cooking With Soul!

Rob, Alex and Maddie x

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The important role of the gut

Diet, exercise and sleep are key to good health and the prevention of disease.  The health of your gut is inextricably linked to the quality of your diet, which impacts on digestion. Besides this, research is beginning to identify how your gut may also be linked to immunity, sleep, mental health (stress, depression) and obesity, all of which can affect your health in a multitude of ways (1).

The initiative, ‘Love Your Gut Week’, starts on the 17thSeptember (2018) and highlights the importance of our digestive system to good health.

What is the microbiome?

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of around 100 trillion microbes that live in and on our body, most of which are found in the gut.  An army of microbes (including bacteria) colonise the body even before we’re born to form a protective barrier that defends against foreign invaders harmful to our health.

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint reacting to the world both around and within you.  The microbes you cultivate make up the unique diversity of your microbiome. The bacteria in your gut help maintain the efficiency of your digestive system.  These bacteria also help to synthesise vitamin D, K, B12, folic acid and thiamine as well as assisting in the digestion of polyphenol compounds shown to protect the body against disease.  Gut bacteria also produce short chain fatty acids that supply energy to the cells of your colon and have been shown to play a key role in the maintenance of health and prevention of disease (2).

What can impact on the ‘health’ of your microbiome?

 Diet and lifestyle choices can impact on the diversity of bacteria found in your gut.  The ‘typical’ Western diet is characterised by an overconsumption of foods high in ‘added sugars’ and ‘bad’ fats. The impact of overeating and a lack of exercise has led to an overweight nation although the complexities of weight management are not as simple as calories in and calories out.

Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases and the physiological effects it triggers such as inflammation are now widely recognised as being a contributory factor.  It’s often suggested that a diet overloaded with sugar and ‘bad’ fats encourages the growth of bad bacteria, but these effects don’t seem to be that clear cut. Another more straightforward explanation is that people who eat an unhealthy diet are less likely to eat the foods that support an environment that allows good bacteria to thrive such as vegetables, wholegrains and other high-fibre foods.

Five strategies to support the health of your microbiome

Whilst the overall quality of your diet can impact on the health of your gut, certain foods have been shown to be particularly beneficial in supporting the diversity of bacteria that live there.  Lifestyle factors and the use of medication have also been shown to impact on your microbiome.

1. Don’t underestimate the effects of stress

Stress is fast becoming a common side-effect of our modern lifestyle.  We all experience stress, sometimes on a daily basis, but the effects are usually short lived.  Problems can arise when stress becomes chronic, not only impacting on mental health but triggering inflammation within the body (3).  Stress can also increase the demand for certain nutrients such as the B vitamins and magnesium as well as influencing food choices that can result in a failure of the diet to provide everything the body needs.

Feeling ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or nausea are common symptoms of stress and illustrate how the brain is closely linked to the gut.  Sadness, happiness and anger are a few examples of the emotions that can affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is sensitive to such emotions.  In some cases, psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and bowel symptoms that characterise conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (4).  Psychosocial factors such as stress can influence the actual physiology of the gut, affecting movement and contractions of the GI tract, increasing inflammation and even making you more perceptible to infection (5).

The link between the gut and brain is referred to as the gut-brain axis and the association with gut bacteria is a new area of research.  Studies are beginning to unveil the potential impact this relationship between the gut and brain has on the microbiome.  Mental health is just one area of research and stress has been shown to alter the diversity of gut bacteria (6). These changes also appear to be amplified when stress is more severe or prolonged. In this regard, the concept of psychobiotics is being developed and refined to find ways of targeting the microbiota to help with mental health outcomes

Don’t dismiss the impact stress has on the body.  Addressing your mental health is just as important as the food you eat, exercise you take and sleep you get, all of which are intertwined.  Try exploring techniques such as meditation that has been proven to help with stress. There are many apps available that can help to teach you this practice.

2. Eat prebiotic foods in your diet

Certain fibres in foods are indigestible and commonly referred to as prebiotics.  Gut bacteria feed of these fibres, helping them to flourish and process by which they break them down (fermentation), produces short chain fatty acids.

The different types are prebiotic foods include:

  • Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas contain inulin and fructooligosaccharides that act as prebiotics.
  • Oats and barley contain beta-glucans that act as prebiotics.
  • Starchy foods such as pasta, rice and potatoes form resistant starches (resistant to digestive enzymes) once they’ve been cooked and then cooled. Resistant starches act as prebiotics.

3. Watch your medication

Many people rely on the long-term use of medication to help manage the symptoms of their health condition. Aspirin and ibuprofen are types of Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, but these drugs have been shown to reduce levels of good bacteria in the gut (7).

Other medications such as antibiotics are prescribed as a short course to support the body’s ability to fight infection.  These drugs are not a friend of gut bacteria as they can wipe out swathes of both good and bad.  In certain cases, such as severe bacterial infections, they’re required to help the body recover but are of no use in fighting viral infections such as colds or flu.

Using probiotics alongside certain medications such as NSAIDS or after a course of antibiotics can help to re-balance your microbiome.

Another interesting issue surrounding antibiotics is their extensive use in the farming of food animals.  The issue is a topic of debate but eating less meat and choosing better quality meat may not only be better for your health but reduce the transmission of antibiotics through the food chain.

4. Include probiotic foods in your diet

Strains of bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit are referred to as probiotics.  Bacteria from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family are some of the most widely researched strains.  One of the most common probiotic foods is live yoghurt, which contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei.  These strains are also found in yoghurt ‘shot’ drinks that have become very popular. When you’re choosing live yoghurt or yoghurt products try opting for those that are low in sugar.

Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health. These foods are now widely available in most supermarkets.

5. Take a probiotic supplement

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut.  Stick to preparations that contain well researched strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.  To help with their transit to the gut, avoid taking with hot food and drinks or alcohol that can destroy them.

As the research linking gut bacteria to health and disease outcomes evolves, so does the potential role of probiotics supplements.  Their use and efficacy have recently come under scrutiny, but there’s still plenty of good quality research that points towards their beneficial role in health.

Prevention and treatment of diarrhoea

Bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Lactobacillus Casei have been widely researched for their ability to prevent and reduce the severity of diarrhoea.  Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking probiotics helped reduce the risk of diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use by 42% (8).  Further research published in the Lancet showed that probiotics helped to reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea by 8% and from all other causes in adults by 26% (9).

Immunity

The cells found in the gut are thought to make up almost 70% of the entire immune system, so it makes sense that it’s inextricably linked to immunity.  Research has shown how probiotic supplements containing certain strains can promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes that help to regulate immune responses.

Research has shown how probiotic supplements may prove beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, coughs and flu. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that children who regularly took probiotics (Lactobacillus GG) had 19% fewer infectious diseases over three months compared with those that didn’t (10).

Obesity

This is new area of research and the question of whether obesity is linked to gut bacteria is not yet answered.  Data suggests that the composition of bacteria in the gut differs between people who are obese and those that are lean (11).  It’s also been shown that the typical Western-style diet rich in fat and refined carbohydrates may even increase the strains of bacteria linked to obesity (12).  Research has provided several potential reasons why the diversity of bacteria in the gut may be linked to obesity.  Certain bacteria are involved in the digestion of carbohydrates and fats (13), whilst others have the potential to increase inflammation in the body (14). Other may impact on the production of hormones that influence appetite (15).

Whilst in its early stage, this research highlights the future potential for probiotic supplements as part of personalised nutrition guidance to help in the fight against obesity.

Essential steps to good gut health

The bacteria in your gut play a role in health that’s essential to life.  New research not only helps to confirm this but is exploring the many benefits that go beyond digestion. Diet and lifestyle can both influence the diversity of bacteria in your gut and this can have a negative impact on your health.  Following a healthy balanced diet will help to maintain the health of your gut and the bacteria that reside in it as will addressing lifestyle factors such as stress. Research into the use of probiotic supplements is ever evolving but they can provide a useful way to help maintain the balance of bacteria in your gut.

Healthy gut plan

  1. Maintain a balanced diet and try to avoid foods high in sugar and ‘bad’ fats.
  2. Eat wide variety of plant-foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains that are high in fibre and support efficient digestion.
  3. Include prebiotic foods in your diet – onions, garlic, bananas, oats, barley.
  4. Include probiotic foods in your diet – live yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and miso.
  5. Use relaxation techniques to address the issue of stress.
  6. Factor the use of medication into your diet and the effect on gut bacteria.
  7. Take a probiotic supplement that includes strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria.

 

References

  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388214
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341031/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15740474
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289515300370
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26482265
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22570464
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16728323
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11387176
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27648960
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28199845
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15505215
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23985870
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27616451/

 

 

 

Are you a sleep hijacker?

Are you a sleep hijacker?

What is sleep?

Sleep is defined as, “A condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended”.  Modern times are defined by a fast paced and more stressed society, addicted to social media and a level of communication that commands a 24/7 availability. The side-effects of this environment are that many of us find it more difficult to relax, diet has been jeopardized and we have even come up with the phrase ‘FOMO’, which is the fear of missing out.

The cumulative effects of this shift in society has had a huge impact on our ability to relax and sleep, which is also compounded by many other factors traditionally thought of as getting in the way of our time spent in slumber.

The sleep cycle

During sleep your heart rate drops, body temperature falls and complex changes occur in the brain. The first stage of sleep is non-rapid eye movement, which occurs in three stages that become progressively deeper. Stage one and two are light sleep from which we can easily be roused from. The third stage is deeper and we are less likely to be roused from but may feel disorientated if woken. Stage four is known as rapid eye movement sleep, which is the point that dreaming occurs. Each cycle lasts around 90 minutes and all four are needed to wake up feeling rested.

Sleep is controlled mostly by your circadian rhythm, which is your in-built body clock and a 24-hour cycle that regulates both biological and physiological processes. It anticipates environmental changes allowing the body to adapt and is largely influenced by light. When you are in sync you will naturally wake at the same time every day, which explains those weird moments when you wake just before the alarm goes off. After being awake for around 15 hours the pressure to sleep becomes greater as tiredness set in and with the onset of darkness the circadian rhythm drops to the lowest levels to help maintain sleep.

There is evidence to show that it can be perfectly natural to sleep for around four hours then wake and fall asleep again for a few more hours putting question to the perception that you need 8 hours uninterrupted sleep to wake up feeling refreshed. Problems may occur of you wake after four hours and fail to fall back to sleep, which is the case for people suffering with insomnia. Anxiety related to the inability to fall back to sleep can only further lead to sleep deprivation so rather than lie in bed staring at the ceiling it may be better to get up, make a warming drink and sit quietly in the dimmest of light, maybe reading or writing down ideas, stresses or problems to help clear the mind and get you ready to fall back to sleep.

Society of non-sleepers

We are a society that typically does not get enough sleep. The idea of rest and sleep is sometimes viewed as unimportant as people seek appraisal and worth by burning the candles at both ends to appear capable and carve out the time required to achieve their goals. Admitting to feeling tired is sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness but in the long-term, strength and endurance come from the ability to switch off and allow yourself to recoup, which will ultimately help you to achieve both short and long-term goals, whilst retaining your good health.

How much sleep do Brits actually get?

A recent survey commissioned by Healthspan UK showed that 43% of Brits are tired because they can’t sleep. Our lack of sleep is evidenced by further research. According to research carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health, Britons are under-sleeping by an hour every night, which equates to a whole night’s sleep over the course of the week. The optimum number of hours’ sleep is thought to be just under eight, whilst the survey of 2000 adults found the average time we spend asleep is less than seven hours.

Further research by The Sleep Council found that 74% of Brits sleep less than 7 hours per night, whilst 12% say they get less than 5 hours nightly. This survey also showed that for 61% of Brits, between 5-7 hours is considered the norm with 30% getting poor sleep most nights. The top reasons for a poor night’s sleep appear to be stress and worry (around 50%), partner disturbance such as snoring (25%) and noise (20%) with more than one in ten blaming their sleep depravity on an uncomfortable bed.

The health benefits and downsides of sleep

Whilst asleep, your brain processes information, muscles and joints recovery from constant use during the day, production of growth hormone is increased and protein is replenished in all parts of the body. Poor sleep impacts on mood, concentration and alertness and the effects of long-term sleep deprivation have been linked to several serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Research shows that a lack of sleep may also be a major risk factor for obesity alongside physical activity and overeating. Research carried out by the university of Leeds showed that people who lack sleep or have poor quality sleep were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese. Not getting enough sleep is thought to create imbalances in the hormones that regulate appetite and how the body breaks down and utilizes nutrients for energy. These hormones include leptin (appetite regulation), ghrelin (appetite stimulant) and insulin (blood sugar regulation). The impact of these hormones on appetite and the fact that being overweight can result in low energy and lessen the motivation for physical activity may have the potential to lay the foundations for obesity.

Are you hijacking a good night’s sleep?

There are clearly many reasons why people can’t get a good night’s sleep and for many of us we just carry on regardless, waking up complaining of being tired and failing to tackle the issue head on hoping it’s just a passing phase. The reality is that we are just burying our head in the sand and as with any other health conditions, things are not likely to improve until you find a way to break the cycle.

Understanding the many things we do that unwittingly hijack a good night’s sleep is key to getting to the root of the problem and unlocking the path to a blissful, regenerative slumber. Instead of getting on with day to day life with a slightly ‘hungover’ feeling, addressing the issues head on is the best approach.

Keep a sleep diary

It may seem like quite a bit of effort given the many other things we have to get on with in our day-to-day lives but keeping track of your pattern of sleep and the factors that may be keeping you awake by using a sleep diary is a useful tool to identify the reasons and patterns of behaviour and lifestyle that could be getting in the way. The British Sleep Council have produced a morning and evening sleep diary that is worth completing for at least one week to help you to do this. Once written down it is surprising how even the simplest and most obvious of reasons for a lack of sleep are easily overlooked.

Eight sleep hijacks that could be keeping you awake

These are some of the main factors that may need to be addressed. You can use these topics to create your own personal sleep ritual, which can be a useful way to re-set your body clock and promote sleep.

Worry and stress

We have all been kept awake by the many factors that cause worry and stress in our lives. Money problems, relationship issues and work stresses can have you sitting up all night as your brain whizzes in a cycle though different situations and scenarios to come up with solutions.

A useful habit to get into is to download your thoughts at the end of the day. Keep a pen and paper next to your bed and before you go to sleep, write down your thought and worries, create a to-do list for the following day or jot down solutions and ideas that relate to work. If you get up during night, rather than twiddling your thumbs spinning ideas around your head then get up, make a warming drink and sit quietly in dim light and jot down your thoughts to get them out of your head.

For some people that can’t sleep, even the slightest worries can have a major impact such as whether you have locked all the windows and doors or whether you have turned off the oven or switched off the hob. In this case, developing a personal sleep ritual can help. Work through the same pattern of checking before you go to bed. Lock the front door, check the windows are locked and that the cooker is switched off. It doesn’t take much for the smallest of worries to escalate in your mind when you’re finding it difficult to nod off.

Diet and eating patterns

What and when you eat can have a major impact on your ability to sleep. Eating too late or indulging in a rich or spicy meal can keep you awake. These foods take a long while to digest and the after effects of indigestion and heartburn are not going to set you up well for a good quality sleep.

The amino acid tryptophan has been linked to inducing a soporific state that may help you to relax before you sleep. Tryptophan is required to make melatonin in the brain, which is the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle. Foods rich in this amino acid include poultry, tofu and dairy foods but you need to team them with low to medium glyaemic carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, pasta and bread) for maximum effect, which puts some truth to the old wife’s tale of milk with honey. Aim to eat your evening meal earlier (up to 4 hours before bed) as the effects of digestion can push your body’s core temperature upwards, which may disrupt sleep.

Some nutrients specifically have been associated with sleep and relaxation. There is a research to suggest that both calcium and magnesium may be linked to poor sleep. Magnesium found in green vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains is involved in muscle relaxation and low intakes have been shown to make it harder to stay asleep. Calcium found in dairy foods, soy, beans and green vegetables, helps the brain to use tryptophan to make melatonin and low levels have also been shown to make it more difficult to nod off.

Vitamin B6 may be useful too. Oily fish are a rich source of this vitamin that is also required by the body to make melatonin. Most people get enough vitamin B6 but the effects of stress can deplete the body of this nutrient and disrupt sleep.

Alcohol and caffeine

Tea, coffee and energy drinks contain caffeine that helps to stimulate the nervous system and make you more alert, which is great if you need a pick-me-up (although energy drinks should be avoided given their high sugar content). Dosing up on caffeine during the day can affect your ability to sleep later on in the evening. Try limiting your intake of caffeine to the morning and switch to decaffeinated options such as herbal teas (chamomile and valerian are considered to help with relaxation).

Alcohol is a double-edged sword when it comes to sleep. Whilst a little may help to induce slumber, even in small amounts it can cause fragmented sleep patterns. Alcohol has been shown to exacerbate insomnia and impairs the restorative part of sleep called rapid eye movement. Alcohol also inhibits your anti-diuretic hormone that tells the kidneys how much water to conserve and can have you getting up through the night to use the bathroom.

Mattress and bedding

The findings from the Sleep Council Survey showed that 26% of Brits sleep in an uncomfortable bed and that 27% of people questioned have a mattress that is more than seven years old. Mattresses age can deteriorate by as much as 70% within ten years of use so past seven years you should consider replacing especially if you find it uncomfortable. It’s important to try your mattress before buying as the right level of comfort is down to individual preference.

Changing your bedding regularly is a must to help with sleep as nothing is more relaxing than sinking into freshly laundered bed linen. Certain fibres such as silk provide a breathable barrier between you and the surrounding temperature, which can help you to keep cool and whilst silk bedding is somewhat of a luxury, a single pillowcase may be a useful aid to help you to sleep.

Bedroom environment

Your bedroom should be considered to be a ‘sleep oasis’, reserved purely for slumber, whist being inviting, relaxing and welcoming. Your bedroom should be dark once the lights are switched off because the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin is very light-sensitive and may not be optimally produced if it is not so. Check for ‘light leaks’ and take action by fixing curtains or installing black out blinds, turning off anything that emits and LED light such as phones and clocks and make sure that if your door is open during the night then all other lights around the house are switched off.

Maintaining the right temperature can also help with sleep as a room that is too hot may prevent your core temperature from going down, which is essential for switching on the sleep mechanism within the body. Your body temperature falls to its lowest level around 3-4 hours after falling asleep so keeping your bedroom temperature cool may help keep you asleep. A warm bedroom can also dehydrate you and this may have you waking up to get a glass of water.

A cluttered bedroom can be an energy drainer. Psychologically, you know it’s there even if you choose to ignore it and it can leave you questioning why you haven’t dealt with it. Clearing clutter means organization and can help you to achieve peace of mind, which helps with restful sleep.

Blue light

Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to an area in the brain called the hypothalamus, where a special centre called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) initiates signals to other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide awake.

We live in a technological world but the type of light that is emitted from phones, TV’s, computers, tablets and other gadgets called blue light can disrupt your ability to sleep. Research has shown that light from these sources for up to two hours before bed can significantly suppress the production of melatonin causing sleep disturbances. A study from the Lighting Research Centre in New York showed that two hours of exposure to this light before sleeping caused a 22% suppression in melatonin production.

Digital devices can also stimulate the brain and add to worry and stress as you receive and read emails, texts or social media relating to work or personal issues. Try initiating a digital detox as part of your sleep ritual, tuning out and switching off communications at least two hours before bed.

Chilling out

There are many ways to relax before bed that include stretching, guided imagery and breathing, which can be done with the help of meditation apps designed to help you to sleep. Breathing exercises are the simplest way to induce relaxation and centre the mind. Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing as you feel the air enter and leave your nose and mouth. Visualize the flow of air as it passes through your mouth, airways, down into your belly, and back out again. Survey your body for any tension, and as you exhale, feel the tension leave that part of your body. Visualize your breath reaching your forehead, your neck, your shoulders, your arms… and then releasing the tension as you exhale. If your mind wanders to another worry or thought, let it go and gently redirect your attention back to your breath.

Research has shown that bathing or showering before bed can help you to drift off but you need to time it right. You don’t want to raise your body temperature to close to bedtime as temperature has a key role to play in regulating the circadian rhythm. The cooling down of body temperature is a signal to the body that we should be ready to sleep so interrupting this process by raising your body temperature too close to bedtime can be counterintuitive. Showering or bathing early in the evening gives your body time to cool and off and can help to trigger sleep. Try and time you shower or bath so you’re out about an hour and a half before you hit the sack as by then your body will be cool, dry and ready for sleep. Adding magnesium salts to your bath may also help as this mineral is absorbed through the skin and relaxes the muscles.

Experts consider sleep to be just as important to your health as diet and exercise. Getting the right amount and sufficient quality is necessary for the body to regenerate and repair itself and not getting enough could have serious health consequences in the long term. If you do have difficulty sleeping then it shouldn’t be ignored and identifying the factors that may be keeping you awake can help you to create your own personal sleep ritual and establish a good level of sleep hygiene that will get you back on track to a restorative and restful slumber.