Gut Health is Key to Mental Health

Wednesday 10th Apr 2024 |


As Mental Health Awareness week approaches (13 May), it’s estimated that 3.58 million people were in contact with the NHS secondary mental health services at some point during 2022/23. This is just over 6% of the population, varying from 16.7% of 11- to -15-year-olds and 14.6% of 16-to-19-year-olds to 3.2% of 65- to 69-year-olds, so it can clearly affect everyone.

Mental health issues can manifest themselves in various ways; stress, anxiety, insomnia, low mood and depression and often but perhaps not associated with mental health, gut health issues.  This is because the enteric nervous system that regulates our gut is often called the body’s “second brain.” This extensive network uses the same chemicals and cells as the brain to help us digest and to alert the brain when something is amiss. Carrying tension when stressed or anxious for too long means our stress hormone, cortisol, is having a constant impact, and nowhere more so than in our gut.  This is why managing stress is vital in nurturing our gut health but in addition, our gut-brain axis is also a vital pathway connecting our mood and emotions, with what’s going on in our gut.

Dr Lucy Williamson, ex-Vet and now Registered, award-winning Nutritionist, combines her passion for nature with her specialisation – the gut microbiome – to help look after our mental wellbeing.

She says: “As summer gets going, nature all around us is well and truly energised – your garden or favourite dog walking route is seemingly bursting with life! 

“You may not know, but inside us all is a very special hidden resource – our inner ecosystem, like our very own wild meadow: our community of trillions of good gut bacteria. These microflorae, all different in their own way, play a vital role in nurturing our best health, especially our mental wellbeing.”

So, what can we do to look after them?   Here are Lucy’s Five Tops Tips:

  1. Foraging is a wonderful way to force us to slow down when we’re out for a walk and really take notice of what’s going on in nature for us. Don’t miss out on some free, gut-loving food!  Dandelion, young nettle leaves and wild garlic mustard leaves are easily found everywhere at the moment. They’re full-to-bursting with antioxidants & rocket fuel for our good gut bugs. Whiz them up in a green pesto or make a beautiful wild foraged soup. Looking after our gut health also looks after our Gut Brain Axis – a vital super-highway of information between our gut and our brain, known to impact our emotional wellbeing.
  2. Rest & Digest Just as great foods (read on) look after our gut health, we also know from robust research that carrying too much tension for too long can play havoc with our good gut bugs. So, make time to really enjoy your food – rushing it on the go simply doesn’t allow our very natural digestive process to work properly, leaving us feeling bloated or succumbing to afternoon brain fog.  Take a couple of minutes to enjoy the aroma, colour and flavours to come – you’ll notice saliva building up in your mouth – that’s your digestion saying: ‘I’m ready and waiting’!
  3. Plants, Plants, Plants! Aim to eat 30 different types of plants every week to nourish gut health and ensure a good intake of natural antioxidants – these active botanicals in plants nourish our gut bacteria and help with everyday natural detox too.  This isn’t as hard as it may sound; the ’30 target’ includes herbs and spices, as well as fruit and veg – and here’s the good part, it even includes chocolate!
  4. Fibre to steady the mood – maintaining steady blood sugar levels is vital to steady our mood. Eating plenty of fibre by enjoying plants in their least processed form, is the best way to do this. Think overnight soaked oats for breakfast, a slice of wholesome sourdough, an apple with skin on, or fabulous pulses like a lovely summer lentil salad.
  5. Avoiding Ultra Processed foods – thisnot only helps with a steady blood sugar (processed foods are so broken down that we can absorb their sugars far too rapidly) but also helps to reduce additives in our diet. Our good gut bugs live within the mucous layer lining our gut and we know that some additives like emulsifiers for example, can interfere with this natural habitat. The more natural our food, the happier our gut health and the better our gut-brain axis will function.
  6. Is Organic worth it? Food prices may have increased but actually organic food prices have largely stayed the same. When food is produced more naturally and with fewer chemicals, not only is the soil in which it grows likely to release more nutrients into the food, but fewer chemicals mean happier gut bugs! Eating nutrient-rich food helps our natural appetite regulation to work well, keeping us more satisfied too. It’s also higher in those vital antioxidants mentioned above.

Why not give these recipes a go and really nurture your gut microflorae with healthy natural ingredients for a healthy positive mind:

Spring Greens & Lentil Salad

I love being able to vary this salad according to what greens are available in the Spring and also flexibility on toppings – goat cheese, hot smoked trout – what’s yours?

Serves 4 as a side or light lunch

Prep time:10 mins

Cooking time: 20 mins

INGREDIENTS:

● 1 cup coral whole (coral) lentils (these keep their shape really well)

● 1 cup quinoa

● juice of half a lemon

● 2 spring onions finely chopped

● bunch of asparagus (if available – comes into season nice and early)

● 100g broad beans (frozen work well here too) or 50:50 with frozen peas too

● 100g feta cheese, crumbled

● Fresh herbs – mint should be available and adds wonderful flavour

● 4 tbsps green pesto

● 4 tbsps extra virgin olive oil

● Salt and Pepper

METHOD:

  1. Cook the coral lentils until tender – about 15-20 minutes simmering either in salted

water or use a nice chicken or vegetable stock. (whole lentils hold their shape well).

Drain and set aside to cool. At the same time

  1. At the same time cook a batch of quinoa – save time and cook double so you have a

batch in the fridge for other recipes. Pop the quinoa in a pan over heat and toast

gently shaking it for 2 mins. Add twice the volume of cold water. It will bubble up.

  1. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave, covered, for a

further 10 minutes.

  1. Cook the broad beans (and peas) and plunge straight into cold water so they keep

their colour.

  1. Mix the lentils, beans, chopped herbs, and spring onions together. Add the lemon

juice & olive oil and season to taste.

  1. Partly mix through the green pesto and drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil.
  2. Steam the asparagus lightly for 8 minutes until tender and serve on the top.
  3. Stir through crumbled feta and add extra mint on the top.

Optional extras

– grated lemon rind, mixed seeds and for a burst of colour, top with some pomegranate

jewels!

– use some leftovers like previously roasted beetroot which is still in season in the Spring

WATERCRESS & SPINACH PESTO

This is a brilliant skill to get used to quickly making at home as It can add a burst of flavour to many different dishes from risotto to baked fish or grain bowls. 

Makes 1 medium jar

Keeps in the fridge for 1 week

Prep time:5 minutes to assemble and whizz ingredients!

Cooking time: nil

INGREDIENTS:

  • 25g watercress (including the stalks)
  • 50g spinach
  • 50g frozen peas, cooked
  • 2 small garlic cloves
  • 20g grated (or crumbled) parmesan
  • 25g pecans (or walnuts which give a more bitter flavour)
  • 50 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • A squeeze of lemon juice
  • S&P

METHOD:

  1. Wash the leaves and blend half of them with all the other ingredients
  2. Add the rest of the leaves and blitz to a thick paste
  3. Store in a sterilised recycled jar – add a layer of olive oil to stop the pesto discolouring with contact with the air then add the lid

OPTIONAL/ALTERNATIVE

  • Experiment with other leaves when in season – basil and rocket are also great in pesto
  • Go foraging! Young wild leaves like nettle and wild garlic mustard add huge flavour and nutrients

INTERESTING!

On the Radio 4 Food Programme we discussed the benefits of the bitter taste in foods – watercress, walnuts and other bitter leaves not only add wonderful flavour but the nutrients that give this bitter taste also help our natural appetite mechanism to work well (satiety) and deliver age defying antioxidants too!

Wild Dandelion and Nettle Soup

Inspired by natural chef Georgina Valentine, this soup is a perfect way to explore the joys of foraging! A cleansing Spring soup bursting with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from the season’s first young leaves.

Serves 4 as a light lunch

Prep time:20 minutes

Cooking time:20 minutes

INGREDIENTS:

● 1 small onion

● 1 clove of garlic

● 2 handfuls of a mix of nettle, dandelion leaves and slightly more wild garlic leaves,

thoroughly washed.

● 2 small handfuls of spinach leaves

● 1 stick of celery

● 2 small potatoes (peeled and diced)

● 1 tbsp of lemon thyme leaves

● 1 tbsp cold pressed rapeseed oil

● juice of ½ a lemon

● 100g frozen peas

● 50g soft goats cheese

● 500ml chicken or vegetable stock

● a few walnuts or flaked almonds to decorate

● Optional toppers: Fresh mint leaves or chives, dandelion flowers, yogurt

● Salt and Pepper

METHOD:

  1. Sauté the finely chopped onion in the cold pressed rapeseed oil until it softens
  2. Add the chopped celery, grated garlic clove and potatoes and ‘sweat’ on a low heat

for 5 minutes

  1. Add the nutmeg, stock & lemon thyme. Bring to the boil
  2. Simmer for 10 minutes until the potato has nearly cooked then add the frozen peas,

spinach and foraged leaves and simmer for 3 more minutes.

  1. Blend the soup with the goats cheese and season to taste.
  2. Serve your beautiful bright green soup in delicate bowls, and swirl in a drizzle of yogurt and olive oil. Top with either flaked almonds or chopped walnuts with some chopped mint leaves or chives, and if you have, dandelion flowers look pretty too!

Enjoy nature’s wild harvest and this nutrient-rich bowl of cleansing goodness!

Notes: Cold pressed rapeseed oil is an excellent nature-friendly cooking oil and is unaffected

by high temperatures. It’s nice to be flexible with your foraged ingredients hence using

‘handfuls’ as your measure!

So, while nature all around is coming into full bloom and bursting with energy, take time for yourself and nourish your body with gut loving food and rest. Embrace some calm in your life.

For more information about gut health or to sign up to Lucy’s Gut Health Courses, visit www.lwnutrition.co.uk where you’ll also find more delicious recipes.