Photograph by Danielle Laird

If I’ve learnt one thing during my studies in nutrition and naturopathy, it’s that everything really is connected to everything else. Which is of course a concept that is at the very heart of a yoga practice. There is nothing that we think, feel, say or do that does not have a direct effect on our physical wellbeing and mental health.

The gut-brain axis is a two-way conversation going on all the time between our gut microbiota and other components including our gastrointestinal tract, nervous system and immune system. Alterations in communication lead to changes in our mood and mental health, as well as other important markers for health.

The microbiota and the vagus nerve are two key communication networks that have a particularly powerful effect on our mental health and mood.

Microbiota

Nearly 100 trillion bacteria live in the gut and we now know that the ratio of ‘good’ bacteria to ‘bad’ directly affects our health. A great book on the subject is 10% Human by Alanna Collen . Ways to support the microbiota:

  • Eat tryptophan-rich foods to make the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates mood and memory, and is often known as our ’happy hormone’. What’s more, serotonin makes melatonin, which is essential for sleep. Good sources of tryptophan are: Tofu, cottage cheese, yoghurt, oats, spinach, nuts and seeds. Try a glass of warm golden milk or almond milk before bed for a restful night’s sleep.
  • We need probiotics and prebiotics for a healthy microbiome and a reduction in anxiety. Probiotics are found in fermented food such as sauerkraut, yoghurt, miso and kimchi. Prebiotics feed the good bacteria and great sources are: Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas and raspberries.

Vagus nerve

The vagus nerve originates in the brain, branches out multiple times to connect to major organs along the way and ends up in the gut. It’s connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ arm of the autonomic system and regulates blood pressure, taste and digestion, and is involved in the release of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle’ hormone. It also informs the brain about ‘gut feeling’ via tiny electrical impulses. Electrical impulses shooting up the vagus nerve to the brain can make us feel happy – it’s like a happiness pacemaker! Ways to stimulate the vagus nerve:

  • Yoga! Here’s Alla Amanjot Yeates leading a fabulous kriya to stimulate the vagus nerve.
  • Slow, deep breathing triggers the vagus nerve to slow heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Meditation, singing and chanting all activate the vagus nerve.

A simple recipe that is wonderful for our gut and brain health and a marvellous way to start the day, is stewed apple.

  • One cooking apple or two eating apples: Anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and a prebiotic source of soluble fibre for healthy gut and immune system.
  • 1 tsp of cinnamon: Anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and counteracts the impact of the release of fruit sugars from the apples when cooked.
  • Handful of raisins or sultanas: Just because!

Core and slice the apples but leave on some of the skin for added fibre and minerals. Add ¼ cup of water and cook up with the lid on until the apples have started to break down. Then add:

  • Yoghurt: Organic plain dairy or soy yoghurt for your fermented probiotic.
  • Blueberries: A blueberry and yoghurt and combo provides a synergistic effect that soothes the digestive tract.
  • Manuka honey: If you need a little sweetener.
  • Almonds: 4-5 almonds with skins for protein.