New COVID Support VT Workshop with Vermont Nutritionist Explores Gut-Brain Connection
Can what you eat improve your mental health generally? How does gut health affect mood and wellness long term? Is it possible to eat for good mental health without breaking the bank? Explore these questions and more in COVID Support VT’s newest free workshop.
Nutrition, Gut Health, & Mental Wellness workshop, October 29th, 2021.
In Nutrition, Gut Health and Mental Wellness, Vermont-based dietitian Susie Polgreen, a gut-health specialist at Whole Health Nutrition in Colchester, will explore the interplay between emotional well-being and dietary practices. Participants will learn about the link between the gut and brain, and how poor gut health can affect one’s mental health. Polgreen will share practical ways to improve gut health with whole foods and advice for doing so on a budget.
Untangling the Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain connection is the subject of intense research to sort out the many ways that the food we take in helps — or hinders — our mental and overall well-being. “There are so many things we’re learning about the gut component of health, and how connected our gut is to every organ, particularly the brain,” says Polgreen. For starters, the vagus nerve directly connects the gut and brain, and the two organs “talk to each other all day, every day,” she says. They use the language of chemical messengers like the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin, which is mostly produced in the gut.
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to 100 trillion or so single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria. This is the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome helps keep things running smoothly, not just in the GI but all over, including the brain. If the gut microbiome gets out of balance, toxins can build up and eventually damage the lining of the gut. Over time, tiny holes may form in the tissue, allowing digestive fluids to leak out of the gut. Some of these toxins can cross into the brain.
“It’s important to recognize the signs of poor gut health,” Polgreen says. Diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, and acid reflux are typical GI symptoms. Beyond the gut, Polgreen says other symptoms might include skin problems such as rash or eczema, joint pain and “creakiness,” and “intense, almost zombie-like brain fog.”
Stress Management and GI Health
Polgreen advocates a two-pronged approach to improving our gut health. First, we need to clean up our diets. The standard American diet, Polgreen says, is known jokingly among nutritionists as the SAD diet. Its primarily components are highly processed “fast” foods with lots of added sugar, hydrogenated oils, and few beneficial nutrients. A gut-healthy diet emphasizes specific nutrients believed to strengthen the lining of the gut, and Polgreen will describe how to get these through day-to-day food choices. “Transitioning to whole foods will help the gut,” she says.
Equally important to a dietary assessment and scrubbing, Polgreen says, is having a plan to manage stress. Making time for a relaxed mealtime is critical. “If you’re stressed out, it’s hard to be present to your food,” she says, because the digestive tract shuts down in high stress. “It’s like asking a zebra to digest a meal while racing from a charging lion.”
Instead, she advocates for making meals a time for conscious relaxation, which will facilitate a more efficient digestive processing. She recommends mind-body techniques such as deep breathing or meditation to calm the gut and let the tensions of the day fall away before sitting down to eat.
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COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports.