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Have you ever given much thought about the connection between your gut and brain, and how much this scientifically proven connection can impact your health?

“Gut health” is for sure one of the latest trending buzzwords (or phrases) in current society, alongside stress and mental health.

In recent years there’s been a substantial rise in people reporting increased stress levels and mental health related issues. According to The Mental Health Foundation in the UK, 74% of people report to feel so stressed they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Running in parallel, Google Trends data reports ‘gut health’ searches have soared, increasing by 2900% in the UK over the last five years, amplifying substantially since the Covid crisis, and emphasizing a clear connection between the two.

Being in a quite stressful business start-up myself, I decided to find out more about the subject, so I met with registered functional medicine trained nutritionist & naturopath Mays Al-Ali, to discuss her specialist topic of Gut health.

Mays explained “Our gut is like a second brain.

There is literally a web of hundreds of millions of nerves that connect the gut and the brain, known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), our information superhighway.

Mays described how it was only in recent years that science has revealed a new highly significant, ‘master controller’ in this intimate codependent relationship: our gut microbiome. The gut-brain connection is bidirectional, meaning that our emotions can affect our gut, and our gut health can also impact our emotions. Inflammation and toxicity in the gut can directly impact brain health, leading to symptoms like fatigue, fogginess, mood fluctuations, depression and, in the longer term, life threatening illness. It’s one of nature’s most fascinating dances – and understanding it can be the first step toward transforming your health.

A recent study found that individuals with healthier gut microbiomes reported higher cognitive function. Furthermore 70% of our immune system is located in our intestines, so if your gut-based immune system is constantly responding to stress, in addition to inflammatory foods and environmental toxins contained in them, this leads to a state of ongoing inflammation in the gut known as silent inflammation.

Our gut bacteria are closely linked to inflammation. If inflammation occurs in the intestine, the delicate relationship of these bacteria may be disturbed in favour of pathogenic bacteria with the intestinal lining becoming irritated and damaged. This can lead to candida, H Pylori, SIBO or even parasitic infections. Friendly bacteria produce substances which support the immune system, while pathogenic bacteria release inflammatory molecules and toxins. This can have a number of effects, from disturbing the balance of the bacteria in the microbiome to irritating the intestinal lining, causing it to become more permeable.

Our gut lining has a lattice like structure with junctions that must remain tight. Stress, poor food choices, chemicals, bad bacteria can all loosen these tight junctions, allowing inflammatory molecues as well as undigested food particles to sneak into the blood stream, stimulating the immune system & causing systemic inflammation, what’s known as leaky gut or raised intestinal permeability. Inflammation in the gut doesn’t always show immediate symptoms. It can build up over time and eventually manifest in digestive problems such as reflux, gas, constipation or diarrhea.

Mays often hears in clinic ‘I could eat what I wanted for years but suddenly I started getting IBS”. Other signs are less obviously related to the gut to include brain fog or inability to focus, joint pain, headaches and even skin rashes. “Skin rashes” I asked, “how are these related?” “Skin is an organ, and a rash is telling us we’re out of balance. The skin is often known as the outer surface of the gut and to get to the root of an issue with my clients, we start with the gut 99% of the time.” Mays explained “And what happens if you don’t address your gut issues?” I questioned further. “Well these can lead to even worse issues to include inflammatory bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or colitis, or worse still oesophageal and colon cancer” Hmm, this all sounded rather concerning.

But there are solutions. Here are Mays’s recommendations to reduce stress and support gut health.

●Lifestyle factors are important to address first and foremost - ongoing stress, too little or conversely, too much exercise, and too little sleep. “So to begin with, the best way to manage a stressful lifestyle is to start with mindfulness, breathwork or meditation, spending at least 10 minutes at the start, building up more if you can.

●Add to that some regular exercise, whether that be a strong walk, cycle or visit to the gym, ensuring you work your cardiovascular system for at least 20 minutes, three times a week.

●Being mindful of your diet is the second biggest factor - start with excluding foods that encourage inflammation in the gut.

Pro-inflammatory foods include:

● Gluten grains

● Dairy products

● Refined vegetable & seed oils

● Sugar

● Alcohol

● Food additives - including glucose, preservatives, flavour enhancers (such as MSG), GMO soy, artificial sweeteners, bulking agents, thickeners and gums, cause increased gut inflammation, leading to leaky gut syndrome.

● Low calorie drinks containing artificial sweeteners also wreak havoc with digestion.

● Caffeine - if you need your coffee fix, limit it to a once a day treat, and not first thing on an empty stomach. Eat first then one hour later to avoid the tannins blocking mineral absorption & only buy 100% organic Arabica.

Eat more of the foods that help to calm inflammation, including:

● At least 30g of fibre to feed the beneficial bacteria in your microbiome, to include oat bran, legumes, nuts & seeds, fruits & avocado. Eat more plants to get this!

● Green leafy vegetables & overall more fresh & natural foods, seasonal & locally sourced for maximum nutrition with lots of organic rainbow veggies, eg cruciferous veg & rainbow berries.

● Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as flax and pumpkin seeds and wild-caught oily fish like salmon and mackerel.

● Eat fermented probiotic rich foods to strengthen leaky guts & tighten gut junctions, to include kefir (dairy free water kefir is best), kombucha tea, miso, tempeh.

● Prebiotic foods which feed the probiotic & also boost the production of gut friendly Short Chain Fatty Acids eg Jerusalem artichoke, chicory, green banana, asparagus, dandelion greens, eggplant, endive, garlic, green tea, leeks, legumes, onions, peas, radicchio, soybeans and apple cider vinegar.

● Spices like turmeric and ginger (I drink it as a tea each morning using freshly sliced turmeric and ginger, with half a squeezed lemon juice with a pinch of Himalayan salt).

Her 4 final tips for digestion are:

● Stop overeating – ideally eating until you are 70% full to allow space for digestion to occur. Overeating disrupts efficient digestion, causing bloating and indigestion. We want to avoid that passing out with fullness feeling after meals as this is a sign that your body is reacting adversely to foods.

● Fasting - giving your digestive system a break from eating is incredibly beneficial. Our bodies use 80% of our energy to digest, so in a fasted state, that energy can be used to heal and repair the gut. Slowly build up to adding intermittent fasting in with a 16:8 window.

● Mastication is super important - chew slowly, ensuring the contents of your mouth are dissolved fully before swallowing.

● Don’t forget to drink lots of still filtered water, at least 2 liters, room temperature, per day.

As a naturopath & functional medicine practitioner Mays highlights the importance of controlling inflammation and restoring gut function as a key to her clients journeys to better health. Through functional testing she can assess the health of your gut bacteria by looking at the substances they produce, determining the levels of inflammatory molecules and disease-causing pathogens in the bloodstream and examining the health of your intestinal lining. These tests give detailed information to allow a targeted approach through nutrition and supplements to heal the gut. This is a great deal of information to take in, but most of us these days know much of this already. Clearly it’s nigh on impossible to follow all of it, but it’s about making more conscious choices.

Mays Al-Ali is a registered functional medicine trained nutritionist & naturopath specialising in healing the gut, skin, hormones and cancer care. She offers a complementary health and wellbeing assessment call to anyone interested in investing in their health with 1-1 personalised nutrition. If you would like to know more about Mays Al Ali you can find her on or on insta @healthymays



by Amanda Butler

Amanda J Butler, wellness warrior, writer and founder - a travel company specialising in wellness travel and healthy experiences

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