Butterflies in your stomach. A gut feeling. "I need to chew on it."
We underestimate the importance our gut has on our overall wellbeing and only notice our digestive system when something goes wrong.
Yet, vital hormones like serotonin, which regulates sleep, are produced in the gut so any disfunction in our digestion can have a snowball effect on our overall health.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, ie, a chemical that communicates messages in the brain, is produced in the digestive tract and is present in blood platelets.
Serotonin is responsible for various functions including sleep, mood and appetite. Serotonin is manufactured from tryptophan, an aminoacid present in protein-rich foods, nuts and dairy products. Production of serotonin also requires the presence of vitamin B6 which can help convert tryptophan into serotonin. An erratic lifestyle can severely disrupt serononin levels (see Livestrong article).
The pineal gland in our brain can also produce serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin, the sleep hormone.
"People are overwhelmed" says Elaine Williams, Director of Natural Therapies at Grayshott Spa in Surrey. "You need to listen to your gut feeling" she continues. We suffer from brain fatigue, adrenal fatigue and lack of focus as we tend to do too much too quickly.
Elaine has developed a programme for digestive health at Grayshott in collaboration with the in-house nutritionist Stephanie Moore. The aim of the programme is to improve the quality of your sleep and reduce stress through nutrition, exercise and relaxation. This 7 day programme looks at nutrition to manage spikes in hormone levels which can disrupt sleep. For example, a spike in cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the middle of the night may be caused by a diet rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars.
Although the programme was designed specifically to improve digestive functions, it was soon clear that it brought additional benefits like better sleep and reduced stress.
Later on in the year the Grayshott will launch a new stress programme combining nutrition advice with neuro-linguistic-programming, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy as well as exercise and herbal tinctures.
Sometimes you need to regain perspective and learn to manage your time differently; at times a short holiday can do wonders for your health, as long as you don't indulge in unhealthy habits. When a holiday is not an option, a spa break can be the start of a process towards better health.
When it comes to nutrition, it takes approximately three months of healthy eating to enjoy better energy levels, better digestion and better health.
Elaine asks difficult questions like "Are you living the right life for you?" If you are always anxious, stressed and exhausted, are the pain and fatigue you are experiencing really worth it?
Elaine works with clients on three key areas:
- nutrition, by choosing the right foods to give you energy
- exercise, to increase a sense of vitality
- brain, because the way you use your mind affects your health
Each programme starts with different blood tests to check for glucose, haemoglobin and cholesterol levels. The idea is to spend a number of days at the spa to avoid distractions but you can continue the programme at home as advice is available on Skype for follow ups.
Stephanie Moore, nutritionist at Grayshott Spa, believes that the key to good health is good digestion and the priority is to get people off sugar to stop cravings in their tracks. Calorie counting, ready meals and low fat diets have created a distorted idea of food and increased eating disorders and weight gain. She suggests choosing "good fats" from natural foods like avocado and coconut, increasing the intake of Omega 3 from fish and reducing processed foods and vegetable/seed oils for cooking which are too rich in Omega 6.
Over-consumption of Omega 6 can have an oxydative effect on the cardiovascular system: studies have found that high levels of Omega 6 are linked with heart disease and blood clots. Above all, it is advisable to avoid margerine and hydrogenated fats as they raise the levels of bad cholesterol LDL therefore increasing the risk of heart disease.
Omega 3 oils can protect the heart from disease and can be found in fish, organic meat, eggs, leafy green vegetables, linseed and walnuts. However, plant sources of Omega 3 are less easily absorbed and processed in the body.
60% of the brain is made of fats, explains Stephanie, and the brain needs Omega 3 to produce the happy hormones serotonin and dopamine.
So, what is the key to good sleep? Making healthier food choices, practising relaxation techniques like mindful meditation and cutting out stimulants like coffee. And remembering that our gut is our powerhouse just like a car's engine.