You need a healthy gut to achieve and maintain a slim gut. I bet the first thing that comes to mind is food, right? Eat healthy and – presto! – your gut is healthy. Regularly eating delicious “slim gut” foods will definitely help you blast unwanted belly fat and achieve better health. But there’s more to it than that. There is one key component to good gut health that people just aren’t talking about. And this drives me crazy because it’s the most unique component. Think you know what it is?
It’s your mental health.
Yep. That’s right. More than ever, your spirituality and psychological well-being are key players in your gut health. The connection? Stress.
If this surprises you, you are not alone. It’s a weird connection to think about. But it actually makes a ton of sense. And this connection is so strong that the gut is now referred to as your second brain. And get this. These two “brains” talk to each other. They communicate using a precisely orchestrated symphony of neurotransmitters, electrical impulses and hormones.
So, when you’re mentally stressed out, your gut knows it – and it suffers the consequences because the more stressed you are, the more intensely your body reacts to your stress. How? Primarily through an increased release of cortisol – better known as the stress hormone – and a heightened inflammatory response.
Cortisol + Inflammation = Bad News For Your Gut
It’s more important than ever to prioritize your mental health and manage your stress. But how do you even begin to do this in today’s hectic and fast-paced world where your attention is constantly pulled in a dozen different directions and – despite our many time-saving technologies – you have more on your plate than ever? How do you improve and maintain optimal mental wellness in a society that is plagued with social isolation, addiction and growing suicide rates?
You accomplish this by making the Health Hero decision to commit to sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle practices that will calm your mind, deepen your spirituality and significantly reduce your mental “noise” and stress. When you make good on this commitment every day, you will improve your mental health AND your gut health and be on your way to healthier (and slimmer) living.
Incorporate any or all of these strategies into your daily routine and build a stronger, healthier gut-brain connection:
Yoga & Mindfulness Meditation
Think of yoga and mindfulness practices as spiritual workouts for your soul. When you condition your soul, like a muscle, it develops and grows stronger. Yoga and meditation clear your mind of distractions and create a calm space where stress isn’t allowed. Even more impressive? They can change how your DNA responds to stress. Considering that stress is a silent killer and wreaks havoc in your gut, this is especially exciting.
No matter your beliefs, believing in something bigger than yourself improves your mental and physical health. You don’t even have to believe in God or organized religion. It’s simply the practice of reflecting on anything greater than your own being. Prayer will help you to reduce stress, strengthen your connectedness to the world around you and live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
Oh, how I love recommending one of my favorite self-care practices – heartfulness meditation. It’s another workout for your soul. Before you tune out thinking it’s not for you, consider this:
- You don’t need fancy equipment.
- You don’t have to be religious.
- No matter your background, you can enjoy the practice and reap the benefits.
It’s a great way to reduce stress and overwhelm, “quiet” your mind and live in the moment. It’s a simple way to connect with your heart … and the things that matter most. I’m talking total life-changer. Here’s a 5-step run-down to get you started:
- Make time for your heart. Even 15 minutes each day is enough to make a difference. Meditating at the same time every day helps get you into a routine, but any time is a good time.
- Get comfortable. Find a spot where you can sit comfortably. Your body should be supported and relaxed.
- Turn your focus inward. Clear your mind of any “noise” and tune into your heart. Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Let go. Release your worries, stresses and thoughts of daily life. With each breath in, take in calm, peace and lightness. With each breath out, let go of worldly things that distract your focus. Begin to notice the energy and vibration expanding within you. Continue to tune into your heart and let whatever naturally comes from within you rise to the surface. If your mind wanders, simply return to your heart.
- Take time to reflect. When you’ve completed your meditation, think about your experience. How do you feel? What thoughts came to the surface? What did you learn about yourself? You’ll likely come back to the experience again and again throughout your day.
Now you know that your mental health is the most unique – and possibly most important – component to a happy and healthy gut. You also now have 3 sustainable strategies to incorporate into your daily routine in order to effectively manage your stress – the key connection between your brain and gut.
I’m going to tell you about 3 potential obstacles to good gut health and the lifestyle practices you can adopt to make them work to your advantage.
Sitting Too Much
Why it’s bad for your gut:
How’s this for bad? Every hour you spend sitting around (after the age of 25) reduces your life expectancy by 22 minutes. Let that sink in. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? Here is some added perspective. Smoking one cigarette (which I hope you’re not doing!) reduces your life expectancy by approximately 11 minutes. In terms of life expectancy, one hour of sitting is more detrimental than smoking a cigarette. It’s mind-blowing.
Now consider this. American adults spend close to 5 hours a day sitting down. Whether working at your desk, commuting or watching TV, sitting around too much has a direct correlation to your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease. Not surprisingly, researchers have dubbed this the couch potato effect.
A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), digestive issues and is a leading cause of constipation. Some studies suggest that too much sitting can actually negatively impact your gut microbiome, the important bacteria that populate your gut.
It’s time to get moving.
What to do about it:
Reducing the average time you spend sitting to less than 3 hours a day can increase your life expectancy by 2 years. If you have to spend a lot of time sitting during the day, here’s what you can do to help limit the negative side effects:
- Sit upright on your sit bones (a.k.a. – your behind) near the front edge of your chair.
- When sitting, keep your chest in front of your chin (if you’re in front of a computer, you likely extend your chin forward without even realizing it).
- Stand up tall and straight every 20-30 minutes for at least 1-2 minutes. While standing, take deep, slow breaths that expand your torso.
Not Sleeping Enough
Why it’s bad for your gut:
Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours per night for adults) is crucial to maintaining good health. When you don’t get enough uninterrupted sleep (less than 7 hours a night), you become higher-risk for heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, cancer, elevated stress levels due to cortisol increase, brain function decline, weight gain, premature aging and constipation. Most importantly, you increase your risk of dying from any cause – that’s right – ANY cause!
I’m sure you’ve experienced feeling physically sick after a sleepless night. That wasn’t in your head! A lack of sleep has the same effect on your immune system as physical and mental stress. And you know the key role mental well-being plays in your gut health.
If you’re looking to lose weight and get rid of belly fat, you need to prioritize sleep! Not doing so can wreak havoc on your weight loss efforts.
What to do about it:
If you’re getting less than 7 sleep hours a night and wondering what the heck you should do, the answer is simple. Put sleep at the top of your priority list! Here are steps you can take to get into a healthy sleep groove:
- Walk away from your TV or phone 60 minutes before you go to bed. Light stimulation affects melatonin, a hormone which controls your sleep cycle.
- Eat a little protein about 1 hour before you go to bed. This decreases the overnight rise in cortisol – that harmful stress hormone. A small piece of leftover chicken or fish from dinner or a small handful of nuts are great options.
- Don’t exercise within a 3-hour window before bedtime. Exercise wakes you up, and this impact lasts for about 3 hours after you’ve completed your workout. If you feel urge to exercise at night, opt for light stretching instead.
- Consistency is key, so commit to at least 7 hours of sleep every night.
- Settle short-term sleep debt with an extra 1-2 hours a sleep per night. If you lost 10 hours of sleep in a week’s time, pay that debt back in 1-2 hour installments.
- To pay off a long-term sleep debt, take a sleep vacation! Pick a 2-week period when you have a more flexible schedule. During those 2 weeks, go to bed at the same time every night and allow yourself to sleep until you wake up naturally – no alarms clocks! You’ll be able to dig your way out of debt and get back to your ideal sleep schedule.
- Keep a sleep diary. Record when you go to bed, when you get up, how long you slept and how you FEEL during the day! You’ll discover your natural sleep patterns and can then make adjustments as needed.
Why it’s bad for your gut:
I’ve got one word for you: stress.
We live in a society that encourages multitasking. The more we do, the more productive we feel. So we load up our schedules and try to cross as many things off our to-do lists as quickly as we can. We brag about how much we’re getting done as we’re running around stressed, frazzled and completely distracted.
What most of us aren’t doing is considering how much health-destroying stress we’re inviting into our lives when we take on too much at once.
The human brain can only handle so many tasks at a time (research suggests 2 complicated tasks). Adding anything more to your plate overloads your brain and triggers a stress response (hello, cortisol!). This immediately puts your gut health at risk and increases your chances of gut-related issues including:
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- IBD (inflammatory bowel disease)
- GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
If you’re trying to lose weight, you have even more reason to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. Being distracted during mealtime (eating while watching TV or working) can prevent your brain from fully registering what you’ve eaten. This means you won’t feel as full, so you’ll wind up eating and snacking even more to satisfy your appetite.
And here’s the kicker. Multitasking does not save you time – it costs you time! You spend more time going back and forth between multiple projects than you spend when you complete one project at a time. Many experts will tell you that you lose 40% of your productivity when you multitask!
Forget what society is telling you to do. It’s time to slow down, live in the moment, regain your focus and prioritize your health.
What to do about it:
If you’re addicted to multitasking, make the commitment to narrow your focus and be present in what you’re doing. You’ll notice a big time reduction in stress and overwhelm. You’ll reduce your health risks. You’ll have an easier time achieving your weight loss/maintenance goals. You’ll eliminate distractions that can have you missing out on … LIFE. Here’s what you can do:
- Complete tasks in batches. This requires a specific mindset, but once you get into a groove, you’ll save time and reduce your stress.
- Remain calm and step away from your cell phone. Cell phone distractions can lead to relationship problems, trust issues and communication breakdowns – all things that lead to more stress.
- Be present in each moment. Enjoy LIFE! Your mind and body will reap the benefits.
Want to learn more?
About Dr. Partha Nandi
Dr. Partha Nandi, M.D., FACP, is a practicing gastroenterologist, holistic health practitioner, author, speaker, passionate patient advocate and creator and host of the medical lifestyle show, The Dr. Nandi Show.
Born in Calcutta, India, Dr. Nandi survived rheumatic heart disease as a child and made an everlasting commitment to patient care. Through his health challenges grew the compassion, intrigue and drive to become one of the leading patient advocates in the United States. He has never forgotten his beginnings, and continues to teach and inspire millions to adopt healthy lifestyle habits that lead to living more joyful and fulfilling lives.
Combining the best healing techniques from both Eastern and Western medicine, Dr, Nandi strives to help the sick and healthy alike find the most effective ways to solve and prevent various ailments and diseases.