The Gut-Brain Connection: How To Feed Your Brain

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If there was ever a call for digestive health, this is it!  Yes, it's true. Your gut is considered your "second brain." And there is no denying it anymore.

And because of the new scientific discoveries about the vagus nerve, the enteric nervous system, and the amazing influence your gut microbes can have, it's no wonder what you eat feeds not only your body but can directly affect your brain.  How crazy is that?!

What exactly is the "Gut-Brain Connection."

Well, it’s very complex, and to be honest, we’re still learning lots about it! There seems to be multiple things working together.  Things like:

  • The vagus nerve that links the gut directly to the brain;
  • The “enteric nervous system” (A.K.A. “second brain) that helps the complex intricacies of digestion flow with little to no involvement from the actual brain
  • The massive amount of neurotransmitters produced by the gut;
  • The huge part of the immune system that is in the gut, but can travel throughout the body;
  •  The interactions and messages sent by the gut microbes.

Yep, that's complex. And amazing, if you ask me. So, let's briefly touch on these areas, and end off with a delicious recipe (of course!)

Vagus nerve

There is a nerve that runs directly from the gut to the brain.  And after reading this so far, you’ll probably get a sense of which direction 90% of the transmission is…

Not from your brain to your gut (which is what we used to think), but from your gut up to your brain!

The Enteric Nervous System and Neurotransmitters

Would you believe me if I told you that the gut has more nerves than your spinal cord? True story.  And that's why it's referred to as the "second brain."

And, if you think about it, controlling the complex process of digestion (i.e. digestive enzymes, absorption of nutrients, the flow of food, etc.) should probably be done pretty "smartly"...don't you think?

And guess how these nerves speak to each other, and to other cells? By chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.  In fact, many of the neurotransmitters that have a strong effect on our mood are made in the gut! e.g. a whopping 95% of serotonin is made in your gut, not in your brain!

The Immune System of the Gut

Because eating and drinking is a huge portal where disease-causing critters can get into your body, it makes total sense that much of our defense system would be located there too, right? Seventy-five percent of our immune system is in our gut!

And you know that the immune cells can move throughout the entire body and cause inflammation just about anywhere, right?  Well, if they’re “activated” by something in the gut, they can potentially wreak havoc anywhere in the body. Including the potential to cause inflammation in the brain.

Gut Microbes

Your friendly neighbourhood gut residents. You have billions of those little guys happily living in your gut. And they do amazing things like help you digest certain foods, make certain vitamins, and even help regulate inflammation!

But more and more evidence is showing that changes in your gut microbiota can impact your mood, and even other, more serious, mental health issues.

How do these all work together for brain health?

The honest answer to how these things all work together is that we really don't know just yet. More and more studies are being done to learn more.  But one thing is becoming clear. A healthy gut goes hand-in-hand with a healthy brain!

So, how do you feed your brain?  Of course, a variety of minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods is required, because no nutrients work alone.

But two things that you many consider eating more of are fiber and omega-3 fats. Fiber (in fruits, veggies, nuts & seeds) help to feed your awesome gut microbes. And omega-3 fats (in fatty fish, walnuts, algae, and seeds like flax, chia, and hemp) are well-know inflammation-lowering brain boosters.

Blueberry Hemp Overnight Oats (Gut food:fibre, Brain food: Omega-3)

Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup oats (gluten-free)
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 banana, sliced
  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts

Instructions:

  • Blend blueberries in the food processor until smooth.
  • Mix blueberries, oats, almond milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds in a bowl with a lid. Let set in fridge overnight.
  • Split into two bowls and top with cinnamon, banana, and walnuts.

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Your gut microbes love to eat the fiber in the blueberries, oats, seeds, and nuts. Meanwhile, your brain loves the omega-3 fats in the seeds and nuts.

References:

http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-probiotics

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/fix-gut-fix-health

http://neurotrition.ca/blog/your-gut-bugs-what-they-eat-and-7-ways-feed-them

How to Naturally Lower Your Stress Hormone Cortisol

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STRESS!!!

Its causes are absolutely everywhere and seem to be increasing all the time. Would you agree?

And our natural “fight or flight” stress response can sometimes go a little overboard. It’s supposed to help us escape injury or death in an emergency and then return to normal after we’ve fought or flew. But, that doesn’t happen too much in our society - it becomes a long-term reaction. It becomes chronic. (and that's not a good thing!)

You’ve probably heard of the main stress hormone, called “cortisol.”  It’s released from your adrenal glands in response to stress. It’s also naturally high in the morning to get you going, and slowly fades during the day so you can sleep.

Did you know that too-high levels of cortisol are associated with belly fat, poor sleep, brain fog, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and even lowers your immunity? Does any of this sound like you? Well, then read on because I have a list of foods, nutrients and lifestyle recommendations to help you lower this stress hormone naturally!

Foods and Nutrients to Lower Cortisol

  • Let’s start with one of the biggies that increase your cortisol… sugar! Reducing the sugar we eat and drink can be a great step toward better health for our minds (and bodies).
  • High doses of caffeine also increase your cortisol levels. If coffee makes you feel anxious and jittery, then cut back on the amount of caffeine you ingest.
  • Also, being dehydrated increases cortisol. Make sure you’re drinking enough water every day, especially if you feel thirsty.
  • Eat a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods - you know, fruits, veggies, whole grains! This doesn't just help reduce stress hormone, it helps all aspects of your health.
  • Lower your cortisol levels with tea and dark chocolate (not the sugary milky kind!). Have a bit to unwind.
  • Don’t forget your probiotics and prebiotics! There is so much new research about the gut-mind connection, and how taking care of your friendly gut microbes is key! Make sure you’re eating probiotic rich fermented foods and getting a healthy dose of prebiotic fiber.

Lifestyle techniques to Lower Cortisol

It’s not just food, but there are things you can do with your time that can lower cortisol.

  • Reduce your stress with mindfulness. Many studies show that reducing stressful thoughts and worry reduces cortisol.
  • Get enough exercise (but don’t overdo it). While intense exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily, it can reduce overall cortisol levels.
  • Get enough sleep! Getting adequate sleep is way too underrated. Sleep reduces cortisol levels and also helps improve your overall health in so many ways.
  • Relax and have fun. Things like deep breathing, massages, and listening to relaxing music all reduce cortisol.
  • Be social and bust loneliness. Would you believe me if I told you that science has shown health risks from social isolation and loneliness? It’s true! Maintaining good relationships and spending time with people you like and who support you is key.

Conclusion

Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can have several negative impacts on your health. And there are many proven ways to reduce levels of cortisol naturally.  In terms of foods and nutrients, have less sugar and caffeine. And have more water, fruit, tea, dark chocolate, probiotics, and prebiotics.

Lifestyle factors are HUGE when it comes to cortisol. To lower yours, exercise (but not too much), get more sleep, relax, and have more fun.  In the comments below, let me know your favourite ways to bust the stress hormone cortisol!

So now that you know what needs to happen to lower those cortisol levels, why not relax with a bowl of chocolate pudding!  (it's good for you...I swear!)

De-Stressing Chocolate Pudding

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 3 ripe avocados
  • ¼ cup cacao powder (unsweetened)
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 dash salt

Instructions:

Place all ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth.  Yep, that's it!

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Try adding a pinch of cinnamon for a deeper flavour.

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/ways-to-lower-cortisol/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-cortisol

https://authoritynutrition.com/16-ways-relieve-stress-anxiety/

https://www.thepaleomom.com/managing-stress/

http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

3 Common Preservatives You're Eating Right Now

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So what's the big deal about preservatives anyways?  Well, let's talk about a few common ones and why you may want to avoid them.

A food preservative is a substance added to foods to make them last longer, you know, preserves them. Preservatives are added to foods that go bad quickly and have found themselves in all kinds of products in our grocery stores.

Preservatives work to preserve food in a few different ways. Some prevent the growth of
bacteria and mold. Others prevent delicate fats from going rancid. And there are so many preservatives out there. While preservatives added to foods should be
“approved,” this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe for everyone always. And it doesn’t mean that the food is healthy either.

Foods with preservatives are more-processed, less-nutritious foods to begin with - not exactly
health foods. So, even if you don’t mind preservatives, you probably should cut down on these
kinds of foods, anyway.  So, let’s learn more about a few common food preservatives.

Salt

That’s right - salt. Salt was the original preservative.

FUN FACT: The term “salary” is from the Latin word for salt. It’s thought that it came from the
ancient Romans who would pay employees, allowing them to buy salt. Either that, or it was for
their work conquering and/or guarding salt mines/roads. Either way, salt was sought because of its ability to preserve food before the advent of refrigeration. Even things like fish and pork were salt cured  in order to prevent them from going bad.

In today’s day and age, with fridges and freezers in every home and grocery store, and
refrigerated trucks, salt is not needed for food preservation as much. But our taste buds still
seem to crave it on an epic scale. The average American eats over 3,400 mg of sodium per
day, well over the recommended 2,300 mg/day. Much of that is because it’s found in processed
foods.

According to Harvard Health:
"reducing dietary salt (table salt that is only sodium, chloride and iodine) will lower
blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and save lives." So, salt is one of those all-too-common food preservatives that most of us will do better with
less of.

Nitrites (nitrates and nitrosamines)

Now you may have heard of these guys in the news lately. Nitrites are preservatives added to processed meats. They're not bad in and of themselves, but they do turn into harmful chemicals called nitrosamines.

Nitrosamines are carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. Nitrites form nitrosamines when they're cooked at high heat, and sometimes even when exposed to the high acid environment of the stomach.  Nitrites are added to meats to keep the pink-red colour and prevent “browning.” Mostly in bacon,ham, sausages and lunch meats. Since nitrites can change into nitrosamines, nitrites are one-step away from being the “bad guys.”  Another interesting thing is that processed meats have been linked with colon cancer. Because
of the nitrites? Perhaps, but either way, nitrosamines are a confirmed health-buster.

Since nitrosamines (from nitrites) are the bad guys and are formed by cooking nitrites at high
heat, what are nitrates?  Nitrates are naturally found in many healthy foods like vegetables. They’re especially high in beets. Sometimes our enzymes or gut bacteria change these healthy nitrates into nitrites.  However, they rarely form nitrosamines because they’re two-steps away from becoming these “bad guys.”

BHA & BHT

Have you seen on packages “BHA/BHT has been added to the package to help maintain
freshness” ? Perhaps on cereal packages or in gum? Guess how these compounds maintain
freshness? Because they’re preservatives.

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidants added to many processed, packaged foods. The main way BHA and BHT work is by preventing fats from going rancid. But are they safe?

Well, they're approved for use as a preservative at small doses, however,
some studies show they can cause cancer in animals at high doses. Again, they're added to all kinds of processed, pre-packaged foods, so it's wise to avoid them nonetheless.

Conclusion

There are a lot of preservatives in our food supply. These compounds work by preventing the
growth of bacteria and mold, or by preventing fats from going rancid. And they're mostly found in processed foods. So ff you want to avoid them...then eat fresh foods!  Those foods that don't have ingredients, but ARE ingredients. (ie. fruits, veggies, whole grains etc.)

Now, I haven't even scratched the surface on preservatives, but hopefully this information makes you want to read all your food ingredient labels now.  Let me know
in the comments below if you'll be keeping an eye out for them.

Now here's a great, preservative-free recipe to satisfy those chip cravings!

Simple Kale Chips

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of kale, washed and dried
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 dashes salt
  • 2 dashes garlic powder

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 300F and place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet.  Take the washed and dried kale and rip them into chip-sized pieces and place in a large bowl.
Drizzle with olive oil, salt, and garlic powder. Mix until the kale pieces are evenly covered.  Place kale onto prepared sheet in an even layer. Bake for 10 minutes.
Flip over the kale to cook the other sides of the pieces. Bake for another 10 minutes until the
edges just start turning brown. Watch them closely, or you'll have burnt kale chips.

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: You can use any spice combo, so try onion powder, paprika, or even turmeric.


References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salary

https://authoritynutrition.com/are-nitrates-and-nitrites-harmful/

https://authoritynutrition.com/9-ways-that-processed-foods-are-killing-people/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-endocrine-disruptors

http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/salt-and-your-health

https://examine.com/nutrition/scientists-just-found-that-red-meat-causes-cancer--or-did-they/

https://authoritynutrition.com/chewing-gum-good-or-bad/

http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/list-of-ingredients-and-allergens/table/eng/1369857665232/1369857767799

Haven't Changed Anything in Your Diet But Getting Fatter?

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You' re positive that you're not eating more food.  And you're not chowing down on junk food either,  but you're still gaining weight.  What the heck? Is that even possible?

Yes!  

You're NOT crazy!

And here's why.

We both know that the whole “calories in, calories out” argument is an overly simplistic view of weight.  There's definitely more to the story than just what you're eating, right?

A lot of this comes right down to your metabolic rate which is affected by things like your activity level, history of dieting, body composition, and even what you eat.

But, let's go beyond the “eat less and exercise more” advice and dive into some of the less obvious underlying reasons why you may be gaining weight even though you're eating the same.

Things like:

  • Aging
  • Hormones
  • Sleep
  • Stress

Aging

Funny things happen the older we get.  People commonly experience lower energy levels, more digestive discomfort, weight gain, as well as aches and pains.

Aging can result in hormonal changes for both men and women.  And these can contribute to loss of some lean muscle mass, as well as increases and changes in fat storage on our bodies.  The good thing is that, this is very common and it's not your fault.

Hormones

Your thyroid is the master controller of your metabolism and can be a massive contributor to your weight gain.  But there are things that can affect it and throw it off course.

When your thyroid gets off course and produces fewer hormones your metabolism slows down.  And when your metabolism slows down you can gain weight. Even though you're eating the same way you always have.

Pro Tip: Talk with your doctor about having your hormones tested.  Oh, and try the thyroid-friendly recipe that I created for you at the end of this post.

Sleep

There is plenty of research that shows the influence that sleep has on your metabolic rate.  And as we age it can become harder and harder to get a good night's sleep.  The general consensus is to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night to help avoid weight gain.

And it's true!  Lack of sleep is linked with weight gain.  Who ever thought you can sleep off your weight?  

Pro Tip: Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night.  The first place to start is by implementing a calming before bedtime routine.  Ditch the screens, try some meditation or reading and avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed.

Stress

It seems to be everywhere!  So many things that can cause stress responses in your body.  And you know that stress hormones are not going to help you sustain healthy habits or maintain a healthy weight, right?

While you can't necessarily change your stressors you can try to adjust your stress response to them.

Pro Tip:  Try meditation or yoga.  Or even mindful eating. What about those new adult colouring books that are all the rage now?

Conclusion:

There are lots of factors that can affect your weight, even if you're eating the same way you always have.  Aging, hormones, stress, and sleep are all interconnected to each other and can all contribute to weight gain, even if you're eating the same way you always have.

Seaweed (Thyroid friendly Iodine) Sushi Bowl

Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 avocado (thinly sliced)
  • ½ cucumber (diced)
  • ½ red pepper (thinly sliced)
  • 1 green onion (chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons dried seaweed (arame, wakame, or crumbled nori sheets)
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons gluten-free tamari sauce
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • ½ garlic clove
  • dash salt and pepper

Instructions:

Split the first seven ingredients into two bowls.  Mix the rest of the ingredients together to make the dressing.  Pour the dressing over the sushi bowls.

Serve & Enjoy!

Tip:  This is a great lunch to take on the go.  Keep dressing in a separate container so you can give it a shake before adding it onto the sushi bowl.

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/lose-weight-in-menopause/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/sleep-stress-and-fat-loss

 

Dairy Intolerance? What about Lactose, Casein & Whey?

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If you have have a food intolerance, then you know it isn't fun. It can cause abdominal pain, discomfort, and nausea. It also causes embarrassing symptoms like flatulence and diarrhea. Other symptoms linked to food intolerances include muscle or joint pain, headaches, exhaustion, and even skin symptoms like rashes and eczema.  Dairy happens to be one of those foods that many people seem to be intolerant of.

So let’s talk about the main parts of milk that people react to: lactose, casein, and whey.

Milk Sugar (Lactose) Intolerance

It’s estimated that up to 75% of adults are lactose intolerant. Lactose is the carbohydrate “milk sugar” naturally found in most dairy products. Lactose intolerance is so common you can buy lactose-free milk in your regular grocery store. Lactose-free products are treated with the enzyme “lactase” that breaks the lactose down before you ingest it. It’s this lactase enzyme that is lacking in most people who are lactose intolerant.

The lactase enzyme is naturally released from your intestine as one of your digestive enzymes. It breaks down the lactose sugar in the gut. When someone doesn't have enough lactase, the lactose doesn't get broken down the way it should.  Undigested lactose ends up being food for your resident gut microbes. And as they ferment the lactose, they create gases that can cause bloating, flatulence, pain, and even diarrhea.

Lactose is in dairy but is in lower amounts in fermented dairy (e.g. cheese & yogurt) and butter. Steering clear of lactose isn't that easy as it is added to other foods like baked goods, soups, and sauces. And if you're taking any medications or supplements, check to see if it's in there too, as lactose is a common ingredient in them.  If you have symptoms of lactose intolerance, keep an eye on food, medication, and supplement labels.

Milk Protein (Casein & Whey) Allergy

Milk is a known, and common, food allergen. In Canada, it is considered a “priority allergen” and must be declared on food labels.

So, what are the allergens in milk? You've heard of "curds and whey?" Well, these are the two main proteins in milk. The solid bits are the curds (made of casein), and the liquid is the dissolved whey. Who knew?!

Unlike lactose intolerance, casein and whey can cause an actual immune response. It’s an allergy. And this immune response can cause inflammation. In fact, we don’t know how many people have these milk allergies, but most estimates put it far below that of lactose intolerance.

Like lactose, these allergenic milk proteins can be found in other products too. They're not just in dairy but are often in protein powders as well (think of those Whey protein powders).

Some of the symptoms of milk protein allergy differ from that of lactose intolerance; things like nasal congestion and mucus (phlegm) are more common here. And casein seems to be linked with belly fat.  Interestingly, people who have gluten intolerance are often allergic to milk proteins like whey and casein as well. These can go hand-in-hand.

Like lactose intolerance, if you're allergic to casein and whey keep an eye on labels so you can avoid these.

Conclusion

If you get gassy, bloated, or diarrhea after eating dairy, you may have a lactose intolerance. If you often get a stuffy nose and mucus, then you may be allergic to casein and/or whey.

While dairy may be an entire food group, it is NOT an essential nutrient. All the nutrients in dairy are available in other foods. If you experience these symptoms, you can try removing dairy from your diet. And you may find improved digestion and fewer gut issues, I know I sure did. Or you may find improved nasal congestion, or even less belly fat!

If you decide to (or have already) removed dairy from your diet, let me know your experience in the comments below.

And now for one of my fave non-dairy treats!

Chocolate Nice Cream

Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • 3 bananas, sliced and frozen
  • 2 tsp cacao powder, unsweetened
  • 1 tbsp almond butter

Instructions:

Place frozen bananas in food processor and blend until smooth (a few minutes). You may have to stop a few times to scrape the sides.  Add cacao powder and almond butter and blend until mixed well.

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: You can make this in advance and freeze in an airtight container.

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/11-proven-ways-to-reduce-bloating/

https://www.dietvsdisease.org/how-to-get-rid-of-bloating/

https://www.dietvsdisease.org/11-warning-signs-you-have-a-food-intolerance/

https://authoritynutrition.com/dairy-foods-low-in-lactose/

https://authoritynutrition.com/lactose-intolerance-101/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/whey-protein-allergies-intolerances-bloating

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-food-sensitivities

https://www.thepaleomom.com/the-great-dairy-debate/

https://nutritionfacts.org/video/is-milk-and-mucus-a-myth/

https://nutritionfacts.org/video/milk-protein-vs-soy-protein/

https://examine.com/supplements/casein-protein/

https://examine.com/supplements/whey-protein/

http://foodallergycanada.ca/about-allergies/food-allergens/milk/

http://www.health.harvard.edu/blood-pressure/milk-protein-may-lower-blood-pressure