How social distancing can affect your gut health

The coronavirus pandemic is playing havoc with many aspects of our lives – including some surprising ways inside our bodies, experts say.

For such a small gesture, the act of hugging carries a lot of weight.

A globally accepted form of expressing love for another, a large body of research indicates hugging can also decrease pain, boost heart health and play a valuable role in the internal fight against depression and anxiety.

While the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated, the decrease in physical contact with others has not been without detriment to our health.

Figures from Monash University show one in four Australians are experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms.

But the negative effects of isolation are not restricted to the emotional toll, says gut health expert and naturopath Fin MacKenzie.

How social distancing affects the gut

“This pandemic is forcing us to stay in the same environment for extended periods of time, minimising our exposure to other people and places, which then disrupts the diversity of our gut flora,” says Fin, of Endeavour College of Natural Health.

“Research has shown our gut microbiome thrives on this diversity, with many studies finding that common diseases such as  asthma, eczema and depression are associated with a loss of microbial diversity in the gut microbiota.

“And of course, when we hug, your body immediately becomes flooded with feel-good hormones that not only leave you feeling happy but have a direct positive impact on your immune system.

“You have to remember that 80 per cent of serotonin is produced in the gut, not the brain, so when you’re basking in that post-hug glow, you’re indirectly improving your gut health – and thus, your overall health.”

How to improve your gut health while social distancing

It’s difficult to know when we’ll be able to hug loved ones and move freely about again, but the good news is that the average person can drastically improve their gut health in as little as two weeks, says GP Dr Ginni Mansberg.

“If you’re eating a diet that’s high in processed sugars and saturated fats and low in fibre, polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids, the best thing you can do for your health is to change your diet,” she says.

“A poor diet encourages growth of bad bacteria, which causes dysfunction and inflammation of the organs, one of which is the brain.”

gut health foods

Fin also suggests the following tips to improve your gut health:

Eat plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables

Gut bacteria has a penchant for dark purple, red and blue fruits in particular, so eat plenty of berries as well as plums, dark chocolate and red wine in moderation.

“Other good gut snacks include red apples, black grapes, red onions and red/purple potatoes,” Fin says

Eat a diet rich in prebiotic fibres

It’s time to load up the plate with the prebiotic fibres such as resistant starch (bananas, oats, lentils and cashews) as well as fructooligosacchardies (or FOS) and inulin, which can be found in rye, onion, garlic and honey.

“Don’t forget to add fibre in the form of wholegrains, nuts and seeds,” says Fin.

Consume fermented foods

Add food and drink such as kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, naturally brewed ginger beer and pickles to the shopping trolley to support the health of your gut flora.

“Sauerkraut or fermented cabbage is a virtual wonderland of beneficial bacteria with trillions of beneficial bacteria in a single serve,” says Fin. “That’s around the same as a whole bottle of probiotics.”

It’s worth noting that the research behind probiotics is only emerging, adds Dr Mansberg.

“We’re starting to see some evidence of how the fermentation process impacts our health but we’re still in our infancy,” she says.

Drink plenty of water

Avoid too much alcohol as it can affect the health of the microbiome, and stay hydrated by drinking water regularly throughout the day.

Avoid junk food

You might be craving all the chips and biscuits but junk food is often high in fat and sugar, which can negatively impact diversity.

Small amounts of dark chocolate is OK, but stick to fresh fruit whenever you need a sweet snack.

Other ways to look after yourself

If you need specific advice on your gut health, speak to a naturopath or nutritionist, but don’t rule out making an appointment with your GP if your mental health is a concern.

“Evidence shows we’re not very good at diagnosing mental health conditions so it’s a good idea to speak with your family doctor before your symptoms worsen,” advises Dr Mansberg.

“As with anything else health-related, the quicker you get on to it, the better it is in the long run.”

Written by Dilvin Yasa.