Kawaii happy human brain and funny intestine characters. Hand drawn symbol of the communication between the intestines and the brain. Vector cartoon illustration isolated on white background.

That Gut Feeling

by Northern Life


Alana and Lisa Macfarlane have spent the last few years researching how the gut is so important for our wellbeing. Their new book, The Gut Stuff, is an empowering guide to your gut and its microbes. 

The Mac twins show us how to manage our stress or even reduce it where you can, a high intensity work out can be great but sometimes swapping for a soothing yoga class might help your body relax and help your mental health and in time, the gut. Let’s gut movin’.


Alana and Lisa Macfarlane

So, how are the gut and the brain actually linked? 

The gut and the brain are intrinsically linked with communication going both ways, from the gut to the brain and the brain to the gut – you can think of it as two pals keeping each other company and feeding off each other’s vibe. These pals ‘chat’ both physically via the ‘Vegas nerve’ (like a telephone wire) and chemically (like wireless) through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters play a key role in regulating how your gut works and your mood. Both Dysbiosis and Leaky Gut are associated with mood disorders. 

The Gut-Brain Axis: The ‘gut-brain axis’ describes a back-and-forth communication pathway between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract, which uses signalling neurotransmitters and all sorts of other fancy messengers to manage what we do and how we feel on a daily basis. 

A key player in this set up is our microbiome – the community of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, living in our gut which directly impacts the messages being sent up and down our bodies. 

Variety of fruit and veg is absolutely key, as different types have different benefits and feed different bacteria!

There has been a huge amount of research into this gut-brain-microbiotic interaction in recent years, and findings suggest that both acute and chronic stress will change the balance in our microbiome by favouring unhelpful bacteria, which can result in feelings of anxiety and depression. Research has also shown that those with depression and anxiety have lower diversity of bacteria in their guts and that specific bacteria may also increase the risk of depression and anxiety. 

Your gut microbes need a variety of different types of fibre to thrive, and luckily nature has packaged lots into plant-based foods. Variety of fruit and veg is absolutely key, as different types have different benefits and feed different bacteria! 

Stress and the gut: Science has proven significant correlations between levels of stress and quality of life; more specifically in the context of gut health and gastrointestinal related disorders, which are suffered by 40% of us at any given time. 

Stress and the body: In response to stress (perceived or actual), our body produces the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has many important functions in the stress response but of relevance to the gut, it: 

  • Diverts blood away from the gut to your muscles (to fight or run from your stressor) 
  • It slows down the production of saliva in your mouth meaning the enzymes available to break down food is reduced (impairing digestion) 
  • Decreases prostaglandins, which protect your stomach from acid so you might have a more sensitive tummy when you are stressed. 
  • Slows down digestion or causes sudden evacuation (diarrhoea), which might mean you aren’t absorbing nutrients as well. 
  • Downregulates your immune system (70% is found in your gut) and 
  • It can cause the stomach and oesophagus to spasm. 

All of this is fine in the short term, but where stress is prolonged and food isn’t digested properly, it can really play havoc on the delicate ecosystem found in your gut – therefore potentially impacting your mental health too. 

On the flip side, however, it has been proven that digestion happens more effectively when eating in a relaxed and calm state. Scientific studies have shown that a well-nourished and diverse microbiome will help to increase the production and communication of the ‘happy neurotransmitter’ serotonin, which is sent up to the brain to lift our spirits, calm us down and essentially help us live on the brighter side of life. 

Tips: So with all that science out there, the question still begs; how does one manage that complicated cycle of feelings/food/work/general life without stressing about not being stressed! Phew. Well, it’s really not that hard. Queue our tips to help gut you going. 

Chill out and let your body do its thing; those little microbes are smarter than you think!

De-stress: We know, easier said than done! But keep in mind that what works for you will be different from someone else so focus on what helps you relax, whether a yoga class, a walk or even some mindfulness. Do something that helps you get away from the stress of daily life. 

Try to be relaxed before eating: Don’t eat on the go, sit down without distractions (like your phone) and really focus on the food in front of you. When was the last time you took a deep breath to fill up your lungs? Try taking three deep breaths before you eat to promote a ‘rest and digest’ state. 

Keep a diary to understand why you feel stressed: It could be working out too hard, not getting enough sleep, worrying about work or family. We are all unique but do what you can to get to know yourself better and work on how you manage that stress. Then once you’ve done all of that? Chill out and let your body do its thing; those little microbes are smarter than you think!

Gut and mental health facts: 

Serotonin (your happy neurotransmitter): A staggering 95% of your serotonin is found in your gut and your microbes play a huge role in this. If you have low serotonin levels, you are at increased risk of anxiety, low mood, and even depression. 

Dopamine (your motivation/reward neurotransmitter): If your gut microbes are disrupted (too many, too little or they find themselves in the wrong place and the wrong time), they can affect your body’s dopamine production. Low levels of dopamine are associated with an increased risk of low motivation, difficulty concentrating and mood swings. 

Gaba (gaba-aminobutyric acid) (your calming neurotransmitter): Receptors (think light switches) of GABA are all over your body and even in your gut). Your gut microbes have the ability to influence GABA receptors and even produce it themselves, which means your brain can essentially utilise more of the ‘chilled-out’ hormone. Low levels of GABA are linked to an increased risk of anxiety and restlessness. 

Note: If you are concerned about your mental health please obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information in this article – as everyone’s bodies, and guts are different. 

Herby potato salad with sauerkraut

Potatoes often get a bad rep but cooked and cooled potatoes contain something called resistant starch which behaves in a similar way to fibre and cannot be digested in the small intestine. When it reaches your large intestine, bacteria work hard to ferment it and produce short chain fatty acids (aka ‘gut food’ – the stuff your gut microbes love!). This colourful and gut-friendly potato salad offers a double whammy of fermented deliciousness AND resistant starch.

Serves 2


500g new potatoes

1 bunch of basil

1 bunch of parsley, chopped

2 handfuls of mixed leaf salad

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 small garlic clove

120g sauerkraut (try our recipe)

120g frozen peas

6 radishes, sliced

2 spring onions, finely sliced


Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, drop in the basil for 20 seconds, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Add the potatoes and cook until tender, add the peas for the final 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, squeeze any liquid from the basil, then add to a blender along with the oil and garlic. Blitz until you have a vibrant green oil.

Drain and steam-dry the potatoes and peas. In a mixing bowl, add the potatoes, peas, mixed rocket, spring onions and parsley and toss with the basil oil. Add the sliced radishes.

Season to taste and serve topped with sauerkraut.

The Gut Stuff: An empowering guide to your gut and its microbes by Lisa Macfarlane and Alana Macfarlane £11.09.


Northern Life Mar/Apr 22