Is Your Diet Making You Stressed? The Gut/Brain Link Explained.


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​I was recently invited to attend The Loft’s ‘Lead Like A Woman’ event, as guest speaker, which was held at WeWork in Brisbane.

The Loft invite female leaders to come together for intimate gatherings, featuring key women propelling change in their respective industries.

Co-Founder of HER Sydney, the Australian chapter of HER Global Network, Leni Andronicos, held the floor on my Food & Mind workshop and asked me some deep questions about the gut/brain connection and how it affects our ability to deal with stress and anxiety.

Here is a recap of our eye-opening discussion…

Shelley Darlington discussing gut brain link

​​​​Leni: Shelley Darlington is a health and fitness expert who runs Strong Curves. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the health and fitness sphere.

Thank you for having me, Leni!

I founded Strong Curves a few years ago as a way to help women all over the world to take control of their bodies, get fit and healthy, but more importantly to take control of their mindsets and start to reap the benefits in every area of their lives… not just their physical health.

​Starting off my career as a personal trainer nearly a decade ago, I quickly realised that my time was limited and I wanted to be able to reach more women, to have a larger impact and and to share more deeply my knowledge, and thus, Strong Curves was born.

So now I work online, sharing as m​any of my free resources as I can on my Youtube Channel and blog as well as,​ creating online products such as e-courses and e-books.

In my early twenties, weighing a tiny 35kg, I suffered from debilitating digestive issues, chronic fatigue, low self-esteem and anxiety. These seemingly unrelated symptoms lead me to finding out about the gut, our hormones and how what we eat affects not only our physical health but our mental health too.

I’m firmly opposed to couples workouts. Sounds crazy, right? I mean, you could definitely do with some guidance in the weights room because, let’s be honest, the treadmill is the only piece of gym equipment you actually know how to use properly… But that ain’t gonna help you grow that booty.

Plus, he’s buff and he knows his way around the gym, so it’s the perfect way for you spend more time together and get fit. Win-win.

After all, ‘couples who train together, stay together’, right? Well, not always…

It’s time to rethink that gym date. Read on for the low down on couples workouts:
Shelley Darlington talking with Leni Andronicos

Leni: Diet, exercise and lifestyle can have a huge impact on your mental well-being and ability to deal with stress and anxiety, can you talk us through the gut-brain connection and how this impacts our mood and mental health?

​I’m sure you’ve all heard of the gut being referred to as the second brain. Well, I like to call it the first brain because what happens in your gut, literally dictates your mental well-being.

The Japanese call the gut the seat of the mind and soul.

The gut is home to trillions of bacteria also known as your gut microbiome. Some are good, some not so good and some can be downright pathogenic. In fact, there’s something like 3 pounds of bacteria in your gut alone and we have nearly as many bacterial cells in our body as we do human cells.

Essentially, we are half bacteria. Seventy percent of our immune system is housed in the walls of your digestive tract and a lot of mood disorders stem from an unhealthy gut.

But more significantly, most of our important mood and sleep hormones are made in the gut, such as, melatonin (a sleep regulator and fat burning hormone), as well as it’s precursor, serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, social behaviour and memory). Your gut actually contains more neurotransmitters than your brain!

This means that what you eat dictates the balance of your microflora, which in turn, is going to have a significant impact on your ability to deal with stress and anxiety.

Fresh salmon fillet for gut health

Leni: What foods should we be eating to help treat stress and anxiety?

1. Remove foods that feed the bad bacteria.

I’m sorry, I know a lot of you are probably not going to want to hear this, but… you should avoid:

  • ​Alcohol (beer, wine & spirits)
  • ​Processed & packaged foods (deli meat, oils, cheese & TV dinners)
  • ​Junk food, take-out & fast food
  • ​Refined sugars & processed carbs (bread, pasta, pastries, chocolate & candy)
  • ​High glycemic fruit & fruit juices (opt for low sugar fruits like berries instead)

The issue with these foods is that they increase your insulin levels (fat-storing hormone), which in turn, increases your cortisol levels (stress hormone) which then puts your body into ‘flight or flight mode’ AKA the anxiety state.

2. Remove things that kill the good bacteria.

Although not always possible, try to avoid medications (unless absolutely necessary), as well as, chemicals like:

  • ​Acid blockers
  • ​Anti-inflammatory & pain killers
  • ​Antibiotics
  • ​Steroids
  • ​Heavy metals, herbicides & pesticides (eat organic!)

3. Increase foods that will feed the good bacteria and restore the integrity of your gut.

Unprocessed, whole foods as nature intended:

  • ​Fermented foods - sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, apple cider vinegar (probiotics)
  • ​Fibre - green leafy vegetables like spinach ​& kale (pre-biotics)
  • ​Organic bone broth - high in glutamine & collagen to fortify the lining of your gut
  • ​Healthy saturated fats - salmon, grass-fed butter & egg yolks to support hormone, brain function, mood ​& sleep

​Green leafy vegetables are high in magnesium, AKA the anti-stress mineral and also potassium which works to calm the adrenals down AKA the gland that controls your cortisol secretion and stress levels!​​​​​

A hand catching a feather over tranquil waters

Leni: You’re very passionate about guiding your clients through stress & anxiety using the power of the mind - what are some of these techniques?

​There are so many techniques and if I was to list them all, I’d be here until tomorrow! So I’ll keep it short and focus on just one of them, because it’s the easiest and simplest of all of them to grasp.

But before I get into it, I just want to give you some background context first…

When I was working as a personal trainer in one of Sydney’s most exclusive boutique gyms, I had roughly 40 clients. Needless to say it was a very busy time in my life!

The great thing about this gym is that it encouraged it’s members to participate in many varying types of exercise, from strength classes, to spin, yoga and meditation, as well as, one-on-one personal training.

And after working there for a couple of years, I quickly realised that my clients fell into one of two groups - bearing in mind that nearly all of them had very similar lifestyles and backgrounds, from high flying corporate types, entrepreneurs, doctors and lawyers.

They had high pressure jobs, w​ith demanding responsibilities but were also time-poor. Not to mention​ holding down households and raising families… true modern day wonderwomen!

Wonderwoman lego figurine

The first group were always on time to their sessions (in fact they never missed a single one!). They were self-motivated, loved a challenge, had a real ‘can-do’ attitude and a grounded sense of self belief.

It’s no surprise that this group was successful. They lost the weight, gained the muscle and all their health markers improved.

The second group, however, didn’t fare so well.

They were the ones who were never on time, skipped sessions, had zero motivation and their common whinge was, “I can’t do that”. They also had low self esteem and struggled with anxiety.

Unfortunately, this group did not lose the weight, they did not progress in the gym and their health markers did not budge.

As their trainer, I felt like it was my fault that they weren’t thriving and I agonised over what I had done to fail them. So, I started to dig a little deeper and asked questions to find out why this was happening. And what I found was mind blowing.

There was just one thing that separated the two groups… just one thing that the successful group were doing, that the other group were not. And that was…

A daily, consistent meditation practice.

neon sign 'and breathe'

When I had this realisation, it literally blew my mind. Not because I didn’t already know the benefits of meditation - I had been practicing myself for nearly a decade - but because there was such a stark difference between the two groups, that it really brought home the powerful impact that meditation can have on every area of your life.

So I thought to myself… what is it about meditation that has such a positive effect?

This question takes me back to a saying that I always tell my clients:

​“Life happens through you, not to you”

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And what I mean by that is, when you have the mindset that life happens to you (which is where the second unsuccessful group were) you’re reactive. So when things are going well in your life, you’re happy. But when things don’t go your way, you’re miserable.

Observing your external conditions, then letting your mind run wild with negative thoughts and limiting beliefs, dictates your mood and then your only option is to take defensive action from this limited perspective.

This is what I call, living by default. It’s like being on constant damage control and giving all of your power away to external conditions.

But it doesn’t have to be this way…

I love the quote by Abraham Hicks, “a visionary thrives in all conditions”. This is something the successful group embodied. They let life happen through them. Whether consciously or not, they understood that they were in the driving seat of their life and that, by focusing more on their inner-world, their outer-world flowed more easily.

Pushing the reset button

This is what meditation can do for you. It’s like pressing the reset button on your mind.

I like to use the analogy of holding a cork under water. Imagine that your hand holding the cork down, represents all of your negative thoughts and limiting beliefs. What would happen if you just let your hand go and stopped those negative thoughts in their track?

The cork would just bob right back up to the surface, where it would naturally be, were it not for you holding it under.

This is your natural state of well being, the undercurrent of who you really are.

And this is what meditation does for you. It allows you to access that natural state of well being. It’s where your creativity comes from, as well as your productivity and all inspired thoughts. This is where the successful group saw opportunity and solutions, where the unsuccessful group could only see more problems and lack.

Meditating allows life to happen through you, rather than to you.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

“But Shelley, I don’t have time to meditate. I’m too busy and I’ve got a really overactive brain. I just can’t do it”.

If this is you, then you need to meditate more than anyone!

But I’m not asking you to sit on top of a mountain in the lotus position for an hour every day. You only need to spare 15 minutes of your day and the best time to do it is first thing in the morning, when you’re fresh from sleep and your mind is clear.

Set your alarm 15 minutes minutes earlier than usual. Prop yourself up in bed. Close your eyes and simply focus on your breaths in and out with the intention of quietening your mind. You can even focus on a background noise like the hum of an air conditioning unit - anything that will keep your attention without it being too stimulating.

Of course, you will have thoughts. You can’t stop them… you’re human after all! But the first key to mastering meditation is awareness. So without getting mad at yourself for having a thought, just recognise that you got caught up in one and as easy as it came into your mind, just let it go and return to your breaths in and out.

You may go back and forth 20, 30 or even 40 times within your 15 minute meditation. That’s ok! Just do the same thing the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. In just a matter of weeks, you’ll notice that the gap between your thoughts will get longer and longer, until, with enough focus you are able to still the mind enough that you slip into this heightened state, where your cork is floating, so to speak.

And you’ll know when you get there, because you will feel it in your body - a visceral, physical, palpable feeling of almost floating on a cloud. It feels like a deep sense of calm washing over you; light and clear. You may even feel numb, like you can’t tell the difference from your nose to your toes.

At this point, don’t try to make anything happen. Just milk the feeling of it. It might take you 13 of your 15 minute meditation to get there, but all you need is just a minute or two in this state, to really gain the benefits.

But like I say to all my clients - you can only reap the benefits of meditation from a consistent practice. Just like your training, if you want big strong muscles, you’ve got to work them hard every day in the gym… and your mind is no different.

So my final thought for tonight, I’m going to share with you now…

​Meditation is medicine for the mind

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If you haven’t got a consistent daily practice then I encourage you to start, as of tomorrow morning and see for yourself just how much your life can change.​

Sure, they’ve lifted a few dumbbells in their time. They know the difference between WPI and BCAA. They’ve even got a training diary for christ’s sake!

But does that mean you’ll get results with them doing a couples workout? Probably not.

And here’s why…


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  • Sandy says:

    Thanks Shelley, I just recently started following you and love the advise and inspiration. I am getting back into working out regularly and eating healthy. Trying to make it part of my lifestyle because I am tired of wishing I had the body I know I can achieve. I am going to set my mind to it.

    • Fantastic Sandy! You won’t regret it. Results take time, but it is so worth it. There is no price on health and you can achieve anything you put your mind to. Good luck and keep going! 🙂

  • Cat says:

    I really can’t thank you enough. It’s not just your words it’s the way you deliver the messages too. ❤️

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