The one thing you can do to bring you happiness, health and success

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I was asked to write a blog with this title and in my enthusiasm to find an answer to the question, I confess I maaaaay not have properly scrolled down and read the whole brief. I just blundered on, looking through research and, after rejecting my initial bright idea of winning the lottery, the evidence seemed to point to one clear answer. It turns out it wasn’t the ‘right’ answer, they were hoping for an article on the benefits of gratitude. However, even after researching gratitude, I think I was right the first time. See what you think.

The title of this blog does make me feel a little like a snake-oil salesman, making impossibly grandiose promises. But let’s face it, if like me, you’re deep in a post-Brexit pit of gloom and despair, then anything that can offer a healthier, happier and more successful life is worth a try.

So what is this magic bullet? A tablet, an injection, a form of therapy. No, it’s just exercise.

Don’t groan and click away. Exercise is more than just a way to burn off calories. It can lift your mood, improve your health and even boost your brain function. Is that worth hauling your ass off the sofa for?

Exercise and mood       

 Have you noticed that a run or a session at the gym can make you forget the tensions and traumas of the day? Exercise is the best stress-buster there is. It acts in many different ways to protect our bodies and minds from psychological stress. Sport can provide a time of release and distraction from problems at work or home and provides some time and space to heal.

Physical activity can also stimulate the release of the body’s happy hormones, endorphins, which decrease pain, give a sense of wellbeing and help us get the sleep we need. They’re like our own safe, in-built opiate.

But it’s not just this feel-good hormone that is boosted by exercise. Exercise may also raise the amount of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin has a significant effect on mood and most modern antidepressants work by upping its levels, so exercise can work in the same way as antidepressants. Indeed, research has shown that exercise significantly boosts mood and decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety (1). So much so that The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends exercise as a strategy for treating mild clinical depression. Exercise all improves mood in people who aren’t depressed, so what are you waiting for?(2)

Exercise and health

This one’s a no brainer. We all know that regular exercise can protect us from obesity and any number of chronic diseases including hypertension, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It may also help protect our brain’s from dementia as we grow older.

Research also shows that physical fitness also appears to protect us against stress and stress-related chronic diseases. Exercise can dissipate the biochemical and physical changes caused by the release of stress hormones. This can decrease the blood pressure and ease muscular tension. Making you feel better in body and in mind.(3)

Exercise and success

What is success? Is it achieving a favourable outcome? Gaining wealth, fame or eminence or simply doing well and progressing in your career?

Unless you are a professional athlete or a Victoria’s Secret model then exercise alone is unlikely to garner you fame and fortune. However, research suggests that regular physical activity can improve your mental function, help you deal effectively with stress at work and even be more tolerant and responsive to those you work with.

Exercise appears to improve the brain’s ability to adapt to changes throughout the working life, which can improve mood and cognitive function. In periods of tension, those who exercised less frequently reported over a third more stress symptoms than those who exercised regularly

In research, people who were physically fit had greater ability to focus, improved confidence and greater capacity to follow through on tasks.  Studies have shown that people who exercised 3-4 times a week “work performance was consistently higher, time management skills improved, as did mental sharpness”.

It’s not difficult to see how these positive attributes could translate into improved performance and a better career trajectory and the evidence shows that most CEOs exercise regularly to stay sharp, control stress, improve their performance and feel better.(4)(5)

If you’re feeling sluggish, sad or stuck in a rut then start making changes now. By increasing your fitness and incorporating regular exercise into your life you can be happier, healthier and more successful- and no snake-oil required.

Which makes me think I should maybe get off my computer and into the gym. It could improve my focus and understanding and ensure I write the right article, at the first time of asking!

Find out more:

  1. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs (J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 Nov; 32(6): 394–399) Simon N. Young
  1. Exercise for depression (Cochrane Collaboration 2013) Gary M Cooney,Kerry Dwan,

Carolyn A Greig et al

  1. Biological mechanisms underlying the role of physical fitness in health and resilience

(Interface Focus, Published 22 August 2014) Marni N. Silverman, Patricia A. Deuster

  1. Regular Exercise Is Part of Your Job (Harvard Business Review, October 2014)

Ron Friedman

  1. http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2084-exercise-good-health-career.html

Are your guts making you fat?

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belly-2354_1280Could your gut bacteria be making you fat?

We all know why people get fat, don’t we? We’ve had it drummed into us relentlessly that it’s all down to eating too much and moving too little. If the pounds are piling on, it’s just down to us being greedy or lazy. Or maybe not. Scientists are starting to discover that it’s really not as simple as calories out and calories in.  

 We’ve all noticed that some people appear to be able to eat whatever they want, while others have to constantly battle the bulge. Why did they get so lucky? It could all be down to their genetic make-up and the bacteria in their bowels.

 Good and bad bacteria

Our guts are home to a mind-boggling five hundred million bacteria that help us maintain a healthy digestion and break down the fibre in our food. Having the right balance between the good and bad bacteria is vital for our health and wellbeing. Researchers are now discovering that these microbes may also influence our hunger, control our metabolism and affect our sensitivity to insulin; in other words, having the wrong bacterial balance could make us fat (1).

Our bowels contain over 400 strains of bacteria and the cocktail of different varieties in each person is very individual. According to a study in the journal Cell, our genetic make-up can shape the numbers and the type of bacteria living in our gut, which may affect our tendency to gain weight (2).

In studies, slim people had seventy percent higher levels of diverse gut bacteria than those who are overweight. On average people in the United States tend to have a less diverse bacterial colonisation than those from less developed parts of the world. Our gut flora seems to be a key factor in the fight against obesity.

Identical twins, identical guts?

Researchers looked at the gut flora of twins and discovered that identical twins had more similar levels of gut bacteria than non-identical twins did. This suggests that the microbiota is down to nature rather than nurture.  They identified a particular family of bacteria that were highly heritable and were much more likely to be found in thin people. Indeed, if there was a significant difference in weight between twins, the researchers were able to accurately predict which of them was overweight, simply by looking at their gut bacteria (2).

The skinny bug

 So what is this ‘skinny bacteria’ and where can I get some? I hear you screaming. It’s snappily named Christensenellaceae and having lots of it in your gut is linked with being slim, whereas low levels were associated with obesity.

In studies, when the samples containing the skinny bacteria were transplanted into the bowels of mice, it protected against weight gain.

The researchers said

“Our findings show that specific groups of microbes living in our gut could be protective against obesity – and that their abundance is influenced by our genes. The human microbiome represents an exciting new target for dietary changes and treatments aimed at combating obesity.”

The good news is that the vast majority of us (as many as 96%) have some christensenellaceae in our digestive systems. Individual levels are partially written in our genes but there are ways of giving your healthy bacteria a boost, whatever your genetic inheritance.

 How does it work?

 The exact mechanism by which microbes influence weight isn’t fully understood. Scientists have postulated that they may affect the ability to process food, altering the body’s ability to extract nutrients and calories. Certain bacteria may also alter our sensitivity to insulin, so protecting us against diabetes and stimulating the body to burn fat instead of storing it on our waistlines.

Hunger hormone

 Your body produces a hormone called ghrelin, which lets you know you’re hungry and need to eat. Usually after eating a meal, the hormone levels drop so that your need to eat fades. The bacterium Helicobacter Pylori appears to be involved in this process. It’s a microbe that’s been frequently in the health news because it’s linked to ulcers and stomach cancer. Antibiotic treatment has helped slash infection rates by fifty percent, which is great if you’re suffering from indigestion but bad news for obesity levels. Without H Pylori the hunger hormone levels appear to stay high, even after an adequate meal, so that you keep on eating(3).

 Bacteria blitzers

 Activity, diet and antibiotics can all affect your gut bacteria. You don’t even have to be prescribed antibiotics to suffer their effects. The food industry relies on the drugs to keep livestock healthy and infection-free, in fact eighty percent of US antibiotics are used to treat animals not humans. This means that we’re ingesting them daily with the food we eat, which can disturb the delicate bacterial balance in our bowels (4).

The impact of antibiotics has been demonstrated in studies on mice. Mice who were given a high fat diet gained weight, mice that were given antibiotics also gained weight but it was the mice that were given both that got really fat (5). And when we investigate the history of the obesity epidemic, it correlates with the expansion in intensive farming and the use of antibiotics in animal feeds. Looking across the world, the countries that use this approach to livestock farming tend to have the highest levels of obesity.

What can I do?

Don’t panic if weight struggles run in your family. Although your gut bacteria are influenced by genetics, the way you live your life and the food you eat can dramatically affect your bacterial balance, so you can make a difference and lose weight.

Fibre first: choosing a plant based diet, rich in fibre has been shown to boost levels of bilophila, a type of healthy bacteria. Fibre nourishes the microbes in your gut, so choose plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains daily. Food containing prebiotics will allow your bacteria to flourish, so snack on bananas and add garlic and leeks to your meals.

Pick probiotic foods: active and fermented food really pack a probiotic punch. Live yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and raw cheeses will all top up your gut bacteria.

Take a daily supplement: it can be tricky to get the probiotics your body needs from the modern diet. If you’re struggling with kefir and kimchi then take a probiotic supplement daily – and store it in a cool environment so that it stays active.

Skip the sugar: too much sugar can feed the bad microbes and upset the delicate balance of flora in the gut, leaving you bloated, lethargic and overweight. Cut out refined sugars to look and feel better, inside and out.

Get moving: a session in the gym doesn’t just work your muscles, even your bowel benefits. Being active as a child has a real impact on the diversity of your gut microbiota (6) but it’s never too late to start. Regular exercise as an adult can also make a difference, with studies showing that the stools of rugby players contained more diverse bacteria than their less athletic peers (7).

What next?

 If, like me, you started frantically googling “christensenellaceae supplements” after reading the research, then I’m sorry to disappoint. At the moment you can choose a general probiotic supplement and work to improve your gut health with diet and lifestyle- but you can’t yet pop a skinny bacteria pill. However, there may be another way to boost your levels.

The science of faecal transplantion is developing rapidly with advocates claiming it may be the answer to weight problems. It’s been used to combat bowel superbugs. But one slim woman who received a transplant from her overweight daughter noticed that she subsequently ballooned in weight (8). Sounds far-fetched? Researchers have actually seen similar results in mice, with lean mice gaining weight after getting gut bacteria from obese mice. In a Dutch study, faecal transplants from skinny donors helped individuals with metabolic syndrome became more sensitive to insulin (9)(10)

Could something as simple as poop really help us fight the battle of the bulge? There are loads of internet sites that say that it could as well as giving instructions on how to do-it-yourself. But before you overcome the ick factor and head over to your skinny friend’s house with a potty, a blender and a syringe, think again. You could transfer bacteria that are harmful, damage your bowel or potentially trigger other diseases. The truth is, we really don’t know enough about the procedure yet. It’s safer to wait for the research evidence to build and while you’re waiting use your diet and supplements to give your gut a safe bacterial boost.

This was article was originally published on Intelligent Labs

  1. How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin (Scientific American, June, 2014)

Claudia Wallis

  1. Human genetics shape the gut microbiome (Cell. 2014 Nov 6; 159(4): 789–799)

Julia K. Goodrich, Jillian L. Waters, Angela C. Poole, Jessica L. Sutter et al

  1. Ghrelin, Helicobacter pylori and body mass: is there an association?( Isr Med Assoc J. 2012 Feb;14(2):130-2) Boltin D, Niv Y.
  1. Long-term impacts of antibiotic exposure on the human intestinal microbiota (Microbiology (2010), 156, 3216–3223) Cecilia Jernberg, Sonja Lo ̈fmark, Charlotta Edlund and Janet K. Jansson
  1. Altering the Intestinal Microbiota during a Critical Developmental Window Has Lasting Metabolic Consequences (Cell, Volume 158, Issue 4, p705–721, 14 August 2014) Laura M. Cox, Shingo Yamanishi, Jiho Sohn, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Jacqueline M. Leung et al
  1. Science Daily (2016). Early-life exercise alters gut microbes, promotes healthy brain and metabolism.
  1. Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity (Gut 2014; 63:1913-1920) Clarke, S., Murphy, E., O’Sullivan, O., Lucey, A., Humphreys, M., & Hogan, A. et al.
  1. Obesity via Microbe Transplants (Science Daily, September 5, 2013) Ed Yong
  1. Transfer of intestinal microbiota from lean donors increases insulin sensitivity in individuals with metabolic syndrome (Gastroenterology 2012 Oct; 143(4):913-6) Vrieze A1, Van Nood E, Holleman F, Salojärvi J, Kootte RS, Bartelsman JF et al
  1. Not just obesity – faecal transplants’ weird effects (New Scientist 11 February 2015) Jessica Hamzelou