Happy mind, happy gut: embracing the gut-brain axis – Dr Laura Lum
Updated: May 8, 2020
The gut-brain axis is one of the most important and least recognised factors when considering health. Recently, I met with Dr Laura Lum, Psychologist, Nutritionist, Research Scientist, Yoga Teacher and expert in gut-brain axis dysfunction. Dr Lum is the first Psychologist to train with digestive health guru Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride as a GAPS™ (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) practitioner. Dr Lum is also founder of innovative healthcare practices which offer integrative medical, nutritional and psychological healthcare.
In this interview, Dr Lum talks about rules of thumb to build a thriving gut-brain health by drawing on the best of what psychology, nutrition and yoga offer.
What path did you take to becoming a psychologist?
I did my BSc in Psychology in the UK at UCL, which I immensely enjoyed. Small classes meant there was plenty of hands-on learning like understanding child psychology by interacting with children and their parents. One of the best parts of choosing this course was that I was taught by the researchers themselves. Their enthusiasm was contagious!
Before doing further training to become a psychologist, I wanted to experience work within contrasting company cultures and I ended up working in London for a variety of small and big companies! I worked as UK Communications Manager for a French company called Decathlon and for the division of Samsung called Cheil that does such a fantastic job promoting all their innovative technology! I especially love building things and so being part of a few startup teams was a wonderful experience. The last startup I got involved with before I did my Doctoral training was for a startup alternative trading exchange called Trade Turquoise created by eight of the tier 1 investment banks.
After these experiences, it was Psychology from this point onwards. The contrast was quite sharp for me initially – leaving the plush workstation setup and packing away my work suits for 3 years of shuttling myself and my book filled backpack between lectures and volunteer clinical placements.
Many of the lessons I’d learned so far about how to be a useful part of a very large team within a private organisation gave way too many other rich learnings of what it means to be human, to connect, to struggle. A more reflective way of approaching life became highlighted as I began this wonderful journey. My Doctoral training placed a huge emphasis self-awareness as a reference tool for working with interpersonal dynamics. Our focus was on learning many ways to approach the many different presentations you might work with in clinic though our clinical placements were broadly clustered around Person-Centered, Psychodynamic and Cognitive Behavioural Therapies. Almost immediately after I qualified, I did some post-graduate training in Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies.
How would you describe psychological therapy?
Any relationship has the potential to be enormously therapeutic when someone feels completely at ease with someone else. As feeling at ease further cultivates trust and rapport, the person feels more fully understood. Feeling understood is a wonderful psychological starting point to safely learn about yourself and your life and how you’ve been experiencing it.
Psychological therapy at its best means you are totally taken care of. Someone is actively listening, reflecting with you with keen intuition and taking responsibility for ensuring you’re focused with what’s important, or, maybe at other times, when you’re in a more guarded or fragile state, not staying with something difficult … because it’s not the right time for you.
Through this relationship, you can become more aware of any recurring patterns, the extent to which your beliefs guide your moment to moment judgements and how these judgements influence the choices you make and, importantly, the nature of your relationships. A psychologist will take a lot of responsibility for checking in to see whether you’re coping with a situation to your best potential. Careful and considered support can be very useful sometimes whereas, other times, a more tangible structured treatment that helps you to master psychological tools to good effect is just what someone needs.
I feel endlessly inspired by my clients as I see them grow, thrive, accept, release, become alive as they go through the therapeutic process of discovering more about themselves and their lives. Therapy is tremendously helpful for personal development.
Describe your working style
All of us benefit from a gentle reminder that the best version of ourselves is already within us. I encourage my clients to remember that they are the experts in themselves while I’m there to guide them with tools to help fine tune this expertise. Together, we work as a team.
I also believe warmth and compassion is best balanced with an equally congruent approach – we are working towards change after all! I am myself in the therapy room and while I take a lot of responsibility for who I am working with, I don’t put on a clinical persona in the process. I’m as gentle as I am honest in my feedback of what I’m understanding, and I will share this with my clients.
And then there is our intention. At the back of my mind I am often thinking ‘psychological core strength’. Every other day there is a positive blog post or article about importance of building physical core strength to improve physical competence … balance, posture and so on. This same principle applies just as much to mental health! So, in the therapy room, we are essentially building ‘psychological core strength’. This means improving problem solving ability, recognising a richer emotional experience beyond the usual Big Four ‘angry’, ‘sad’, ‘depressed, ‘anxious’ and cultivating emotional resilience – that is, the ability to bounce back from disappointment and resolve difficulty with wisely – healing rather than scarring.
You are also a nutritionist. How did this come about?
In my view, both nutrition and psychology have everything to do with good health. I’ve been reading about health and nutrition since my teens. Even as a child, my parents embraced wholefoods nutrition and chemical-free living. We ate for pleasure as much as ‘food as thy medicine’. My mum would make our play dough out of homemade pizza dough and crushed cherries to turn it pink! My Dad did his PhD in Biochemistry and he maintained a keen interest in learning about water quality and the potential of vitamins and minerals in supplement form.
I have been studying both nutrition and psychology for quite some time. When I trained in nutrition, I was also working as an Assistant Psychologist. When I worked in a specialist clinic for severe depression and OCD it became clearer to me how mental health and digestive health can be one and the same.
I continued my own learning about holistic health and eventually trained with Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride as a GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) practitioner. These programs are the ideal starting point to tackling issues related to the gut-brain axis like Autism, ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, Panic and OCD. The GAPS digestive healing practices are also a wonderful way to balance auto-immune conditions and boost immunity. I’ve lived and breathed this protocol myself and the improvement to my health has been remarkable.
Can you tell me more about integrating nutrition and psychology?
If I’m helping someone with depression or anxiety, more than 80% of brain chemicals that influence mood and outlook on life are produced in the gut; so, nurturing the source of these brain chemicals is a valuable consideration to embrace.
It’s difficult to think about emotion without talking about how it’s experienced in the body. Likewise, when it comes to understanding physical health it’s difficult to overlook the impact of emotional health. Recognising the interrelationship between physical symptoms, emotional, psychological and even psycho-spiritual needs enriches our ability to improve health beyond thinking of ourselves as a computer with parts that work separately.
When it comes to improving health, thinking about things in a cyclical way, means less of ‘this causes that’, and more consideration of many relevant aspects at the same time. Food choice and test results are tangible, and they can be tempting to fixate on because they are so concrete. However, research shows that, for most people, mindset is often a neglected consideration at the expense of an enthused focus on the rest of the system. We don’t want to overlook the power of the mind, thoughts, emotion, habits, reinforcing behaviours that, when included in the picture, often unlocks the most significant change.
Can you give us some examples of how the mind and gut influence each other?
Two of the most pervasive emotional states I’ve been working with recently are stress and loneliness.
Stress – it’s been shown to directly damage the composition of bacteria in the gut. The problem here is that an imbalance in gut flora reduces the ability to cope with stress in the first place, and then problem-solving ability, memory and the ability to feel enjoyment are all reduced. This happens during times when it’s important for the flora in the gut to be synthesising the brain chemicals that promote mental clarity, enjoyment and connection to others.
Loneliness – we have evolved to find this emotional state as very threatening. Let’s take a moment to imagine being alone in the jungle. The space, the abundance of nature would be wonderful for a few hours until we would likely get a very sharp reminder that we are not at all at the ‘top’ of the food chain! And while it’s normal to live on our own these days and be so independent, our emotional apparatus hasn’t evolved as quickly as our modern lifestyles. We would likely have found a lot of fulfilment, safety and connectedness by supporting and being supported by our fellow tribe’s people. In contrast, loneliness would have signaled being rejected from the tribe – in other words, strong danger to our survival.
We know from research that a lonely mindset promotes systemic inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the body is linked to depression and difficulty coping with anxiety. Psychological therapy used to help cultivate healthier relationships reduces loneliness, which reduces systemic inflammation in the body. This helps gut flora maintain a better balance and as more than 80% of brain chemicals that influence mood are produced by gut flora, this helps reduce depression and pacify anxiety.
Do people come see you for psychology and nutrition?
Many people come see me for psychological therapy. The gut-brain axis isn’t an important focus if someone wants help with a phobia or help to improve a problematic relationship. Nor is gut health particularly relevant when I help someone with a more skills-based approach like improving assertiveness skills.
But, yes, many people do come see me for a very integrated treatment which involves knowledge of psychology and nutrition. They’ve usually done some really good work with a previous psychological therapy. They want to continue to do this good work while also having some targeted support to improve the balance of their whole system through improving their gut health.
Other people come specifically for an investigation of how to bolster their digestive health through a nutrition and lifestyle plan to improve conditions like chronic fatigue, IBS and associated symptoms like acne, eczema and brain fog. Even in these cases, drawing on what psychology offers is incredibly useful because we all know what is best for us, but we don’t always have enough support or motivation to make a realistic plan and then actually stick to these changes. This is where psychologists come in!
What does a digestive reset involve?
In my digestive health clinic at Elanora Heights Medical, our doctors, nurses and nutritionists offer a full health assessment; clinical testing and a nutrition plan that’s designed as a ‘digestive reset’ to reduce inflammation, heal and seal the gut and improve the composition of gut flora that lives within the walls of the gut. A digestive reset plan is always individualised and considers personality and unique physical constitution by drawing on what we know from Ayurvedic medicine. We offer plenty of psychological strategies and other techniques to help make the digestive healing a breeze.
Can you give us a few rules of thumb that will help all people improve their gut-brain axis through nutrition?
Absolutely! Firstly, remember the gut-brain axis. Cultivate enjoyment every day and ENJOY your meals. Study shows, rats fed a highly nutritious diet devoid of any flavour die of malnutrition. This study reminds us that a big part of nutrition involves enjoying the process of growing, preparing, seeing, smelling, tasting, sharing and generally celebrating your meals.
Secondly, eat food in the form that nature intended, just like your great grandparents would have done. This means foods grown and prepared the way humans have been enjoying them for hundreds of years without chemicals, processed oils or lab synthesised compounds. There is little value in reinventing the wheel when it comes to how we eat, because genes evolve slower than our ability to think up new diets and ways to prepare lasagna or brownies.
Thirdly, consider your attitude; It’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the right food with the wrong attitude. Remove the tendency to think of foods as either good or bad. A black and white way of thinking about nutrition causes just as much damage as anything else. Sweet treats are good too! In fact, Ayurvedic medicine maintains that sweet flavours pacify irritability, anger and the tendency to feel high strung.
Finally, keep sight of your intuition. It’s all too easy to be in your head when it comes to food choice and ignore your intuition of what your body needs. One day you’ll read that raw cabbage is good for you and another day someone will tell you that it’s a terrible choice. A GAPS nutrition programme is an excellent way to build up this intuitive sense of what’s best for you at any given time.
When you’re not seeing patients, what would you be doing?
I love exploring. Lately, this has been even on my doorstop in my own city and the surrounding nature. At home, one of my favourite things I enjoy each day is nurturing my edible garden which I find as as fascinating as it is relaxing. I have been known to cover as much space as possible with an edible landscape. I love cooking and so using what I grow when I make meals is such a pleasure. The more I learn about permaculture, biodynamic and organic gardening, the more I learn about life, balance, and what health really means.
I do a lot of yoga, I dance and play the violin, piano and guitar. I live close to the ocean so almost every day I visit it – whether it’s dipping into the waves first thing in the morning after a beach walk, getting on top of the water in a SUP yoga class or swimming in it with the Bold & Beautiful who swim every morning between Manly and Shelly Beach.
You could find me just about anywhere enjoying time with some of my favourite people – it really doesn’t matter what we do. Whether it’s supporting a local cafe, walking in nature or simply talking with no distraction under the night sky; these are some of the most treasured moments that make up my life.
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