I am sure by now that you are aware that your gut health is uber important for your overall health and well-being. Not only does it provide absorption of nutrients, improve your immune system but also helps to balance brains neurotransmitters.
In terms of immune support, the gut bacteria directly provides protection for the lining of the large intestine by keeping out toxins or substances that are harmful to you. When your gut bacteria is compromised, leaky gut syndrome or increased intestinal permeability may occur. With our busy lifestyles, we are exposed to more and more nasties that may lead to poor gut health AKA dysbiosis. Some of the most common triggers I see in clinic are food intolerances, stress, fast foods, packaged foods, antibiotics or long-term medications. A healthy balance of the right gut bacteria is essential for an alert functioning immune system to defend the body against bad viruses and infections. In fact, 70 per cent of our immune system is located in the gut.
Over the last ten years, I have noticed a massive increase in autoimmune conditions in my patients. No matter what type of autoimmune condition you have been diagnosed with the key to calming down your over reactive immune system and reducing your symptoms is to start on healing your gut. It is important to note with an autoimmune disease that your focus is not to stimulate your immune system but modulate it as such there are some probiotics and natural medicines that will be better than others when it comes to managing your gut health.
When it comes to metabolism, our gut flora is responsible for several essential processes. This includes the harvest, digestion, and utilisation of nutrients. Therefore, it is essential to keep our good bacteria at optimum levels for adequate nutrient utilisation and absorption. These include the absorption of macronutrients such as fat, carbohydrates and protein, as well as micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. So, the efficiency with which our bodies break down and utilise these nutrients (including fat storage) depends largely on our gut health.
The world of gut flora
The term gut flora refers to all of the microorganisms (mostly bacteria) which thrive in our intestines. Gut flora goes by many different names such as microbiota, microbiome, microflora, intestinal flora and gut bacteria.
Every one of us has all of these bacteria in our bodies, some of us more than others! Of course, for optimum health, you want and need the right balance of good bacteria in our system. Good bacteria aids with; digestion, in the removal of toxins from your body as well as keeping your immune system strong. Any imbalance in our gut flora can hurt our health and make us susceptible to disease, particularly when the bad bacteria outnumber the beneficial ones.
There is much scientific evidence which proves that your gut health has a massive impact on your mood as 90 per cent of serotonin, one of the happy feel-good hormones, is produced in the gut. Both gut health and inflammation are essential areas to focus on when working towards overcoming mood disorders.
I hope by now you are convinced that gut health is the key to feeling your best!
Symptoms of poor gut health
Based on the above information, we now know that the health of our gut affects much more than digestion, our stomach and intestines. But how do you know if you are suffering from poor gut health?
Take a look at the following symptoms:
- Frequent headaches
- Sleep disturbances
- Urinary tract infections
- Yeast infections (candida)
- Frequent colds
- Brain fog
- Anxiety/symptoms of depression
- Autoimmune conditions
- Unintentional weight fluctuations
- Skin irritation
How to heal your gut – things to avoid
There are many things you can do – or in this case, not do in order to restore gut health and maintain it. Below is a list of irritants or things you need to avoid to prevent suffering from an unhealthy gut:
1. Overgrowth of bad bacteria
The microorganisms in your gut typically weigh 2.2kg and need to fill approx. 300 square meters of intestinal lining. Certain conditions can lead to bad bacteria overrunning or outnumbering good intestinal flora in your gut. Here is a list of factors that can contribute to the growth of bad bacteria in your system:
- Consuming the same types of food over and over again: A healthy gut comprises a rich and diverse gut flora. A lack of diversity in the gut bacteria sorely limits the body’s ability to recover from harmful influences, such as disease. Having a diet consisting of a wide variety of whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains is conducive to the growth of more diverse gut flora. The reason behind this is that the different types of food you eat provide nutrients to the various types of good bacteria in your gut. Making a few significant dietary changes can improve and alter your gut flora profile in a matter of days. Moreover, the improved nutrient profile which benefits the gut also means higher energy levels and stamina.
- Inadequate prebiotics in the diet: Prebiotics are substances sourced from certain types of indigestible carbs (mostly fibre). This undigested fibre is what beneficial bacteria in your gut feed upon. Thus, consuming prebiotics promotes the proliferation of gut-friendly flora. Many fruits, vegetables and whole grains are naturally prebiotic, so including them in your diet would be highly beneficial. These include bananas, oats, blueberries, strawberries, sauerkraut, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, nuts, beans, chickpeas, artichokes, asparagus, red and white onions, spinach, dandelion greens and lentils.
- Smoking: We are all aware that the tobacco and chemicals in cigarettes have devastating health consequences for our lungs. We don’t often think of its impact on our digestive health though. Smoking increases the risk of developing a peptic ulcer, heartburn, Crohn’s disease (a common type of inflammatory bowel disease) and gastrointestinal reflux disease.
- Excessive alcohol intake: The health consequences of excessive alcohol consumption are already well-documented from liver disease, depression to increased cancer rates. In relation to gut health, alcohol can lead to problems such as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis or dysbacteriosis refers to a microbial imbalance inside the body. One example of this is impaired microbiota – or when the microbiome is out of balance. Every glass of alcohol is killing off some of your good gut bacteria. If you do enjoy alcohol I would recommend to at the very least have two alcohol-free days daily, follow my detox program at least twice per year, drink in moderation and take a probiotic daily.
- Use of antibiotics: Antibiotics have saved many lives and play an important role in treating the infection. One of the problems of antibiotics is that they cannot distinguish good from bad bacteria, so in the process of destroying harmful bacteria, the good ones also die in the process. After a course of antibiotics, it is essential to reestablish your healthy gut flora again by increasing your consumption of pre and probiotics, for a minimum of three months.
- Lack of exercise: Whether it’s walking, running, riding, going to the gym, or household chores such as cleaning and gardening moving your body will benefit your health. Benefits include weight loss and management, the reduction of stress, and better immunity. Moreover, some studies have shown that higher fitness levels are also beneficial to gut health by helping promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.
- Inadequate sleep: Adequate, good quality sleep is essential to overall wellness and health. Health problems such as stress, depression, unhealthy weight gain, obesity, and heart disease have all been linked to sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep or irregular sleep schedules disturb the body’s circadian rhythm – including that of the gut – which can have harmful effects on good gut bacteria.
2. Exposure to environmental toxins
The world we live in today exposes us to increasing levels of environmental toxins. Aside from air, water and plastic pollution, there are many other sources of environmental toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis.
Heavy metals, BPA and phthalates, and pesticides are harmful not only to humans but also to other organisms. We are exposed to them through the food we consume, polluted air, household cleaning products, acid rain and through our water supply. Their effects on gut health have also been extensively studied. Heavy metal exposure, for example, is known to cause intestinal inflammation; pesticide exposure can lead to dysbiosis; while some studies have shown the adverse effects of exposure to BPA on healthy gut flora. Reducing your exposure by using glass food and drink storage containers, chemical free pesticides, personal care products and cleaners is a great place to start.
3. Processed foods & foods you may be intolerant to
As mentioned earlier, a diet rich in a wide variety of whole foods is ideal. However, if you suffer from food intolerances or sensitivities you may find you may find your food choices are severely limited. The most common intolerances I see in my patients are:
- Lactose in dairy products
- Gluten found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale
- Caffeine in soda, coffee, tea, energy drinks and dark chocolate
- Salicylates in a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, teas, coffee, and honey
- Fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols (FODMAPs) found naturally in foods like apples, milk, bread, beans, soft cheeses and honey
Food intolerances result from difficulty or inability to digest certain foods. They are believed to be caused by low levels of digestive enzymes, damaged gut mucosa and poor quality of bacteria in the gut. They cause inflammation and worsen damage to the gut wall. However short-term dietary changes, herbal and nutrient supplementation can help reverse food sensitivities. Discovering if you have a food intolerance is achievable by either doing an elimination diet or if you are impatient and time poor, I recommend a food intolerance test done by pricking the finger and testing the blood IgG response to common foods. This test can be done in the clinic or in the comfort of your own home. N.B. Food intolerance is not necessarily a lifetime issue, once you heal your gut you will find that you are able to tolerate more foods.
The ill-effects of chronic stress are numerous. In fact, high levels of stress affect not only the gut but also cardiac health and immunity. Therefore, stress management is crucial in the quest to restore gut health. Learning and practising relaxation techniques, mindfulness or meditation and addressing the root cause of your stress is essential. Enjoying leisurely walks or hikes, getting in touch with nature, massage, aromatherapy, yoga and avoiding caffeine, tobacco and alcoholic drinks can all help alleviate stress. Engaging in social activities such as spending time with close friends and family or having a pet for the company also has beneficial effects and helps relieve stress. Whilst vitamins and herbs are amazing for stress management they work best when combined with professional support.
As cited earlier antibiotics play a role in the destruction of both good and bad bacteria, thereby affecting gut health. However aside from antibiotics, medications such as antipsychotics, cancer drugs and anti-inflammatories can also lead to the destruction of healthy gut bacteria. They can cause disruptions in the digestive system and stomach upset. Where possible, choose natural remedies to treat pain and disease to avoid the gut-disrupting effects of pharmaceutical medications.
The gut-brain connection: science has proven it but I guarantee you have already felt it!
The sensation of butterflies in the stomach during periods of stress (such as during an important work presentation), or that sick feeling you get in your stomach when you slam on the breaks to avoid a car/bike accident is something we can all relate to and confirmation that there is indeed a gut-brain connection.
The gut-brain axis is a term referring to the communication network that connects your gut and brain. These two organs are connected both physically and biochemically in a number of ways, i.e. through the vagus nerve, neurotransmitters and gut microbes in the immune system.
The vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves that connect the gut to the brain. In fact, people suffering from IBS or Crohn’s disease have been found to have reduced vagal tone. Neurotransmitters on the other hand, are produced in the brain and control emotions and feelings. They are also produced by gut cells and the trillions of microbes found in the gut. As mentioned earlier, a large proportion of the so-called ‘happy hormone’ serotonin is produced in the gut.
When it comes to gut microbes in the immune system, certain inflammatory diseases illustrate the gut-brain connection. Specific inflammatory disorders can arise from an overextended active immune system associated with brain disorders such as depression and dementia.
Gut health and autoimmune function
Certain gut bacteria have been linked to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis. Although genetic and lifestyle factors contribute to people developing these conditions, we know that healing the gut mucosa and reducing inflammation in the gut reduces the overactivity of the immune system thus reducing symptoms of autoimmune conditions.
The essentials for healthy gut healing
The importance of gut health to our health and well-being is undeniable. Aside from avoiding certain activities, foods and substances, there are also items on the must-have checklist for gut health.
- Probiotics: These are live beneficial bacteria that help keep us healthy by helping balance the presence of good bacteria with the bad. If, for example, you have taken antibiotics, supplementing with probiotics can help replace lost good bacteria. Examples of probiotic sources include yoghurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, pickles and kombucha. N.B. food sources of probiotics are amazing to maintain a healthy gut, but supplementation is always recommended post-antibiotic use.
- Water: Hydration with water nourishes the body and helps ensure the transport of nutrients all over the body through the blood vessels. Adequate water intake is essential for not only gut health but also weight management, energy levels and supporting the bodies detoxification and elimination pathways.
- Whole foods: Eating fresh whole foods for your gut is essential for promoting digestive health. Fresh (and organic when possible) fruits, vegetables and whole grains, provide the fibre needed for growing good bacteria and ensuring gut health. In general, it is always better to opt for fresh whole foods over processed foods to promote vitality and healthy digestion. Moreover, processed foods are usually high in added additives, preservatives, sugar, fat and salt.
Healing herbs: Aside from whole foods, there are a number of healing herbs that you can take in the form of herbal teas or supplements to support digestion and gut health. Some of my favourites are: calendula, marshmallow, chamomile, dandelion, ginger, milk thistle, slippery elm bark, and peppermint. Aside from soothing and healing the digestive system they also offer anti-inflammatory and detoxifying benefits.
Dietary guidelines to live by to improve gut health
Ensuring good gut bacteria growth can be challenging for those who are chronically stressed or need to take certain medications. However, the lifestyle changes required to restore and maintain gut health are pretty simple and straightforward.
- Eat cleanly – choose a balanced diet comprising whole foods, lots of vegetables, filtered water and cut out gluten or any sources of food sensitivity or intolerance.
- Avoid overeating, recreational drugs, alcohol, smoking, packaged foods with additives, preservatives, pesticides and added sugar.
- Cleanse your gastrointestinal tract (GIT) to support the body’s natural detoxification processes by following a gut healing program at least once but preferably twice a year.
- Identify food allergies or intolerances and parasites (if any).
- Manage stress by taking time to rest, take relaxing baths, do yoga, take leisurely walks, practise meditation and have fun.
- Take prescribed natural remedies such as enzymes, probiotics, herbal medicine, vitamins and minerals.
Overall the first step to reclaiming your health, happiness and vitality is to focus on healing your gut health.