Hippocrates, traditionally regarded as the father of medicine, certainly was on to something back in the BC days of early medicine. It is now very widely accepted that he was correct in his assertion that “All disease begins in the gut”.
Just as an aside, Hippocrates also said that “Wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for a healthy body and for the ailing man” – who are we to argue with ancient medicine? I think I like this guy!!
Anyway, back to gut health. Our digestive system is a very complex part of our makeup. It is responsible for continuously extracting water and nutrients from a huge amount of solid foods, supplements and liquids over our lifetime, all while fending off bad bacteria and efficiently processing waste. There are a number of ways that we can get ourselves in to trouble with regards to gut health. Some common ones include:
- Antibiotics which disturb our healthy bacteria balance (note: if your Dr has prescribed antibiotics, please take them – there are ways to address the issue after you have finished your course)
- Low Fibre diets which starve healthy microbes of prebiotics causing them to feed off the protective mucus lining of the gut
- Leaky Gut Syndrome caused by inflammation from excess sugar, alcohol and other toxic foods or candida overgrowth and intestinal parasites or food intolerances.
There are many ways we can cause disturbances to our gut health, just as there are many symptoms of an unhealthy digestive system. Some of them are obvious such as gas, diarrhoea and stomach cramping or bloating. Others are not so obvious such as seasonal allergies, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue, mood disturbances and other mental health concerns and skin issues such as acne, rosacea or eczema.
The good news is that, once the cause is identified, an unhealthy digestive system can be easily healed and soothed with the right dietary and lifestyle choices.
The first point of call is to rule out any specific dietary intolerance by visiting your local naturopath or GP for testing. Some common ones are gluten, dairy and salicylates. Research shows that 70% of people with IBS may be sensitive to salicylates which are naturally occurring compounds found in some fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices, teas and flavour additives. It is important to note that if you are sensitive to salicylates, you just need to determine what quantities it is safe for you to consume them in – we do not recommend avoiding all fruit and vegetables!
There are a number of key things that we can do to start healing our gut and work towards mental and physical health and wellbeing. After ruling out specific food intolerances, below are my top three strategies for gut health!
We have all heard of probiotics leading to good gut health but what about prebiotics? According to Wikepedia, Prebiotics is a general term to refer to chemicals that induce the growth or activity of micro-organisms such as bacteria that contribute to the well-being of their host. In dietary terms, prebiotics are non-digestible fibre compounds that pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract and stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria that colonise the large bowel. Basically prebiotics are food for probiotics!
If gut microbes are starved of fermentable fibre, some die off leading to an imbalance of healthy bacteria. Others, however, are able to switch to another food source in the gut – the mucus lining that helps keep the gut wall intact. This will lead to problems associated with inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. Studies conducted in rodents have shown that a group of mice fed a high-fibre diet had healthy gut lining, but for mice on a fibre-free diet, the mucus layer became dramatically diminished.
It is important to aim for 20 – 25grams of fibre a day. I would recommend looking at non-grain sources of fibre to avoid the inflammatory affect that gluten containing grains such as wheat can have on our digestive tract. Leafy greens such as spinach, cauliflower, carrots, apples, whole oranges, Jerusalem artichokes, broccoli, beans, figs and pears are all great sources of fibre. To help heal and unhealthy gut, start slowly, adding more fibre every few days and drink lots of water!
Our internal ecosystem made up of millions of beneficial bacteria, weighs up to 2 kilograms and makes up for most of the dry weight of faeces. These strains of good bacteria are known as probiotics which can be found in foods or taken as a supplement. Only a few species have been studied in depth, some create vitamins such as K, B5, B9 and B12. Others help improve absorption of minerals such as magnesium calcium and iron.
Good bacteria also defend our intestinal tract from pathogenic (the bad guys) intruders which lead to the ill health affects noted at the start of this article. Increasing your intake of probiotics is getting easier these days with the availability of some great fermented foods from local health food stores. Sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, natural yoghurt and kefir are all great sources of probiotics which can easily be added in to your daily food intake. I would recommend starting with these foods to see if you have an improvement in gut symptoms and then moving on to probiotic supplements if absolutely necessary. Food sources are always the best sources!!
3. Soothing and Healing Foods
Certain foods called carminatives help prevent or relieve gas and bloating and can be used to help the digestive process which will lead to a happier gut. This beneficial effect on the gut lining is due to the complex oils present, which have a locally anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and mildly anti-microbial effect upon the lining of the digestive tract. Cumin for example, helps with the digestion of beans which is why they are often found in recipes together. Other carminatives include caraway, nutmeg, cinnamon, chamomile and cardamom among many others.
Peppermint oil or leaf is a great carminative to include in to your diet as it is also anti-inflammatory; peppermint tea is an amazing remedy for an upset stomach or bloating.
Ginger is another carminative that is very helpful with settling the stomach and is often used in anti-nausea remedies.
Bone broth is my final recommendation for healing an unhealthy gut. Bones are a perfect example of why we should never judge a book by its cover. Hiding inside that hard shell is a wealth of essential nutrients, anti-inflammatory and gut healing properties, healthy fats and loads of minerals. Bones are rich in both Glycine and Glutamine. Glycine is essential for stimulating the production of stomach acid which helps to break down and digest solid foods. Glutamine is an amino acid found in bone broth that is a very well utilised natural remedy for leaky gut. This essential amino acid helps maintain the function of the intestinal wall and prevents further damage from occurring.
A healthy gut is the first place to start when making over your health and wellness program. Good digestion will lead to a decrease in overall cellular inflammation and will ensure that you get the most out of the nutrient rich foods you eat.