Gut health wasn’t as big as it is now when I first started practicing as a Pharmacist well over 10 years ago. It was considered a 'hippie' phenomenon. I myself, had not yet been on my journey to discover the power of wholefoods, our gut, the underworld of Big Pharma and believed that medicine was the cure for everything. So you can imagine how eye opening the journey was.
The gut is a wondrous organ. It houses the most amazing eco-system consisting of trillions of organisms all vying for a space and if treated right live harmoniously together. Most people would just say it digests food, but it's role is more diverse than this.
'Gut health' seems to be the new found fad word in the health and wellness scene.
And the information that we find on it can be often overwhelming and extremely uninspiring at times. So is gut health all that it’s cracked up to be? And what is it that we can really do to help improve our gut health?
Gut health is not just about how well you eat, it has so many benefits including a healthier mind and body. The gut-brain connection is relatively new in modern science but has been known for centuries. Studies have shown a good gut helps reduce inflammation mediators in the body, helps our emotional well being, improves sleep, improves our stress responses and our immune system function, reducing the risk of allergies.
As a Healthcare Professional I believe that gut health is a cornerstone to wellness.
Our gut has a special relationship with our brain with researchers showing there is a close link between the nervous system within our gut, which has now been coined the ‘Second Brain’, and our actual brain. Dr Michael Mosley said it best, 'our gut has as many brain cells that you would find in a head of a cat'. These two brains work closely together and play a vital role in certain diseases and our overall well being.
Hippocrates said, ‘All disease begin in the gut’ and there may be some truth to this. Further studies into the field of gut health have found links with poor gut health and neurological conditions such as anxiety, depression, Autism, Parkinson’s, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Further research is still required to be conclusive, but it poses the question, can treating one’s gut help treat our mind and vice versa.
Regardless of the findings we do know that a healthy gut does make us feel better.
Start with mealtimes. Meals should be consumed in a calm and relaxed state. So switch of that TV and be more aware of your food. Relaxing during a meal is vital to help with digestion. Stress causes our digestion to slow down and in really stressed states causes it to completely stop. This then reduces the energy and nutrients that we absorb and puts more strain on our digestive system.
Next is diet. We all know two fruits and five vege right? But I find that most people don’t consume this. My take on fruit and vege is to purely focus on just consuming more of it. The idea is to feed the good microbiome and starve the bad. Plant based, wholefood nutrition has huge benefits in feeding our gut microbiome as it is rich in prebiotic goodness. Prebiotics are the food needed to feed the good bacteria in our gut and can be found in raw garlic, onion, legumes, leeks, apples, asparagus, bananas and fermented foods like cheese, red wine (in moderation :) ), cocoa and sauerkraut to name a few.
You should also consider probiotics and their benefits on gut health. Probiotics meaning ‘Pro Life’ consists of the good bacteria that help keep the bad bacteria at bay in our bellies. Foods rich in this are yoghurt, kefir, cheese and fermented foods. You can also supplement with probiotics that can be purchase from your local Pharmacy or Health Food Store.
But the key message here is that one doesn’t go without the other. Just supplementation with probiotics alone is not sufficient enough and requires good prebiotic food to help feed it.
Reducing processed fats, processed sugars and processed carbohydrates in your diet will also help boost your gut health. Eating a diet rich in this type of food feeds only the bad bacteria and cause it to overgrow leading to side effects similarly experienced in patients with irritable bowel disease. And as my favourite research scientist Dr Michael Mosley recommends 'never eat anything you would buy from a petrol station'. :)
Exercise also helps keep our gut in fine form as well as help reduce stress levels and inflammation in the body. The smooth muscle that lines our digestive tract can be encouraged to move (known as peristalsis) with some light to moderate exercise. I recommend patients who experience constipation to go for a light walk to see if this can help promote movement, together with increased water and fibre rich food intake. Prolonged constipation can show how our gut brain connection works, with patients experiencing side effects like a foggy brain and sometimes delirium in extreme cases.
Exposure is another component to good gut health. Today we are a society that is scared of germs when in fact 95% of the germs that surrounds us are relatively fine and live harmoniously with us. Being too clean may reduce our exposure to everyday germs and decrease the development of a diverse gut microbiome and a healthy immune system. I suggest reducing the chemicals you use in your home and find plant based, healthier alternatives to replace them. This way you are not only helping the environment but promoting a healthier home environment.
Good gut health should form the basis of any disease treatment and be encouraged as a means for disease prevention. The gut is dynamic and everchanging and small changes made today can show benefits very quickly. It’s easy to encourage good gut health so, it’s a matter if carpe diem, seizing the day and making those simple changes.
To good bowels!