“All disease begins in the gut.”– Hippocrates said this more than 2,000 years ago, but we’re only now coming to understand just how right he was. Research over the past two decades has revealed that gut health is critical to overall health.
When your gut is unhealthy, it can cause more than just stomach pain, gas, bloating, or diarrhoea. Because 60-80% of our immune system is located in our gut, gut imbalances have been linked to hormonal imbalances, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, eczema, rosacea, and other chronic health problems.
The gut is the gateway to health. The digestive system is really the corner stone of our wellbeing, as it is involved in so many processes. If our digestive system is in order, we feel great, we can perform at the level we want, and we can push ourselves to make bigger and better gains in the gym.
Our gut is home to approximately 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) microorganisms. That’s such a big number our human brains can’t really comprehend it. Just dwell on that for a moment!
10 Signs You Have an Unhealthy Gut:
- Digestive issues like bloating, gas, diarrhoea
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Mood swings, irritability
- Skin problems like eczema, rosacea
- Autoimmune disease
- Frequent Infections
- Poor memory and concentration, ADD or ADHD
Causes of an unhealthy gut
Several features of the modern lifestyle directly contribute to unhealthy gut flora:
- Antibiotics and other medications like birth control and NSAIDs
- Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods
- Diets low in fermentable fibres
- Dietary toxins like wheat and industrial seed oils that cause leaky gut
- Chronic stress
- Chronic infections
Antibiotics are particularly harmful to the gut flora. Recent studies have shown that antibiotic use causes a profound and rapid loss of diversity and a shift in the composition of the gut flora. This diversity is not recovered after antibiotic use without intervention.
We also know that infants that aren’t breast-fed and are born to mothers with bad gut flora are more likely to develop unhealthy gut bacteria, and that these early differences in gut flora may predict overweight, diabetes, eczema/psoriasis, depression and other health problems in the future.
But many of us have a poor gut flora because we are eating a poor diet that’s high in sugar, refined carbohydrate grains, processed foods and artificial sweeteners or antibiotics.
You also don’t have to be coeliac to react to gluten. We now know that many people have a measurable reaction to gluten that doesn’t cause the damage to the microvilli that would class them as coeliac. It’s called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and it affects far more people than coeliac disease does. Listen to your body; if it tells you gluten doesn’t agree with you, it probably doesn’t.
10 Tips to improve your gut health
- Eat a wide range of plant-based foods. A healthy gut has a diverse community of microbes, each of which prefer different foods.
- Eat more fibre. Most people eat less than they should. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and wholegrains feed healthy bacteria. But be aware that more fibre is not always the solution. The first thing a constipation sufferer tries is to increase fibre intake. But there is a type called slow transit constipation for which this is the worst solution – it will lead to more bloating, wind and pain. If you try raising your fibre intake and things get worse, then stop. First try eating only fruit-based fibre, which is easier to digest than harder fibres such as bran.
- Avoid highly processed foods. They often contain ingredients that either suppress ‘good’ bacteria or increase ‘bad’ bacteria.
- Oils – Choose extra-virgin olive oil over other fats when you can. It contains the highest number of microbe-friendly polyphenols. Ingest quality Fish Oil – Preferably a liquid, not capsule, if you can stand the taste. This helps reduce inflammation, balance hormones, and supports the immune system.
- Antibiotics kill ‘good’ bacteria as well as ‘bad’. If you need antibiotics, make sure you eat lots of foods that boost your microbes afterwards.
- Eat Less Refined Sugar Among the many problems caused by refined sugar (inflammation, weight gain, hormonal imbalance…), it also promotes the growth of bad bacteria and upsets gut flora balance.
- Lower Your Stress Levels. Much like the spinal cord, neurons cover your intestinal wall where they send information throughout your body. The existence of the brain/gut connection makes it clear that stress can be linked to gut health. When stressed, your brain sends messages to your gut in the form of chemicals. These chemicals affect how well your gut works.
- Hydrate. The most effective way to improve gut health is to drink more water. The gut is a long slippery tube, and for good gut function you need to keep that slipperiness, which will happen if you are hydrated. But do not hydrate with sugary drinks – they simply feed less healthy gut bacteria in the bowel. Be also wary of smoothies because of the raw food they contain. Raw food takes one and half times more energy to break down than cooked. In a healthy gut that’s fine, but if your digestion is taxed it can trigger problems.
- Probiotic foods, such as live yoghurt, might encourage more microbes to grow. Eat them if you enjoy them. Traditionally produced yoghurts, ‘live’ yoghurts and yoghurt drinks contain probiotic cultures, but they may not survive the acidic environment of the stomach and reach the intestines intact. Some yoghurts state the cultures used to make them in the ingredients list and diversity is usually beneficial. Stick to natural yoghurts; fruity yoghurts usually contain sugar and additives, which might cancel out any potential health benefits. Some yoghurt drinks contain very high numbers of bacteria that are considered to promote health – far more than you would find in a normal yoghurt. However, they can also contain lots of sugar and can be expensive. Not all bacteria is equal, look for products that contain Lactobacillus GG, which has been shown to have clear effects at fighting inflammation and can therefore help problems such as Crohn’s disease, colitis or IBS. Saccharomyces boulardii is a probiotic yeast particularly good at fighting problems such as traveller’s diarrhoea or upset stomachs caused by antibiotics. Products containing many billions of bacteria are also not necessarily better. If you take a super-strength probiotic you are flooding your gut with new inhabitants. This can shock the system and lead to bloating.
- Prebiotics can be found in foods such as bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, artichokes, chicory and wholegrains, particularly oats. As you can see, these are fairly common ingredients, so if you can start including them in your diet more regularly, that’s only going to be a good thing. But you can also get them in the form of Fermented Foods. Fermented foods can introduce good bacteria to your gut but know that it’s better to make your own. Store-bought options are usually pasteurized, which kills good bacteria. We can’t be certain the bacteria they contain reach the gut, but in countries where this type of food is eaten frequently people appear to have better gut health and less bowel disease (Go Germany!). However, other factors could be responsible. Some of the best fermented foods for promoting gut health include:
- Sauerkraut (yeah! I knew there must be something good about it!)
- Soy Sauce
- Fermented Tofu
- Pickles (Mass-produced pickles use vinegar instead of traditional methods of fermentation, so don’t have the same benefits)
Probiotics vs Prebiotics
We’ve all heard of Probiotics but I think Prebiotics is a relatively new term to most of us. Prebiotics are foods that ‘fertilise’ our existing gut bacteria and encourage the development of a diverse community of microbes. These foods are complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and wholegrains. Probiotics are foods, or food supplements, that contain live bacteria thought to be beneficial to us. This includes live yoghurt, some cheeses and fermented foods.
So what should you take away from this. If you suffer from bloating or stomach pain you probably looked into all of this already but if you have any of the other things mentioned related to poor gut health this might be new to you. It certainly was to me. Knowing that most of our immune system resides in the gut was a revelation to me. I certainly make sure that I take a pro-biotic supplement if I had any sort of stomach upset or had to succumb to anti-biotics. And of course drinking Aloe Vera every day supports my gut health too.
Just one final note – Change one thing at a time. If you suffer, give up everything at once and introduce them one by one to find out what it is, but you don’t have to. Most people have one issue that leads to 70 per cent of their gut symptoms – your focus should be finding and eliminating that one trigger before you try anything else.
And there are some other things you can use to sooth your stomach – such as Cinnamon – It can help to improve digestion and, as an added bonus, is great at balancing blood sugar levels. Mint is great at soothing the stomach and can help to relax the gastrointestinal tract. and Zinc is very important as it is utilized to form digestive enzymes and also used in regulating hormones. And as I mentioned above – give Aloe Vera a try. It helps with absorption of anything you eat to get more out of it and helps improve your gut health.