The importance of gut health
I'm often asked to give talks on gut health, and I have to say, from a nutritional medicine perspective, it is such an interesting subject as the stomach is the seat of emotions and feelings, and this knowledge has been present since biblical times.
Yet in modern-day medicine, digestive problems are frequently medicalised based on presenting symptoms, rather than consideration of the emotional source. Expressions such as ‘gut instinct’, ‘listen to your gut’ or ‘ gut reaction’ are well known, and I would like to explain why they help us to understand some of the health issues which emanate from our gut, particularly in times of stress.
The gut-brain connection
The gut and the brain are linked both physically and physiologically and they communicate information back and forth continually. The gut is the advisor to the brain, and likewise, the brain tells the gut everything it needs to know about what is going on in a person's life, both internally and externally.
For instance, your brain will communicate the fact that you are anxious about say, an impending interview or exam, by speeding up the motility of the gut. How many times have you wondered if you have time to visit the loo or feel nauseous with a churning stomach, before the nerve-racking event?
The gut is known as the second brain, the reason being it is the only other organ in the body, apart from the brain, that has its own nervous system.
The gut-brain axis
The connection between the gut and the brain is known as the gut-brain axis. It's connected by the vagus nerve, which transports chemical messages, known as neurotransmitters to the billions of neurons in both the gut and the brain. The vagus nerve comes from the brain stem, branches off into the lungs, the heart and then down to the stomach. I always say we have three stomachs – the mind, the heart and the stomach.
But the function of the gut also relies and depends upon the microbiota, which is made up of literally trillions of microbes that live in the gut. The gut contains four pounds of bacteria, made up of both beneficial microbes and harmful microbes, and the health of the gut is very much determined by the balance of these microbes.
Naturally, a healthy gut contains a higher ratio and variety of beneficial microbes and very few harmful microbes. The beneficial microbes play a very important role in the gut as they:
- Aide digestion and absorb nutrients.
- Produce vitamins A and K.
- Act as a barrier and protect the mucosal lining of the gut walls.
- Interact with the lymphatic system, which is where up to 80% of immune cells reside and therefore influence the immune system at a local level and a systemic level.
- Influence the homeostasis of hormone production, such as estrogens, causing the body to produce too much or too little, and therefore can influence hormone-related conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis.
- Influence serotonin levels, as serotonin is largely manufactured in the gut, so this has an effect on mood and emotions.
- Influence levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) in our blood that can go on to affect blood pressure.
What causes a gut bacteria imbalance?
So you can understand what a profound effect the microbiota has on our general health and wellbeing, we need to be aware of how the balance and integrity of the microbiota can change.
Artificial sugars from diet drinks and in slimming products actually destroy prebiotics, which are manufactured in the gut from fibre, (from foods such as vegetables, fruit & whole grains), and are the fuel for probiotics, enabling them to survive. The more fizzy diet drinks and artificial sugars you ingest from diet products, the more vulnerable and defenceless the gut becomes to inflammation and damage.
A diet high in refined sugars will feed the harmful bacteria, enabling it to proliferate and negatively influence the function of the gut. Harmful bacteria can loosen the junctions between the cells, and create gaps, known as a leaky gut. This allows pathogenic bacteria as well as large protein molecules and some sugars to escape into the bloodstream and set up inflammation as the immune cells respond accordingly. They also cross the blood-brain barrier, affecting cognitive function.
When chronically stressed, the body produces the stress hormone cortisol, and this alters the ecology of the flora of the gut, diminishing the levels of beneficial bacteria, thus making the gut walls vulnerable to damage and inflammation.
There is now compelling evidence that autoimmune conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, hypothyroidism, to name some, can emanate from a damaged leaky gut.
Symptoms of an imbalanced bacterium, called dysbiosis can range from mild to chronic, such as:
- food intolerance
- low mood and depression
- bloating and wind
- indigestion, acid reflux and heartburn
- IBS including diarrhoea and/or constipation
- digestive disturbances
- aching joints
- low energy and fatigue
- poor sleep patterns
- brain fog
How to keep your gut healthy
- Avoid refined and processed food products and fizzy drinks, both with sugar or diet drinks. Aim to drink two litres of water daily.
- Eat a high fibre diet, with a minimum of six portions of vegetables and up to three pieces of fruit daily.
- Consume whole grains on a daily basis such as whole oats, whole wheat/brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, barley and millet.
- Eat vegetable protein in the form of legumes such as mung beans, chickpeas, borlotti beans, kidney beans and lentils etc. Try to have several portions a week instead of meat.
- Eat essential fatty acids (EFA) every day from nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocado, olive oil and ground linseeds. EFAs suppress the inflammatory effects of processed, saturated fats.
- Take a probiotic supplement daily.
- Exercise daily with a minimum of 30 minutes of walking and try to practice yoga to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Always follow a course of antibiotics with a course of probiotics, to repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria.
- Eat three regular meals a day to keep your blood sugar levels balanced, composed of fresh foods, with as wide a variety as possible, that is available to you. Chew your food well to improve digestion. Eat slowly and don't miss meals as this puts stress on the body as blood sugar levels drop.
- Take time out for yourself to relax. Mindfulness and meditation help to reduce anxiety.