The topic of “gut health” is coming up more and more frequently in the media, documentaries and on social media. But why is it so important?
There seems to be a lot more research coming out about the role our digestive system has on various other aspects of our physical (and mental!) wellbeing. I find this awesome because it means that every person can do something to change their health.
As a Naturopath, I find that almost all of my clients will show symptoms of gut issues, even if the problem they are coming to see me about isn’t specifically digestion-related. So gut healing and repair is almost always the first place I start with their healing journey. For many people, healing the gut can help to reduce a whole range of symptoms.
So what sort of things can be impacted by gut health?
1. Digestion & Elimination
This is of course the most obvious one, so I will start here. Now, while what is “normal” for one person and another can vary, there are some obvious signs of digestive issues when it comes to food intake and elimination.
Symptoms such as heartburn, reflux, bloating, excessive wind or burping, pain on elimination, diarrhoea, constipation (and alternating between the two) are all problems that relate to issues within the gastrointestinal system.
These sorts of symptoms can be problematic not just from the physical discomfort, but also with the stress and anxiety that can be associated with experiencing these symptoms on a daily basis. And while these symptoms may be due to a variety of diagnosed disorders, one of the more common disorders with these symptoms (experienced by one in five Australians (1)) is IBS. IBS describes a set of symptoms that can be caused by a variety of things such as stress, infection, poor diet and food intolerances. It also indicates that your digestive system may not be properly breaking down and digesting the food you eat, which means that those nutrients may not be properly absorbed. This then can have a knock on effect with other body systems not working as well as they should be.
2. Immune Function
When you consider the fact that poor digestive health can mean that the nutrients you eat aren’t getting absorbed properly, it stands to reason that this could contribute to poor immune function. There are a number of nutrients such as zinc and vitamin C which are essential for immune health, and if you’re not absorbing these nutrients from your food you may end up prone to getting sick more often and unable to fight infections.
The other factor that is important to consider is the role that the “good bacteria” in your gut plays with your immune health. In simple terms, there needs to be a healthy balance of the varieties of bacteria in your gut – and the foods that you eat and the functionality of your digestive system plays a huge role in how well this is balanced. (2) There is a lot more research being done in this area which is very exciting, and we are learning more and more about how important this balance is for our immune function. Not only that, imbalance can also increase inflammation in the body and lead to other diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The flip side of this problem is that your gut health can also impact on your immune system in the opposite way, where it becomes overstimulated wreaking havoc in the form of allergies, asthma, and even autoimmune conditions. (3, 4)
3. Mental Health
There is increasing information becoming available about the link between gut health and mental health. Your mental health can be affected by inflammation in the body, food choices, stress, your gut bacteria balance and absorption of nutrients.
Many of the neurotransmitters that are involved in mental health have a relationship with the digestive system – for example 90% of serotonin is synthesized within the gut with your gut bacteria playing an important role in that process.(5) This is one of the great examples, as serotonin is important for mood and sleep regulation, memory and function. (6) Your gut and your brain have a direct connection with each other,(7) and this two way relationship can be impacted both by how well your gut functions (which affects your brain) and what’s going on with your brain (for example, chronic stress can impact on how well your gut functions). This can create bit of a loop, and can sometimes be tricky to work out what’s the bigger factor in the chicken/egg conundrum.
Improving your gut health doesn’t have to be a big complicated process. For some people it does require a little additional help, and that’s where I come in! But that doesn’t mean you can’t start making changes to your diet and lifestyle right away to have an impact on your health.
So, here are three things you can start doing today!
1. Start a food diary
For many people, gut related issues stem from incompatible or intolerant foods. The best way to start looking at this is to keep a food and mood diary for at least a week, to try and identify if there are any foods that are exacerbating symptoms. This can be obvious for the more common trigger foods such as milk, bread, or eggs, but sometimes there can be foods that contribute to symptoms on a lower level and can be trickier to identify. If you’re unsure, then it’s helpful to look at something like Bio-Compatibility Testing to help you work out what to eat and what to leave out.
2. Eat the Rainbow
I am sure you have heard this one many times over but it is one of the most important recommendations! Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables of different colours not only ensures that you get a variety of nutrients into you, it also ensure that you are feeding a variety of those microbes that help with immune function and mental health. Fresh really is best! Eating the same thing every day means you’re only feeding certain types of bacteria, and you need that balance.
3. Bone Broth/ Vegie Broth Is Your Friend
An important part of gut healing is the repair and nourishment of the gut lining. If you’ve had chronic digestive complaints for a long time, chances are your gut lining may be inflamed and reactive, which can compound the digestive issues. By including a nourishing bone broth or gut healing vegie broth (link) you can help to heal and seal your gut lining, reducing the inflammation and allowing it to function the way it is meant to.
While these tips are great for getting started, it is really important to be aware that if you have severe digestive symptoms that seem to have come out of the blue, you must ensure that you see a health professional about it. There are some serious conditions that can cause digestive symptoms and so when in doubt always always get it checked out.
1. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)2015 03 May 2018. Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs.
2. University OS. Gut microbes closely linked to proper immune function, other health issues2013 03 May 2018. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130916122214.htm.
3. Van Evra J. Inside the Microbiome: Why Good Gut Bacteria Is the Big Hope For Allergic Disease. Allergic Living [Internet]. 2017 03 May 2018. Available from: https://www.allergicliving.com/2017/11/30/inside-the-microbiome-why-good-gut-bacteria-is-the-big-hope-for-allergic-disease/.
4. Craven C. How Balancing Gut Bacteria Can Ease Autoimmune Diseases2016 03 May 2018. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-gut-bacteria-ease-autoimmune-diseases - 1.
5. Stoller-Conrad J. Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in Gut2015 03 May 2018. Available from: http://www.caltech.edu/news/microbes-help-produce-serotonin-gut-46495.
6. McIntosh J. What is serotonin and what does it do?2018 03 May 2018. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/kc/serotonin-facts-232248.
7. Bertrand P, Loughman A, Jackson M. Gut feeling: how your microbiota affects your mood, sleep and stress levels2016 03 May 2018. Available from: https://theconversation.com/gut-feeling-how-your-microbiota-affects-your-mood-sleep-and-stress-levels-65107.