digestion

Gut Health – Why is it so important?

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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.

 

References:
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.

Spotlight On: Probiotics

Do you use a probiotic?  Perhaps you have heard of them but you’re not really sure what they are or what they do?   In this article we’ll have a (very) brief look at the world of probiotics, but first let’s start with talking about what’s going on in your gut.

Your gut microbiota is the term that is used to describe the tens of trillions of microorganisms living in your gut.  Approximately 1/3 of our gut microbiota is common to the majority of people, however the remaining 2/3 are specific just to YOU.  The estimated weight of our total microbiota is around 2kg.   You also have microbiota living in other parts of your body for example your skin and your mouth. (Health, n.d.)  Your gut microbiota play a role in digestion, maintaining and protecting the digestive tract, the production of some vitamins such as vitamin K and some components of vitamin B, and in immune function.  It is important in not only helping to fight infections, but also in keeping the immune system in balance. (Jandhyala et al., 2015)  It is so significant that some even classify it as an “acquired organ”.

I have touched on this in a previous article, however it is also important to reiterate that what we eat in our diet can drastically affect both the number and variety of microorganisms in our gut.  Prebiotics can be found naturally or added to food products, as well as being available in supplements. (Health, n.d.) These are indigestible fibres which make their way down to the bowel to feed the bacteria that populate that area.  One of the major issues with the western diet is that it has higher amounts of refined carbohydrates, animal meats and saturated fats, and less of the whole foods and fresh fruit and vegetables essential for gut microorganism diversity.  Foods that are highly refined and too easily digestible don’t make their way down to the bowel for those microorganisms. (Thomas, 2017) It is very important to ensure that your diet contains plenty of prebiotic foods – examples include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, tomatoes,  apples, almonds and brans – and in fact in my opinion this is always the first thing to address if you are lacking these in your diet.

Probiotics are preparations that “contain viable, microbial agents that have been demonstrated to improve health” (Hawrelak, n.d) You will usually find them either on their own as tablets or powders, or incorporated into supplements or foods. 

What is interesting (and really cool) about probiotics is that it’s not just a case of grabbing any probiotic off the shelf and off you go.  Just like vitamins and minerals all have specific roles and therapeutic actions, so do the different strains of probiotics.  More and more probiotic strains are being researched in order to be used therapeutically for many different health issues including digestive function and health, antibiotic use, immune function, mental health, autoimmune conditions, allergies and chronic congestion, asthma, and many other conditions.  To read more detail about the importance of the difference in probiotic strains, here’s a great link: https://www.probioticadvisor.com/probiotic-essentials-1/the-importance-of-strain/  Some of the other benefits to particular probiotic strains is their ability to help the body rebuild its own native flora (which is particularly beneficial after antibiotic use), heal and repair the gut lining and suppress some pathogen growth.  A point worth mentioning is that every single probiotic strain is unique, even if it is the same species.  So the health benefits of one strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus could be different to another strain – and there are many many strains within each species.

Because of the variety in strains and therapeutic uses, it can be a bit daunting when you want to go and buy a probiotic from the chemist.  There are some well known brands that do label their products according to the strains in the probiotic and what their researched therapeutic properties are.  This is a great option for something along the lines of general immune and digestive wellbeing. 

If you feel that you or your family are experiencing some of the more complex issues including some digestive complaints, allergies, eczema, recurring sickness or infections then it is definitely worth the time to come in for a consultation so that I can take a full case history and prescribe a probiotic that is suited to your own personal needs, with specific strains that are indicated for your symptoms.  To book a Naturopathic appointment click the booking button below or call 9293 2999.  To find out more about Naturopathy click here.


References:
Hawrelak, J. (n.d). Probiotic Advisor.   https://www.probioticadvisor.com/

Health, G. M. f. (n.d.). Gut microbiota info. Retrieved from Gut Microbiota for Health website: http://www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com/en/about-gut-microbiota-info/
Jandhyala, S. M., Talukdar, R., Subramanyam, C., Vuyyuru, H., Sasikala, M., & Reddy, D. N. (2015). Role of the normal gut microbiota. World journal of gastroenterology: WJG, 21(29), 8787.
Thomas, L. (2017). How Does the Diet Impact Microbiota? Retrieved from News Medical Life Sciences website: