Why it pays to be good to your gut
Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, declared more than 2,000 years ago: “All diseases begin in the gut.” Now, latest research is proving his claim was more spot-on than even he might have imagined.
Our digestive system is being rediscovered as our “second brain”, with so many remarkable links emerging between the gut and our psychology that biologists believe much of what makes us human depends on the microbes inhabiting our digestive tract.
A person’s population of microbes, known as the microbiome, contains two million unique bacterial genes. When you contrast that number with the 23,000 in our cells, then consider also that the gut boasts more than 100 million neurons – many more than our spinal cord – it’s clear why our gut is such a major player in our mind and body wellbeing.
In recent years, studies have indicated that gut microbes communicate with the nervous system using some of the same neurochemicals that relay messages in the brain. In short, they decide how you feel.
At some level, we’ve always known this. We speak of “gut feelings”, we know that butterflies in our stomach mean we’re nervous, and a shock or an upset can send us straight to the bathroom. But now there’s a significant school of thought that the brain is responding to the gut, rather than the other way around.
The implications for our sense of self are huge. It’s looking increasingly likely that changes in our microbiome can alter virtually everything about us, from our health, to mood to appearance.
The new knowledge is facilitating the development of numerous potentially life-changing treatments for various conditions. One of these is Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), the name given by US neurologist Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride to a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions she believes are connected to diminished gut health. These include autism, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and are addressed through nutrition in the GAPS healing regime.
Dr Campbell-McBride experienced transformative results with her own daughter’s learning difficulties through dietary modification, although the links are unproven.
Malvern-based nutritionist Elizabeth Bolam has studied with Dr Campbell-McBride and is seeing similarly impressive results with her own clients.
Even if you don’t suffer from a specific condition, says Bolam, it’s crucial to take good care of your Second Brain and its vast microbial population.
“People talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gut bacteria,” says Bolam. “But it would be more accurate to say that some of them are detrimental to your health when they overpopulate. It’s about balance.”
These simple steps to improving your gut health through diet and lifestyle can result in significant changes to your overall wellbeing.
Eat plenty of fermented foods
Old-fashioned sauerkraut, pickles, chutneys, and fermented dairy products such as buttermilk, kefir, sour cream, and yogurt all help repopulate the gut with good bacteria. “It’s worth fermenting things yourself,” says Elizabeth Bolum. “It’s easy and cheap. You can ferment most things – even carrots!”
Eat fresh – especially vegetables
“Research has shown that only one or two per cent of people in Australia eat the recommended five serves a day of vegetables,” says Bolam. “If we just followed that one guideline, we’d see a big improvement in our overall wellbeing.” Refined sugars and processed foods, she adds, are your gut’s nemesis. Stay away. “My rule is, check the ingredients list and if you can’t pronounce something, it’s probably not good for you.”
Take a probiotic supplement
“Search for one containing as many different strains of bacteria as possible; 8-11 is good,” says Bolam. “And aim for at least eight billion bacteria per capsule. Remember, though, that supplements are more of an insurance policy. Fermented foods are far more powerful – you’ll get a hit of trillions of good bacteria in one teaspoon of sauerkraut.”
Reduce your stress levels
Try to maximise your stress management. Plenty of good quality sleep helps, too. “The high cortisol levels from stress play havoc with your gut bacteria,” says Bolum.
Try a broth
Stocks and broths pack plenty of glycine and gelatin, both known to support digestive health. It’s one of the reasons that simmering these diet staples has been a healthy practice for centuries.
When mum said don’t bolt your food, she was right. Digestion starts in your mouth and works best if you relax and allow yourself time to consume your food. Chew each mouthful until it’s liquid – aim for 100 chews.
Remember to hydrate
Your gut loves water as much as the rest of your body. A healthy digestive system is a well-lubricated one.
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