Gut Reaction: New research shows gut bacteria can play a role in everything from bloating, food intolerances, allergies and obesity to Alzheimer’s and depression. The good news is we can heal our gut – and our health issues – by feeding ourselves the right stuff.
The timing for writing this story couldn’t have been more perfect. I’d just come off a wonderful health kick, drinking lots of water, eating the right foods, exercising, and I felt fantastic.
Then I fell off the wagon. I ate a pizza, then a burger. Naan bread with a creamy curry followed. Then I ate some cake laced with sugary icing – all washed down with a few glasses of wine.
Within two weeks I was bloated, my brain and body felt sluggish, I became constipated, irritable, my skin began to itch, insomnia kicked in, I began to feel stressed and was so tired that I stopped exercising, and yes, I put on weight.
My gut was in an uproar. I couldn’t believe how horrendous I felt.
As soon as I reverted to healthy eating, the bloating began to subside, sleep returned and I began to feel better, though at the time of writing this I was sitting on an uncomfortable amount of faecal matter – literally.
And that is the crux of this story – how food affects us through our microbiome (the bacteria in our gut) for better or worse, depending on what we consume.
Understanding how our gut works is a good place to start and as scientist Giulia Enders, author of Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ points out, our gut is almost as important to us as our brain and heart.
Yet we know very little about how it works.
Experience of a personal illness, including skin lesions, and the success she had treating them by changing her diet inspired Enders, 25, to write her book and study the rapidly growing field of gut-brain research.
She is currently doing research for her doctorate at the Institute for Medical Microbiology in Frankfurt.
“I ceased to treat my skin like that of a person with a dermatological person, and began to see it as the skin of a person with an intestinal condition,” Enders says.
What you need to know about the gut
Promoting good gut health is integral to the work of BePure founder and leading nutritionist Ben Warren.
He specialises in treating people for different diet-related conditions, from diabetes to allergies, and helping them back onto the path of wellness.
Over his 10 years’ clinical experience, “it’s the number one thing we have to fix first,” says Warren. “It all starts at gut health.”
The gut is where the food that we eat gets broken down in to the base nutrients, which are then moved to our cells that rebuild our cells – so it’s the primary system where “the food becomes us”, Warren explains.
He also points out that up to 70 per cent of our immune system is centred in and around the intestines and our gut.
“It’s essentially the home of our immune system,” he says. “The easiest way to get a pathogen into your body, apart from stabbing yourself, is to eat it. And so our immune system is constantly looking at the foods we’re eating and trying to decipher whether it’s food, or whether it’s a virus or bacteria that’s going to kill us.”
“So much of our immune system is centred around our gut as well, and obviously we know that the immune system is incredibly important to health, but it’s also heavily related to many immune dysfunctions generally related to modern disease.”
We have up to 100 trillion beneficial bacteria in our gut, which are integrated into our immune system and live in our digestive tract.
When we have an imbalance in the flora within our gut due to unfriendly strains of bacteria, which can be caused by gluten, processed sugars and antibiotics, it causes inflammation and can lead to inflammatory conditions including eczema.
The issue of inflammation
Neurologist David Perlmutter talks about inflammation in his new book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – for Life.
Perlmutter also explains how our gut bacteria not only affects our gut health, but its influence extends into the brain – and the entire body.
“Depression is now considered an inflammatory disorder. We now understand that inflammatory markers, markers of inflammation that we see in heart disease, also seem to be elevated in the depressed patient. So the question would be then, if depression is an inflammatory disorder, where does this inflammation come from?” says Perlmutter.
The answer, it seems, is the gut.
Interestingly, widely prescribed anti-depressant medications are anti-inflammatory, and according to Perlmutter “that may well be that, that’s how they work”.
Recent studies have looked at factors common in depressed patients including dietary issues and gut permeability and the microbiome – the very bacteria that live within the gut – as possibly having a causal role in the inflammation that underlies depression.
“We have two ways of absorbing nutrients from the gut into the systemic circulation. Through the cell, which is called transcellular, and between the gut lining cells, which are called paracellular,” Perlmutter says.
“The gut lining cells are kept tightly together by what’s called the tight junction. But we now understand that a variety of factors, like stress, infection, drugs, toxins, gliadin and even AGEs, which are proteins bound by sugar, can ultimately lead to destruction of that tight junction. And that leads to separation of these cells and that makes the gut leaky.”
“We then have the ability for various proteins to gain entrance into the systemic circulation and when they do so, they stimulate various immune system cells and that leads to inflammation.”
Healing the gut
By nurturing gut health, you can open the door to unprecedented brain health, says Perlmutter.
But it’s not just the brain’s health that’s affected.
Research is also linking an unhealthy gut to inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, thyroid problems and diabetes, as well as bloating, constipation, indigestion and food intolerances.
Lee Holmes’ new book Heal Your Gut includes a treatment programme supported by 90 delicious, anti-inflammatory recipes to heal and nourish the gut. These include warming drinks, teas, juices and tisanes; broths and stock; soups and desserts; and fermented foods for when your gut is strong.
“Turmeric to me is a wonderful healing spice and my anti-inflammatory hot toddy with chai spices and turmeric works at a deep level to provide anti-inflammatory benefits and help digestion by combining it with ginger and cinnamon,” says Holmes. “The broths work on a mineral-rich approach to fuel the body with the right minerals such as magnesium and calcium and gelatine to help with muscle pain and restore the lining in the gut.”
The book is personal to Holmes, because it encompasses her story and how healing her gut improved her autoimmune problem.
“Everyone says this is the ‘year of the gut’, but I’ve known this for a very long time and I wanted to spread the word even further,” she says. “These are the recipes that I used to get better so I know their healing qualities intimately. I have had thousands of people do my four-week online heal your gut programme and this book is a companion to that.”
At her lowest point Holmes had severe weight loss, hives all over her body, digestive issues and muscular aches and pains from a condition known as fibromyalgia. While she was working with a doctor, she knew she also had to help herself through diet and lifestyle changes.
“I found my healing accelerated when I gave my digestive system a rest from the foods that were irritating it (for example gluten, sugar and artificial additives and preservatives),” she says. “I discovered how to listen to my body, research and focus on foods that worked for me.”
What we eat is critical when it comes to gut health, says Warren. “On a very basic level, if you [compare it to] your car. If you put the wrong fuel – diesel into a petrol engine – it’s not going to go very well. It’s exactly the same for us,” he says.
Acid reflux, indigestion or heartburn, bloating, feeling tired after food or eating certain foods, and loose stools or constipation are all indicators of an unhealthy gut or that there’s a problem in your system.
Just being aware of one’s bowel movements is hugely important, says Warren, who prefers people to move 30cm of faecal matter a day.
“I don’t mind if it’s one 30 or two 15s, or three 10s. I don’t mind how people get there. Six fives is no good, that means it’s going through people too fast,” he says.
“The transit time of food in your mouth to time out should be 12 to 24 hours ideally. You can test that by eating beetroot and seeing red in the stools, or corn on the cob. A lot of people will say, “I don’t have a problem, I’m having one movement a day,” and then we do a transit time test and literally the food’s in them for five days. So it’s actually making them toxic from the inside out.”
And according to the author of The Gut Balance Revolution, Dr Gerard E. Mullin, whose tagline is “Boost your metabolism, restore your inner ecology and lose the weight for good”, by balancing more “good” bacteria with “bad” bacteria, excess kilos will melt away and you’ll feel better than ever.
“Because gut microflora plays a central role in weight management, losing weight is much more than cutting calories, fat or carbs,” Mullin says. “When the trillions of live bacteria in our digestive tract – the gut microbiome – are balanced, excess pounds melt away and we feel revitalised.”
6 STEPS TO A HEALTHY GUT
- Avoid gluten, sugar, processed grains and anti-inflammatory medications.
- Drink water: it helps the bowels work to get rid of toxins.
- Eat probiotic yoghurt and fermented foods, such as kombucha tea, that help build beneficial bacteria.
- Avoid over-using antibiotics.
- Avoid drinking chlorinated water.
- Don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach as this damages the villi (folds in the small intestine tissue) and can cause leaky gut syndrome.