Naturopaths often seem to take an obsessive interest in the workings of your digestive system. Don’t worry, the latest findings about the microbiome explain why this is a cornerstone of natural medicine.
Recently the science world has been abuzz with the role gut flora plays in diseases far beyond this organ of elimination. New research links the state of our ‘microbiota’ (aka microbiome), the tiny bacteria and organisms which live in our digestive tract, with a variety of conditions including depression, Alzheimer’s and potentially fatal allergies.
Naturopaths have long believed that a healthy gut is essential, for wellbeing. While this research validates a central tenet of natural medicine, we need to look beyond reductionist thinking.
From a holistic viewpoint one the problems with the research, no matter how promising, is that it doesn’t go far enough. Many of the studies focus on taking probiotics (a supplement containing healthy bacteria) and then seeing if the symptoms go away. But what happens a few months later, when the clinical trial is over?
While it’s exciting that such a benign treatment is yielding promising results, for many it may be a short-term solution. What excites me more as a health professional is preventing the problem in the first place, or stopping it reoccurring once treatment is over.
Why probiotics are only part of the answer
It’s estimated that in her lifetime, a woman will take 70 courses of antibiotics. That’s 70 times the delicate microbial balance of the gut is disturbed. Taking probiotics to recolonise the benign bacteria after taking these drugs is vital. So too when recovering from gastroenteritis or other gut bugs.
But dysbiosis (unhealthy microbiome) at other times is often a sign that the body is struggling elsewhere as well. To identify where the problems begin, it helps to understand how the digestive system functions. Traditionally viewed as the place where nutrients are swapped with waste (fuel in, rubbish out), the gut doesn’t work alone.
What you eat can impact how you feel, so too what you feel can also change the way your digestive system operates. Throwing beneficial bacteria into the mix can only recolonise the microbiota in the gut for a limited time. But without the appropriate food and energy supply, the ‘bad’ bacteria will likely outnumber the ‘good’ guys once again and the disease cycle continues.
Stress acts like a dictator in the body. When we’re psychologically or physically stressed, the body takes some of the nerve and blood flow away from digestion. You can be fueling your body with the best quality food and evacuating the waste with ease, then all of a sudden the dictator steps in and reduces the power to the digestive system, sending much needed blood and nerve flow to the ‘fight and flight’ organs – the heart, brain, lungs and muscles). In effect the gut goes onto emergency power, while the epic battle for survival goes on elsewhere.
But for many of us, this primitive survival mode is triggered for trivial reasons, such as running late, taking offense at something someone said or sitting an exam. Every time we’re stressed, the gut is under-powered and the microbiome can be one of the casualties.
Another key to the delicate balance in the gut flora is what we eat. Regardless of the power supply; yeast, sugars, and other simple carbohydrates (flour and refined foods) feed the ‘baddies’. Plant fibre, on the other hand, tends to encourage the ‘goodies’, In fact, some of these fruits and vegetables work as prebiotics, to encourage the growth of healthy flora.
The gut really is like a compost heap. When you feed it ‘live’ foods like fruit and vegetables, add heat (energy) and beneficial bacteria – it efficiently turns waste into nutrients. Conversely if you feed compost with processed foods, fats and sugar, it will smell awful and attracts vermin. Once the rats move in, it takes more that a sprinkle of healthy microbes to move them on.
Signs that your gut needs help
Focusing solely on the digestive system, some common signs that your gut needs help include can any of the following:
- bad breath
- excessive or strong smelling flatulence
- acid reflux
- loose, unformed or urgent bowel motions
- difficult, hard or painful bowel motions
- mucus or blood in bowel motions.
Do some of these symptoms sound familiar? Irritable bowel syndrome is a diagnosis given to a collection of gut symptoms without an identifiable cause. Beyond the digestive system there are further signs and symptoms of gut dysbiosis that may include depression, anxiety, poor concentration, sleep disturbance and fatigue.
5 steps to a healthy gut
Probiotics are only part of the story; start with rethinking what and how you eat, drink and deal with stress.
- Eat more unrefined plant foods, chew well and relax when you eat.
- Keeps alcohol and sugar for special occasions, and only when you are happy and relaxed.
- Move your body more, it helps the food move through the gut.
- Change your reaction to stress – differentiate minor annoyances from true emergencies.
- Once you’ve put the previous steps into action (and after any gut infections or antibiotic use) you many need to recolonise your gut flora with probiotic supplements. While fermented foods like sauerkraut and natural yoghurt may help maintain healthy flora, major disbiosis will need a medicinal dose of specific probiotic species to rebalance your microbiome. Matching the right probiotic for your specific microbiota profile is a fast growing science.
The health of our digestive system impacts every single part of the body. It plays a role in creating glowing skin, an alert mind, smooth moving joints and a vigilant immune system. So for your whole body’s sake, take care of your gut.
Part 2 in the microbiome series: a healthy gut, mind and body – the forty foods challenge.
Are you confused about prebiotics, probiotics and microbiomes? Don’t worry, a consultation with Gill can help you get your gut and health back on track.