A good gut feeling

Natural ways to look after the health of your gut

Don’t underestimate the importance of good gut health. Maintaining the right balance of good bacteria in your digestive system is not only vital to your health in general but also the strength of your immune system and even your mood.

“You may be surprised to know that 70 per cent of your immune system is in your gut,” says Dr Marilyn Glenville, a leading nutritionist and author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar. “You also have more cells in your gut than you have in the whole of your body. Your gut is literally teeming with billions of bacteria, and under ideal circumstances they are kept in a healthy balance. In other words, the healthy bacteria keep the unhealthy bacteria in check.”

“Evidence increasingly shows that good gut bacteria can help promote positive mood, with severity of depression shown to be associated with the amount of bacteria in the gut,” adds Sarah Green, Registered Nutritional Therapist and Vice Chair of BANT (www.BANT.org.uk). “When people suffer from anxiety and depression, low mood and other disorders we think of these as being problems of the brain, but in fact more serotonin (the feelgood hormone) is made in the gut than in the brain.”

Get the right balance

“Antibiotics, NSAIDS and prescription medicines can all disrupt the balance of bacteria and animal studies have found stress can alter the types of bacteria in the gut,” says Sarah Green. “This is where probiotic foods such as fermented milk, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar and probiotic supplements can help after a course of antibiotics.”

“With probiotics, don’t go for the probiotic drinks, as they can be loaded with sugar,” adds Dr Glenville. “Probiotics are better taken as a supplement, especially if you have had a course of antibiotics. Choose one that contains at least 22 billion organisms (including both lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains).

Digestive enzymes are another useful natural aid to good digestion. “Nutrient levels in crops being farmed today are much lower than they were 50 years ago,” says Maday Labrador, VP of Education for Enzymedica (www.enzymedica.co.uk). “Cooking, processing, and preserving foods further depletes nutrients and destroys enzymes, probiotics and Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Enzyme supplements aid healthy digestion without causing the body to halt its own enzyme production. Be sure to look for a full-spectrum enzyme blend for general digestive improvement.”

Take a look at your diet

Making the right dietary choices is of course crucial to good gut health. “There is evidence to suggest that the Mediterranean diet, based on foods typically eaten in countries such as Italy and Greece, is beneficial for our gut,” says Alexis Poole (ANutr, BSc) Spoon Guru Company Nutritionist (www.spoon.guru). “This diet includes frequent consumption of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil. Poultry and dairy products are encouraged in moderation, and red meat is typically eaten only rarely. In addition to this, processed foods and foods and drinks with added sugars are avoided.”

Go green

“Chlorella is a green algae which is a great source of protein, especially for those on vegan and vegetarian diets,” says Jenny Tschiesche, a nutritional consultant for Indigo Herbs and Nutrition (www.indigo-herbs.co.uk).

“However it can also increase the number of ‘good’ bacteria in the intestine in order to improve digestion. In this way chlorella has been linked to improvements in several gut and immune system-related health issues such as ulcerative colitis.”

In addition to avoiding processed foods, your gut will probably thank you for cutting down on gluten. “Gluten can literally glue up your digestion and needs a lot of water to digest it,” says nutritional therapist, Julie Silver, author of Food Awakening for NOW. “Unless you are super-hydrated and don’t have much stress in your life, then opt for gluten-free type grains which will hydrate you and are easy for your gut to digest. My favourites are quinoa, buckwheat, millet and brown rice.”

Another dietary strategy worth considering is the Low FODMAP Diet. “Developed by researchers from Monash University, it has been proven to significantly reduce (and even eliminate) IBS symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, excess wind and constipation or diarrhoea,” says Hayley Burdett, IBS sufferer and Founder of Bay’s Kitchen (bayskitchen.co.uk). “Foods that are key to avoid due to being high in FODMAPs include garlic, onion, wheat and dairy.”

Try an Ayurvedic remedy

Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India, offers a similar perspective on gut health. “Ayurveda could be called the ‘science of digestion’,” says Sebastian Pole, Ayurvedic practitioner, herbalist and co-founder of Pukka Herbs (www.pukkaherbs.com). “It believes that a faulty digestion is the cause of most diseases. However good your diet is, if your digestion is impaired then you cannot absorb the appropriate nutrients required for nourishment. This ultimately causes the depletion of the entire system and results in disease. One traditional Ayurvedic remedy that is revered as the ‘heal-all’ for the digestive tract is triphala. Triphala literally means ‘three fruits’ and is a combination of amalaki, haritaki and bibhitaki. Triphala influences an enduring and deep cleansing of the digestive tissues whilst also rejuvenating cellular functioning and acting as a potent antioxidant.”

Keep hydrated – and active

The importance of hydration can’t be underestimated when it comes to gut health. “Start every day off with a large glass of pure filtered water before you have anything else to eat or drink,” says Julie Haigh, a naturopathic nutritionist with Candida Diet Foods (www.candidadietfoods.co.uk). “This should be followed by a cup of herbal tea or warm lemon water with a dash of apple cider vinegar which can help restore the fluids lost overnight. Keep drinking water throughout the day to ensure your gut remains hydrated, but remember not to drink water with meals, or less than half an hour before as they will dilute digestive juices.”

Julie also recommends taking regular exercise to keep your gut on top form. “Research has shown that exercise can help to balance the bacteria in your intestines and help promote the diversity of gut bacteria,” she says. “Athletes and exercise enthusiasts tend to have a higher diversity of gut micro-organisms, which in turn can have immune-boosting effects. Exercise can also increase the mobility of the bowel, so can help ease pain associated with digestive problems and constipation. Experts suggest that, for consistency, morning may be your best time to exercise to develop a regular exercise habit. So, if you’re tempted to skip your early morning spin class think about what it could do not only for your form, but for your gut flora.”

Be wary of ‘sugar free’

“Excess consumption of sugar is recognised as a major contributing factor to increasing obesity rates, type 2 diabetes and increased risk of chronic health conditions,” explains Caroline Harmer, education director with Renew Life (www.renewlife.com).

“Food manufacturers have responded to demand for low sugar or ‘sugar free’ products by adding artificial sweeteners – but caution is advised. Research shows that consuming foods containing artificial sweeteners dramatically increases risk of obesity and diabetes. For instance, in one study people who used artificial sweeteners showed a 53 per cent higher incidence of abdominal obesity and a 2.6cm larger waist than people who did not use them. A potentially bigger issue is that artificial sweeteners negatively affect the ‘microbiome’ (the 100 trillion organisms that live in our gut). Alteration of gut bacteria by artificial sweeteners causes decreased feelings of fullness after food, alters the regulation of chemicals that affect our mood and causes gut dysbiosis and gut health issues. So continue to reduce your consumption of sugar, but it is best not to replace it with artificial sweeteners.”

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