It’s estimated that roughly 70 to 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut. Feed it poorly and your gut will be left with few defenses, easily overwhelmed by bad bacteria, wide open to disease-triggering inflammation and plagued by gastrointestinal ills like IBS-type symptoms (i.e., gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc.). In your weakened state, you may also be more susceptible to colds and flu. But, if you introduce good bacteria into the gastric mix via fermented foods, you’ll enable your gut to crush opportunistic invaders and disease-triggering inflammation, long before they can gain the upper hand. Simply put: A healthy, balanced gut can send illness packing.
Our gut microbiota (gut bugs/flora) contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (100 times more than human genes). Microbiota can, in total, weigh up to 2 kg. One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while two thirds are specific to each one of us. In other words, the microbiota in your intestine is like an individual identity card.
But not all gut bacteria are created equal. Among other things, “good” gut bacteria improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, improve your mood and manufacture the vitamins your body needs. On the other hand, “bad” gut bacteria can upset your digestion, cause mental health issues, allergies, skin problems and all kinds of other unpleasant effects.
Complaints that can alert you to the fact that your gut bacteria is out of balance are:
Digestive issues: gas, bloating, heart burn or acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, IBS or Irritable Bowel Disease such as Crohn’s, Diviticulitis, or Ulterative Colitis.
Mental Issues: Scientists have discovered that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters. People with certain mental disorders also tend to have disturbances to their gut bacteria. In fact your brain and gut have the same cells – remember anxiety causing butterflies in the stomach or worse? Depression, anxiety, brain fog, OCD, and autism can all be linked to gut health.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency: A healthy gut also plays an important role when it comes to helping your body produce and synthesize vitamins and minerals. When your gut bacteria are out of balance it makes it difficult for your body to produce the following essential vitamins and minerals: Vitamins D, K, B12 and 7 and magnesium.
Antibiotics: Used correctly, antibiotics are one of the greatest innovations of modern medicine, but using them incorrectly can destroy gut health. The food industry uses them indiscriminately on factory-farmed animals. Some doctors even use them on viral infections (which is useless). Antibiotics don’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria and destroy both. Research also suggests that good bacteria wiped out by antibiotics don’t replace themselves unless you intervene with healthy food choices, fermented foods and probiotics. If you have to take antibiotics make sure you take probiotics and fermented foods in between each dose and continue afterwards.
Chronic, unmanaged stress: Stress can wear you down, make you anxious, and increase your blood pressure. It can also wreak havoc on your gut. Stress is inevitable, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. That isn’t an issue until you let it go on for too long without managing it. Unmanaged stress raises cortisol levels, which can stop the gut from working properly. If you’ve been stressed for the past few months (or years, or decades) but haven’t acted to manage your stress, you’re more likely to have an unhealthy gut.
Skin Conditions: With many skin conditions, the problem isn’t with the skin itself. It’s with an unhealthy gut. If you have any of these skin conditions, it could be due to unbalanced gut bacteria: Acne, Rosacea, Psoriasis, Eczema.
Allergies: Your gut is lined with millions of epithelial cells that are responsible for maintaining a barrier between your gut contents (the intestinal lumen) and your bloodstream. In a healthy gut, small nutrients are absorbed, but large dietary proteins are unable to cross this barrier and enter the bloodstream. However, when the intestinal barrier becomes compromised (i.e., “leaky gut” syndrome), these large dietary proteins are able to enter the blood, stimulate an immune response, and produce symptoms characteristic of various allergic diseases. Studies in mice have shown that disrupting the microbiota with antibiotics or a low-fiber diet is capable of causing this increased barrier permeability. On the other hand, certain strains of bacteria in the gut are able to protect against intestinal permeability to food allergens
Autoimmune Diseases: Autoimmune diseases can be difficult to manage because the body is literally attacking itself. It can be even tougher to spot the source of the problem and address it. More research is emerging linking autoimmune diseases to unhealthy gut microbiome. If you’re dealing with any of the following, you just might be able to make your symptoms disappear by improving you gut health: Hashimoto’s, Rheumatoid arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
How to improve and keep your gut microbiome in balance:
Avoid toxins: If you wanted to put out a fire, adding petrol would be worst thing you could do! Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of people with unhealthy guts are doing. They’re continuing to eat and live in a way that kills good bacteria, encourages bad bacterial growth, and breaks down the integrity of their gut lining. Most of them don’t even realize they’re doing it.
The first step to reversing this trend is to avoid toxic and inflammatory foods. These include:
- Conventional grain-fed dairy
- Sugars, including fructose – check the I Quit Sugar Books (http://www.goodfood.com.au/good-health/good-food-roadtest-sarah-wilsons-i-quit-sugar-detox-program-20140915-3fr8j) and That Sugar Film (http://thatsugarfilm.com/).
- Unhealthy oils such as corn, any vegetable oils, canola. Stick to good quality olive oil and coconut oil.
If you’re already following a Paleo lifestyle, you’ve pretty much taking care of this step. Stick to a diet focused on vegetables – especially organic leafy greens, animal or vegetable protein, and fruits. You’ll create a gut environment that’s friendly for good bacteria and unfriendly for bad bacteria. It’s also a good idea to avoid other modern toxins:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Ibuprofen
- Antibiotics (as much as possible)
Eating organic is highly recommended as pesticides are toxic to the gut (and the environment). There are thousands of man made chemicals in our food chain that weren’t in existence 100 years ago.
Eat Fermented Foods: Avoiding toxic foods and environmental toxins is a great start, but not quite enough for optimal health. You need to get to know and include fermented foods to encourage good gut bacteria to flourish. These foods, commonplace in our ancestors’ diets, are full of good gut bacteria: kimchi, saurkraut, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, apple cider vinegar. You only need small amounts but often and varied. MCM has a list if you’d like to know more.
Take a Probiotic Supplement: In addition to eating fermented foods, you can restore your gut health faster by taking a daily probiotic supplement. Our ancestors were a lot less concerned with hygiene than we are. This actually helped them pick up plenty of good gut bacteria. You can use probiotic supplements to “make up” for that lost good bacteria.
There’s a wide range of probiotic supplements available. And just like with gut bacteria, some are better than others. Dr. Tim Gerstmar laid down some excellent guidelines on which supplements to focus on:
- Stay away from “bargain bin” prices. You get what you pay for.
- A reputable brand is Bioceuticals
- Make sure they’re potent. Dr. Gerstmar recommends at least 8 billion/dose.
- Look for supplements that contain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Manage Your Stress: One of the most powerful things you can do to improve your gut health (besides changing your diet) is to make stress management a priority. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” method to do this. The key is to pick something you enjoy and stick with it. Making time to manage your stress, whether you feel stressed or not, will reduce inflammation, lower cortisol levels, and improve your gut health. Even 10 minutes of meditation a day can work wonders to ground and calm you. Doing yoga, walking in nature, hanging out with your friends and family and laughing will lower your cortisol and therefore your stress levels. Most importantly get plenty of rest and at least 7 hours of good sleep a night. Lack of sleep is a major cause of inflammation and disruption to gut health.
More science is emerging every day connecting issues with the gut to issues throughout the body and mind. With knowledge and appropriate food and lifestyle choices you can heal yourself from the inside out. The recipe for a healthy gut is simple – avoid toxic foods and substances, add in some fermented foods and probiotics, and make managing your stress and getting enough sleep a priority. It won’t happen overnight, but your gut health will change for the better. Changing your gut just might be the first step to changing your life.
Chinese Medicine has long known that everything starts with the gut. Treating the gut is a major starting point in a TCM treatment, so we at Mornington Chinese Medicine understand how important it is to get your gut in good condition to treat a myriad of conditions.
Jan is available for consult at Mornington Chinese Medicine on Wednesday and Thursday.
For booking enquiries please call (03) 59736886.