“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates
Gut health, the term bandied around the internet, is one certainly to take note of as gut health is seemingly the root to a healthier and therefore happier life. To understand what ‘gut health’ actually is and how we can improve our health in this area we talk with Tracy Tredoux (@TracyTredoux), nutritional therapist.
The digestive system
The digestive and gut system is designed to break down the food we eat into small molecules that are absorbed into the blood stream and distributed around the body. Digestion starts in the mouth with the chewing of food, mixing with the enzymes in our saliva. Next, the food travels down the oesophagus and into the stomach, where digestion continues. The food then continues its journey into the small intestine, where digestion is finally completed and the smaller components (vitamins, minerals, fats, amino acids and glucose) are delivered to the bloodstream to ultimately nourish our body and brain. Undigested food particles and toxic waste make their way into the large intestine to be excreted. An important function of the gut barrier is to keep ingested pathogens, gut bacteria and other microbes, toxins and undigested food particles from escaping the gut and making their way into the bloodstream. If the digestive tract becomes damaged and ‘leaky,’ allowing any of these particles through, this can cause widespread inflammation, chronic health issues and one or more autoimmune conditions.
The connection between the gut and your health
Today, more and more research is recognising that many diseases which seem unrelated to the gut – such as eczema, acne, rosacea, psoriasis, obesity, diabetes, impaired thyroid and autoimmune diseases, even cancer, are often initiated by gut dysfunction and inflammation.
Thus, having a healthy gut is the foundation to your overall health and wellness.
- Microbiome Most people think of the gut as being only responsible for digestion. However, the quantity, quality and composition of the bacteria in your GI tract have an enormous influence on your health. The microbiome helps us to digest food, regulate hormones, eliminate toxins and produce vitamins and other healing compounds that help keep the gut and body healthy. This ecosystem of healthy bacteria must be in balance to carry out their crucial work. If the gut is out of balance, this can result in many chronic health conditions such as IBS. When it comes to weight, there is growing research that suggests our gut bacteria actually influences our food cravings, metabolism and how many calories our body absorbs from the food we eat.
- Gut-immune-system Believe it or not, about 80% of your immune system resides in your gut. Therefore, if your gut is healthy, the chances are more likely that you will be healthier.
- Gut-Brain-axis Your gut actually contains more neurotransmitters (chemicals responsible for regulating mood) than your brain and is often referred to as the “second brain.” In fact, 70-80% of your happy, feel-good hormone, serotonin, is produced in the gut. An imbalance in the gut has therefore been implicated in conditions such as depression, autism and ADHD.
- Detoxification Your digestive system is designed to remove toxins and if you get constipated, things will back up, affecting your overall health.
Symptoms that indicate something is not quite right
- Sluggish metabolism
- Low energy
- Poor sleep quality
- Brain fog and memory problems
- Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, Celiac disease
- Low immunity, chronic colds and flus and other infections
- Skin issues
- Mood swings, depression, anxiety
- Low libido
- Digestive issues such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, heartburn, constipation, diarrhoea, IBS, GERD, colitis (including ulcerative colitis).
The possible underlying cause/s of these symptoms
When it comes to ascertaining the cause/s of your gut related symptoms and poor health, it is important to understand that many conditions share one or more of the same symptoms. It is also important to understand what it means when your Dr gives you a diagnosis of IBS for your debilitating symptoms, telling you there is no cure and prescribing medication such as Protein Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) and / or pain killers or low dose anti-depressants such as amitriptyline. IBS is a name given by a doctor to a collection of symptoms rather than a specific condition, often when the doctor is not sure what the root of the problem is. IBS covers a wide variety of symptoms including:
- Alternating constipation and diarrhoea
- Abdominal cramping
- Mucus in the stool
- Excessive gas
Many people put up with IBS symptoms for years as the prescribed medication may well relieve symptoms, but does nothing to eliminate the root cause/s. Often, these digestive symptoms are caused by one or more of the following issues:
- Failure to chew food properly and/or eating meals ‘on the go.’
- Poor digestion
- Food intolerance/s (eating foods you are intolerant to causes low grade inflammation)
- Lack of digestive enzymes (as we age we produce less digestive enzymes).
- Low stomach acid (often more implicated in acid reflux and heartburn than excess acid. Bloating, indigestion, flatulence, belching, food intolerance, stomach cramps and feeling full after eating small amounts are signs of stomach acid insufficiency).
- Stress (stress hormones slow down digestion in order to concentrate energy on our ‘fight and flight’ response).
- Bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine (SIBO). Around 60% of people with IBS will have SIBO. This occurs when bacteria (which ordinarily reside in the large intestine) find their way into the small intestine due to food poisoning, low levels of stomach acid, adhesions etc. In the small intestine, these bacteria interfere with the digestion and absorption of food, fermenting the food particles causing gas, belching, bloating, pain and a variety of other symptoms, including constipation and/or loose stools and even anxiety.
- Dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria)
The link between the gut and autoimmunity
When the tight junctions of our gut lining start to weaken and become bigger, they allow unwanted molecules to escape into the bloodstream. This is more commonly referred to as a ‘leaky gut.’ There are numerous possible causes of a leaky gut such as:
- Toxic and inflammatory foods – alcohol, dairy, eggs, gluten, grains, legumes, GMOs, sugar.
- Gut infections – SIBO, candida, parasites.
- Medications – antibiotics, NSAIDS (aspirin, ibuprofen), birth control pill, acid-blocking drugs.
- Mycotoxins (toxic mold)
- Stress – emotional and physical.
One of the many functions of the immune system in the gut and lining the intestinal barrier is to ‘scan’ molecules as they enter into the bloodstream. Molecules that are unrecognised by the immune cells (including undigested food particles such as gluten proteins) elicit an immune response. The more permeable the gut barrier becomes the more unfamiliar toxins, bacteria and food particles leak into the bloodstream resulting in chronic, ongoing inflammation. Many of the molecules considered ‘alien’ and ‘foreign,’ in fact resemble our own body’s tissue, confusing the immune system and resulting in the production of antibodies that attack the healthy tissue of the body. For example, today more and more people are presenting with gluten sensitivity and thyroid issues. Gluten molecules resemble thyroid tissue. What does this mean? It means if you have intestinal permeability (leaky gut), or a sensitivity to gluten, your body will mistakenly attack your thyroid, believing it is attacking the gluten, resulting in an autoimmune thyroid disease.
Testing to help find out what is going on with your gut and overall health
The common tests carried out by conventional medical doctors are important to rule out cancer and inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These tests include blood tests, MRI scans, X-Rays, endoscopies and colonoscopies. Once these tests have hopefully ruled out more serious conditions, you are often left with a diagnosis of IBS. This condition is, for most people, debilitating, resulting in numerous uncomfortable symptoms, most often associated with the most basic need for human survival – eating. The good news is that there is much that can be done to restore good gut health. The tests carried out by functional medicine, nutritional and other healthcare practitioners, examine the gut on a more microscopic level looking for pathogens (parasites, bacteria, fungi), SIBO, dysbiosis, food intolerances, leaky gut etc.
Gut health is a vast and extensive subject, next week we’ll continue the conversation on gut health focusing on how to reset your gut and improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Tracy Tredoux is a fully qualified Nutritional Therapist, living and working in London. When not giving talks or consulting with clients, she writes health and nutrition articles, tips and recipes which you can find at @TracyTredoux