If our gut health is poor due to inflammation and bacterial imbalances, it can have an impact on our immune and nervous systems, and can wreak havoc with our hormonal functions. This is because the gastrointestinal tract is loaded with neurons that release the same neurotransmitters as found in the brain. Upsetting this equilibrium can throw both your body and mood into chaos, and in addition to a poor diet, your delicate inner ecosystem can also be disrupted by environmental stressors.
The reality is that poor digestive health can be silent. You may think that your digestive tract is healthy - meanwhile, you have unexplained migraines, anxiety, depression, joint pain, eczema, allergies or acne. Signs of an unhappy gut include surprisingly common complaints such as heartburn, gas, constipation or diarrhoea and intestinal pain or cramping. Chronic inflammation not only greatly decreases absorption of nutrients, but can also lead to leaky gut. This is where the walls of the intestines become hyper permeable, resulting in holes which allow larger, undigested food molecules and other “bad stuff” that is normally rejected, to flow freely into your bloodstream.
The belly-brain connection
The fact that the brain and belly are linked isn’t surprising. After all, indigestion is a fairly well-known side effect of stress, and studies are now revealing that the connection is a two-way street - the mind can affect the gut, and the gut can affect the mind.
A lack of gut bacteria diversity is directly linked to obesity, depression and anxiety, and numerous human studies have shown that low gut diversity leads to more fat storage and poor insulin sensitivity. A lack of gut diversity can also predispose you to inflammation, which is linked to obesity, heart disease, arthritis and even depression.
Start on the road to healing
Although not as simple as eating a yoghurt a day, it’s not too difficult to restore your healthy gastrointestinal tract. Here are the top five foods that wreak the most havoc and should be eliminated from your diet.
• Sodas - both natural and the artificially sweetened kinds. Numerous studies have shown that sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame all affect how gut bacteria metabolise energy. They trigger inflammatory responses and feed the bad bacteria and yeasts living in the gut.
• Cereal grains - both whole grains and refined flowers from sources such as wheat and barley which is found in bread and pasta. The protein gluten is pro-inflammatory which has a nutrient absorption inhibiting affect.
• Vegetable oils - canola, soy-bean, corn and other oils liquid at room temperature commonly found in processed and restaurant prepared foods are all polyunsaturated fats, which are strongly linked to inflammation and atherosclerosis, and are known carcinogens when heated. • Coffee - not only does caffeine trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, it also contains a protein similar to gluten which the immune system can mistakenly react to in the same way. This is known as a cross-reaction. Instant coffee was found to be the most cross reactive kind of coffee, while other cross-reactive proteins can be found in milk, corn, oats and rice.
• Alcohol - in all forms including beer, wine and spirits, irritate the gut lining. Beer specifically contains gluten-rich cereal grains and fermented organisms that feed candida yeast overgrowth - both of which are directly linked to lining damage and leaky gut.
After removing harmful foods from your diet, you need to repair the gut and heal the damaged intestinal lining. By sticking to natural foods and giving up processed foods you can give your body a chance to rest. This, combined with natural gut healers such as L-glutamine, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E), quercetin, aloe vera, and turmeric, can really help to make a difference.
Next, you need to restore your gut’s optimal bacterial flora with probiotics like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis. These good bacteria help reinforce and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract, and help to combat any overgrowth of bad bacteria. In general, a healthy lower intestinal tract should contain around 85% good bacteria.
Recommended foods and supplements:
• L-Glutamine - Helps to heal and seal the gut along with aiding in recovery after workouts.
• Fish Oil - high quality, preferably a liquid, not capsule form, helps reduce inflammation, balance hormones and supports the immune system.
• Probiotics - provides live strains of good bacteria to boost your defences.
• Mint - soothes the stomach and helps relax the gastrointestinal tract.
• Zinc - crucial in the formation of digestive enzymes, mucosal lining and regulating hormones.
• Prebiotics - in the form of fermented foods help feed good bacteria. Fermented foods include bio-available yoghurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
• PH Balancing or Alkaline Foods - Anything green like kale, spinach, broccoli, wheatgrass, parsley, chlorella and spirulina are all great at keeping stomach acid levels
Other ways to help increase good bacteria levels:
• Be wary of overusing antibiotics - antibiotics can be a doctor’s first response to common conditions like sore throats, bronchitis and sinus infections. However helpful, antibiotics kill off massive amounts of both “good” and “bad” gut bacteria (“anti-biotic” is the opposite of “pro-biotic”), so try to explore alternatives whenever possible.
• Exercise - exercise boosts the diversity of the bacteria found in the gut, which can improve metabolism, strengthen the immune system and reduce inflammation.
• Get plenty of sleep - A healthy sleep cycle helps the body produce the hormones melatonin and prolactin, which have been found to improve bacterial balance and help with digestion.
So repair and restore your gut with the right foods and habits and your belly and your brain will thank you for it!