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With so much competing advice out there about your health and wellness, it can be hard to sort through all the information and know what’s really good for you. One of the key elements of any discussion on health is your gut, and so naturopathic doctor Makoto Trotter has some great advice on maintaining your digestive and gut health.
Check out Makoto’s tips below, and don’t forget to click on the video above for our chat with the doctor!
IMPORTANCE OF THE GUT MICROBIOME
The gut microbiome is extremely important to the functioning of your entire system. It is the total population of all of the microorganisms living in your gut, also referred to as the gut flora. It includes bacteria, fungi, and viruses, and you literally have trillions of bacteria in your gut. They have about 150 times the genetic material that you yourself have – it’s like an ecosystem within your body. The species and populations of microorganisms in your gut are so individual, it’s like a fingerprint.
Supporting your microbiome is essential to not just your digestive function, but many other systems in your body. The health of your microbiome can even affect the function of your immune system, and having less diverse bacterial populations in your microbiome has been observed in people with autoimmune conditions, obesity and metabolic diseases.
SIGNS OF POOR GUT HEALTH
The first and most obvious sign would be bowel symptoms, meaning too frequent or infrequent bowel movements. One up to three good daily bowel movements is considered to be within normal range. It could also mean the quality of your stool – it should be ideally easy to pass and formed. Stool can be dry, hard pellets that require effort to expel – or on the opposite extreme, loose, urgent, explosive diarrhea. Bloating and cramping, are usually associated with excess gas production in the gut. An unhealthy balance of bacteria, called dysbiosis, can be responsible for this. Some of these unhealthy bacteria in the gut release excess methane and hydrogen, which we experience as bloating, abdominal discomfort or flatus (farting).
BEST DIET FOR GUT HEALTH
What works for one person’s digestive tract may not work for someone else’s. As a general rule, some of the biggest offenders can be coffee, alcohol, dairy, eggs and gluten, which can affect the motility of your gut, either slowing it down or speeding it up. Dairy, eggs and gluten are the three most common food sensitivities, and to varying degrees they can trigger bowel changes or bloating and gas. Processed foods, which may contain many artificial ingredients, as well as fried foods, may also be difficult for our gut to process properly. Fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut or kimchi contain many probiotic bacteria, but also work as prebiotics, which are types of fibre that provide a food source for the friendly bacteria in our gut. One of the simplest changes that can make a drastic difference is sticking to cooked food. Raw food may be perceived as healthier, but it is much more difficult to process. Cooking essentially pre-digests your food, which makes it much gentler on a sensitive, inflamed gut.
GLUTEN FREE DIETS
Celiac is a severe gluten intolerance. In a person with unmanaged celiac disease, consuming gluten regularly can actually alter the structure of the gut wall, which greatly impedes digestion and reduces ability to properly absorb nutrients. Celiacs need to follow strict gluten-avoidance. While gluten is a common food sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is not necessarily a healthy diet. Some people feel better when they are gluten-free simply because they eat less breads and pasta. In that case, it is a carbohydrate issue, rather than a gluten issue – not everyone has a gluten sensitivity.
CLEANSES AND DETOXES
Cleanses and detoxes are such an overused term that it is hard to know what it is even describing anymore. A cleanse kit often involves many antimicrobial herbs in pills or tea form. This can negatively impact the balance of your healthy gut bacteria, because herbs that kill our bad bacteria, do not discriminate, and also kill some of our good bacteria if used excessively. This is similar to how antibiotic use can also disrupt our good bacteria levels. Cleanses can also over-stimulate your digestive function, or be overly restrictive, since they often use herbs that have a laxative effect that gives you the feeling that your gut has been “cleansed”, but this can actually worsen your gut health. There are gentler approaches using dietary changes that are safer and more effective in the long term.
There is a reasonable level of evidence showing the benefit of probiotic supplements for digestion. Remember that their safety profile and price is much better than medication. Once consumed, probiotic bacteria take up residence in the gut, where they inhibit the growth of illness-causing bacteria and viruses, keep bowel function regular, produce vitamins and maintain a healthy gut microbiota (the diverse community of microbes that live in the large intestine). You may be confused looking at a wall of probiotics, as there are so many types and brands available now. Talk to your naturopath for advice on what variables to look for in a reliable probiotic supplement.
Prebiotics are essentially food sources for probiotics. Rather than adding new bacteria, as a probiotic does, prebiotics provide a concentrated food source for your existing bacteria. This can be in a supplement form or found in certain foods. Prebiotics are found in fermented foods, and in supplements you can commonly find the prebiotic FOS or fructo-oligosaccharides.
OUR ‘SECOND BRAIN’
There is an entire nervous system in the gut called the enteric nervous system. It functions independently of your first brain, and as such is often termed the second brain. This second brain is a complex system containing 100 million neurons, which is more than in your spinal cord or peripheral nervous system. We have learned that it has many independent functions and also has 2 way communication with our brain. The big surprise was when we discovered that 90% of this communication was from the gut to the brain, not the other way around. This means that the brain in our gut has a large influence on our mental and emotional health, and a lot of research supports this. Serotonin is an important brain chemical that regulates sleep, mood and energy, and your microbiome influences production of 90% of your body’s serotonin, so changes in your gut bacteria can actually affect your emotions. Optimizing gut health should be a key component in the treatment of mood disorders.
There is some evidence to show that it can affect the gut microbiome, but nothing conclusive. That being said, hormone use and digestive symptoms can go hand in hand. Gut bacteria do help to metabolize hormones and fluctuations in hormones can impact digestive function, so there is a connection. A common example of this is premenstrual bloating, loose stools or constipation, which is tied in to progesterone and estrogen changes in the few days leading up to your cycle.
Gut and skin conditions are intimately connected. The gut is the internal barrier that separates and interacts with the external environment (the contents of your digestive tract), whereas the skin is the external barrier that separates and interacts with our actual external environment. To improve our skin health, we need to start by addressing our gut health. There are numerous studies linking dietary triggers and acne. Standard acne medication can greatly help improve or prevent acne breakouts, but it is not a long term solution – when your acne returns after stopping medication, clearly the cause of the problem has not been addressed.