Part Four: Gut Health
The digestive system, commonly known as the gut, is fast becoming an essential topic. Within this blog is an easily digestible blueprint that identifies the foods and bacteria that are having an effect on our gut, and therefore our overall health. This includes weight fluctuations, bloating, stomach complications, anxiety, and fatigue conditions. As we are about to learn, just like our mind and body, the gut requires the right balance to stay healthy and optimised. As always you may wish to consult with a doctor before starting a new diet or exercise regime (Image courtesy of traceyanderson.com)
To recap, I feel the main six elements that make up our overall wellbeing are:
1. RELAXATION and SLEEP
2. FOOD is a priority, healthy food is essential as it nourishes our bodies and souls as well as protecting us from many illnesses.
3. MIND, or mental health; its important to check our perfectionist tendencies, and to focus on our health and happiness instead.
4. GUT health, (which links 2 and 3). Through our guts we absorb the nutrients from the food we eat; our digestive system and our brains are interconnected.
5. Essential MOVEMENT, in the form of leisure or exercise
6. SKIN health
The gut is your first line of defence, and if it isn’t working optimally, no matter how healthily you eat, you’re more prone to disease as essential nutrients aren’t being absorbed. The gut is part of our digestive system; in short the mouth and stomach are responsible for breaking down the foods we eat, the stomach and intestines are responsible for extracting all the vitamins and minerals from these foods, and then what is left is eliminated through the large intestine, rectum and anus. All of this plays a vital role in the function of the human body.
The human body is made up of 90% bacteria and only 10% of which are human cells. The biggest groups of bacteria reside in our gut, and the health of our gut micro bacteria and the nutrition you feed it directly affects your immunity, brain structure, mood and behaviour. It could be said that your gut is your second brain, as it’s the only organ that can perform its own functions without instructions from the brain. We spend time working on our ‘first’ brain and the rest of our body to boost our emotions and yet many of us choose to ignore the digestive system. If you are feeling run down, anxious, struggling to sleep or need a happiness boost, it turns out that your gut is most likely a huge influence on it.
A multitude of hormone and enzyme processes take place in the gut. We often think of happiness coming from the brain or mind, and yet interestingly 80-90% of serotonin, the happiness hormone, is actually made in the gut. Also at least 20% of ‘inactive’ thyroid hormone T4 is converted to the ‘active’ T3 hormone within the gut. The thyroid gland is located in the neck and plays a major role in the bodies’ metabolism and creation of energy. The digestive system is the seat of our immune system; in fact 7O% of our immune system is in our gut.
Stress may be just as harmful to our bodies as an unhealthy diet. When we are stressed outwardly we may feel panicky, have a racing heart rate, are unable to think clearly, possible even have a acne breakout on the skins’ surface and think that’s it. Well, inside the body stress shows up as physical evidence too, by changing the balance between the good bacteria in the gut in favour of the bad bacteria. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a blanket term that covers the bloating and erratic bowel movements that occur when our gut is out of sync, which can be very stressful in itself. IBS is a term I dislike; it’s used to describe a multitude of health issues whilst explaining nothing specific, which therefore makes treating these health issues difficult. This blog aims to demystify and explain specific aspects of the gut and how to treat and maintain good gut health.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome is a state of increased intestinal permeability. When we consume food it travels down an elongated tube called the digestive tract. This tract is separated from our bloodstream by a border. This border is extremely thin (one cell thick) but well protected by its tightly packed mucosal cells. This lining performs the important task of absorbing nutrients from the food we eat, and is also our body’s first line of defence in preventing toxins, bacteria, food particles, and foreign bodies from entering the bloodstream. When this lining becomes damaged it becomes permeable and gaps appear, food particles, chemicals and bacteria are able to ‘leak’ into our bloodstream, which causes a host of health problems. On the other side of our digestive tract lining is our body’s second line of defence, the immune system, followed by the liver and our hormonal system. These defence mechanisms quickly become over worked trying to neutralise and remove the toxins and poisons from the body.
The resulting responses create inflammation, allergic reactions, food sensitivities, bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, and also raise the stress hormone cortisol. I covered cortisol in more detail in the first blog of this six part blog series on stress, ‘part one: Relaxation and Sleep’. Increased cortisol levels are thought to be responsible for hundreds of concerns in the body. Here’s something that may blow your mind, some health issues that seem completely unrelated may actually have an association with leaky gut syndrome, these are tiredness, under functioning thyroid, Hashimoto’s disease, joint pains, rheumatoid arthritis, skin rashes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and even depression.
What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?
There are many suggestions as to the cause of leaky gut syndrome;
Poor food choices, or unknown food intolerances,
Excess caffeine and alcohol consumption
Overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs used to alleviate pain
Stress may cause over production of damaging stomach acid
Overuse of antibiotics may destroy beneficial good bacteria
Lectins found in grains, gluten, dairy and processed food may damage the gut wall (look the the Paleo, grain free diet if you feel this is you)
Leaky gut is linked to autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s (where the immune system attacks the thyroid), and likewise many autoimmune diseases may cause a leaky gut
Parasites (these can be caught from animals, drinking the water in some foreign countries, or even walking barefoot outside).
How To Look After Your Gut Health
With so many factors attacking the health of the gut, it would appear almost impossible to maintain or restore optimal gut health. Healing the gut lining will allow you to enhance your immunity, reduce stress, improve skin clarity, improve digestion, reduce food intolerances, improve bowel movement, elevate your mood, and maintain an ideal body weight. There are many tests kits available to buy to test individual leaky gut causes such as food intolerances (the doctors can test for celiac, gluten disease, for free), a yeast overgrowth, a bad bacteria overgrowth, parasites etc, but honestly if you have any of the symptoms above then the chances are your gut health is impaired. I personally live my life everyday as if I had a damaged gut as its healthy and achievable in four steps.
We can heal our guts by chewing our food thoroughly and eating when we are not stressed. It’s important to discover and avoid any trigger foods for a time, until the symptoms of gas and bloating have gone. Numerous factors play a role in compromising the microbiome within the gut, some of which may be avoidable from time to time, these are: antibiotics, processed foods, refined sugars and hidden sugars, chlorinated and fluorinated water (use a water filter), stomach medications, painkillers, herbicides in food (your could buy organic), and of course stress.
In many cases sugar, gluten and dairy are the foods we have become sensitive too. Whilst it may not be possible for everyone to remove, sugar and alcohol completely, one could at least try and reduce the weekly intake. Reduce coffee to no more than 2 cups a day.
There seems to be only one way to repair the gut, and that’s the amino acid
l-glutamine, this is what the gut lining cells use as their principal source of energy.
Other helpful nutrients to consider both in food and supplement form are zinc, vitamin A, n-acetyl glucosamine(NAG), and garlic
For me it doesn’t really matter what a leaky gut related test says I would take L-glutamine daily anyway to promote cellular regeneration and muscle repair for my job as a fitness instructor. It’s an amazing and essential amino acid that constitutes more than 20 percent of amino acid levels in the body and the gastrointestinal tract is the greatest bodily user of l-glutamine. It has many uses alongside healing the gut lining, such as helping to build muscle when taken after a workout (in food or supplement form), and if taken in supplement form, 1tsp in water on an empty stomach at night can relieve constipation.
A study published in the medical journal Lancetexamined 20 hospital patients and found that supplementing l-glutamine decreased gut permeability. An animal study published in the British Journal of Surgeryfound that l-glutamine benefit ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. L-glutamine is found in protein foods and supplements. You could take an l-glutamine supplement twice a day at a dose of two to five grams to promote gut healing. (The below image sourced from draxe.com)
Zinc is known for its ability to calm and heal inflamed tissues within the body, the intestines become inflamed with leaky gut syndrome. Zinc is found in grass fed beef, kefir, yogurt, lamb, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, cocoa powder, chicken, mushroom and spinach. The multivitamin, mineral supplements pictured above may have higher levels of zinc in than some other brands, however it’s best to take zinc away from iron and calcium. Most multivitamin, mneral supplements contan a small amount of iron and calcium, but the men’s (example pictured above) usually don’t contain iron. It could be an option to take additional zinc in a ZMA supplement, which are simply zinc, magnesium and vitamin b6. (The below image sourced from draxe.com)
Vitamin A (beta-carotene) is required to maintain healthy cell and skin linings within the whole body. Vitamin A rich foods are usually orange in colour such as butternut squash, sweet potato, carrots, apricots, and egg yolks. But it can also be found in spinach, broccoli, beef liver, and kale. If you choose in addition to eating a broad spectrum of vegetables, to take a supplement it is best to take Vitamin A in a multivitamin, mineral supplement rather than in isolation. (The below image sourced from draxe.com)
Inflammation in the digestive tract causes the tight spaces to open up and cause gaps. Glucosamine is thought to help heal the tight spaces between intestinal cells, as well as this it has four key benefits; 1) It helps improve joint health and osteoarthritis, 2) improves digestion and eases inflammatory bowel diseases, 3) it can help relieve tempro-manibular joint in the paw symptoms, and 4) it helps alleviate bone pain. Glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance in the body, found in synovial joint fluid. It is an important substance for providing cushioning for the joints, in addition to being a building block for tendons, ligaments, skin, nails, eyes, as well as heart valves and mucus membranes in the digestive and respiratory tracts. There are no major food sources of glucosamine, however you can take dietary supplements or drink bone broth (please see below for the recipe).
Some glucosamine supplements are derived from shellfish so anyone intolerant to shellfish should avoid taking these.
If you have a leaky gut due to parasites its important to seek treatment from a doctor asap. Whilst they run tests to determine treatment it would be beneficial to take two raw garlic cloves a day, preferably crushed and on an empty stomach to increase its potency (perhaps pushed into a ripe pear). Garlic is a powerful, natural antibiotic. It can effectively kill bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, yeasts and moulds. Many pharmaceutical antibiotics only kill a narrow range of these germs. Allicin is the main active ingredient in garlic when eaten raw, cooking however, destroys it. Unfortunately garlic does emit an acquired smell from one’s pores, and if this bothers you an alternative could be a strong, odourless, garlic supplement such as Dulwhich Health ‘AlliTech’.
Replenish and Replace:
This step mainly involves the use of a good probiotic supplement, such as the ones pictured above and below. Scientists estimate that a gut should have 85% of these beneficial bacteria but that most of us are falling far short of this. A good all round supplement will contain eight strains of beneficial bacteria including Lactobacillis acidophilus and Bififobacterium lactis. These can colonise and maintain the health of the entire intestinal tract plus they help to fight infection and prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria. The good bacteria in probiotics can help to break down food more effectively, which prevents the stagnation of food that leads to a build up of toxins and resultant gas.
A leaky gut and ageing may coincide with digestive enzyme and hydrochloric acid production. What we need in the stomach to break down food groups effectively (carbohydrates, proteins, fats), and make their nutrients available for absorption by the body. Pineapples and cherries contain bromelain , papaya contains papain, apples contain pectin (pectinase), asparagus contains glutathione peroxidase, and Aloe Vera contains amylase and lipase, these are all digestive enzymes. Many raw fruits and vegetables in general are naturally abundant in digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are also available in supplement form, make sure if using you choose one that’s naturally anti-inflammatory such as the pictured ‘Enhanced super digestive enzymes’. Personally I feel as long as our diets are healthy (see my blog Part Two: Food Health for further information on this subject), and contain lots of vegetables, some to be raw, then we should start to digest optimally. Below the image shows eleven of the best foods for aiding digestion.
Gut Friendly Foods
Probotics: these are live bacteria and yeasts that help keep our guts healthy. Probiotic rich foods are fermented foods like Kimchi, Siuerkraut, Miso, Tempeh, or Kefir milk, as well as probiotic tablets.
Prebiotics: these are a non-living, non-digestible carbohydrate or fibre that serve as food for the good bacteria. Example foods are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
Synbiotics: These are foods or supplements that contain both prebiotics and probiotics.
Resistant Starch: This is an additional food source for the good bacteria, functioning like a soluble, fermentable fibre like inulin. Example foods are chicory, dandelion, jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onion, leek, and asparagus.
The essential, amino acid L-Glutamine helps to treat a leaky gut by repairing the intestines, and it helps to build and preserve muscle tissue in general. It is the amino acid we need most abundantly and makes up 30-35 percent of the amino acid nitrogen in our blood. L- glutamine is found in foods and can be supplemented. The foods with the highest source are bone broth, grass-fed beef, spirulina, Chinese cabbage, cottage cheese, asparagus, broccoli, wild cod, wild salmon, venison and turkey.
Gut Upsetting Foods
Foods to avoid if your gut is not functioning optimally: Gluten, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, canola, soybean). These can really upset the intestinal flora.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a blanket term given by doctors when a patient’s gut is not functioning. It’s an expression that covers everything, explains nothing and unfortunately is something most people will suffer from at some point in their lives. I have found that in most cases I know of amongst my peers, reducing, or eliminating cows’ products from their diets as well as eating gut friendly foods and supplements usually clears it up.
How I Maintain My Gut Health
I try and add something to aid digestion, gut health and to minimise bloating in each meal:
-Upon waking and on an empty stomach a shot of Aloe Vera, then a glass of fresh lemon squeezed in boiled water.
Ground Linseeds (Flax) sprinkled on my morning porridge or eggs.
If I have porridge I sometimes use Yacon Syrup, it’s a prebiotic and feeds the good bacteria in the gut and has a lovely malty sweetness. Swap honey/agave/date syrups for Yacon Syrup. It’s made from a root, far lower in calories than sugar and other syrups.
-I include a fermented food, or Apple Cider Vinegar (containing ‘the mother’) with my lunch. The ‘mother’ is a colony of beneficial bacteria which look like sediments at the bottom of the bottle.
Charcoal powder in water prior to my evening meal
L-Glutamine powder (an amino acid) dissolved in my water bottle while I’m Personal Training throughout the day
Probiotic tablets, not the inferior commercial drinks.
Inulin powder blended in with my ‘healthier’ baking (please see my previous blog Part Three: Mind Health for healthy treat recipes)
I know I have listed quite a few supplements, but I need to stress that one doesn’t need to be taking a supplement for every aliment all the time. I have listed all the foods that contain certain nutrients and all the supplements so that you all the knowledge at your fingertips as to what’s available. This way you can to make an informed yet personal choice on how to take your day-to-day health into your own hands.
For further reading victoriahealth.com has very informative, online articles written by their in house pharmacist. Draxe.com lists natural remedies and health news in an easy to read format. I have pictured three books throughout the blog that talk about the importance of gut health and how to structure one’s diet around reducing inflammation.
Recommended books are ‘10% Human’ by Alanna Collen, William Collins 2016, ‘The 4 Pillar Plan’, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, Penguin life, 2018, and ‘The Clever Guts Diet’, Dr Michael Mosley, Short Books Ltd 2017.
Bone broth (image courtesy of Hemsley & Hemsley) is a natural, therefore easily assimilated, form of l-glutamine. It used to be a staple in the diets of our ancestors and yet somehow this amazing broth became forgotten along the way to the present day. Its nourishing all-rounder packed with vitamins, minerals collagen and keratin. This makes it amazing for skin, and it contains healthy fats, which help the absorption of these important vitamins, including vitamin D. It’s also great for reducing food wastage.
Bone Broth Recipe inspired by Hemsley & Hemsley
Ingredients (Serves 3-4 litres depending on pan size)
2-3 kg beef bones, chocken carcasses, lamb bones
2 handfuls of any onions, leeks, carrots or celery ends
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
A few dried bay leaves
My optional additions: a large slug of apple cider vinegar, fresh lemon juice, (these can help extract the minerals from the meat bones), vegetable bullion stock (for added flavour), miso paste (for added nutrients and flavour).
1. Place the bones and any additional ingredients into a large stainless steel cooking pan. Pour in cold water to cover the bones by 5 cm, whilst still leaving room in the pan.
2. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a minimum of 6-12 hours for chicken and 12-24 hours for beef, or lamb. Skim off any foam that rises to the top. The longer the bones simmer, the more nutrients are released.
3. Strain the liquid, using a fine mesh strainer for poultry. Use this broth immediately or leave to cool before storing in the freezer for up to 1 month or in the fridge for up to 7 days.
I have to be honest, as healthy as fermented cabbage is, the idea of eating it doesn’t excite me terribly. Until one day, in a raw food café tucked away down a small side street in Auckland, New Zealand, I discovered the most divine Kimchi burger. In December 2016, one week before Christmas I was in New Zealand visiting my best friend Ms Liddell of the happiness and wellness company ‘smile from the inside out’ (who happens to be somewhat of an aloe vera expert). I had already just been to Melbourne, Australia two weeks prior to visit another old, close school friend, Ms Ball, and this was the final day of my travels before embarking on the world’s longest plane journey from Auckland to the UK.
The food on this side of the world was right up my street, delicious yet healthy. I had had many lovely meals during my month in Australia and NZ, but the best one was yet to be discovered at The Little Bird Organic Unbakery on Summer Street. This café serves mainly raw, organic food and juices, and a few cooked meals. We chose a Kimchi and chickpea burger, wrapped in lettuce (as opposed to bread bun), Kumara and coconut pancakes, and a raw smoothie each. I was so impressed with the Kimchi burger that I have recreated it into the falafel recipe below.
Ingredients (Makes 12 balls)
800g tinned Chickpeas in water (drained), excess moisture blotted out
400g Kimchi, finely chopped, excess moisture squeezed out.
4 spring onions, finely chopped (optional)
2 garlic cloves, crushed and diced or finely grated
½ tsp ground cumin
1tsp pink salt, and ½ tsp black pepper, or to taste
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp ground coriander
1 & ½ tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground tumeric
1 handful fresh parsley (or your choice of herbs), finely chopped
Chickpea flour (gram flour), 1 Tbsp
Approx 4 Tbsp white or black sesame seeds for coating (optional)
Coconut oil, if frying in pan (optional)
The easiest thing to do, whilst the oven is heating up to 170C, put all the ingredients into a food processor (except for sesame seeds and oil), and blitz until a rough paste.
Form large tablespoons of this mix into flattish balls, use a gram-floured surface/hands if sticking. Place balls spaced apart on a lined baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes. Roll or sprinkle with sesame seeds if using.
Place baking sheet with balls in oven for approximately 20-30 minutes. Alternatively you could fry them in a little coconut oil until crisp and golden. I find baking in the oven works best.
(Image below, falafels ready to be baked!)
Variations and Serving Suggestion:
Falafels can be served hot or cold after being cooked. You could swap out the Kimchi for grated carrot, or carrot and beetroot pulp left over from juicing, same total weight 400g and still pat out the excess moisture. As Kimchi is spiced, fermented cabbage, this flavour may need replacing depending on your personal taste e.g. with a pinch of cayenne pepper.
For an Italian twist add 60g Parmesan (finely grated), replace the fresh parsley with 2 Tbsp fresh basil (finely chopped), and 2tspndried oregano, use carrot and or sauerkraut instead of kimchi.
Below (pictured) I have included Kale, in the form of cavolo nero (strip the leaves, discard the bitter stalks) into the mix. I have served three of them on a homemade puy lentil, tomato, and cruciferous vegetable soupy-stew.
If we don’t absorb and assimilate all the nutrients from our food and body then we are simply producing expensive urine. Although research on the gut system is in its infancy it is still clear, from what has been discovered so far, that good gut health is the cornerstone to our well-being. The digestive system is complex and when everything works correctly, you feel good both physically and emotionally.
On the subjects of physical and emotional, the next blog instalment in the Stress Series ‘Part 5: Essential Movement Health’, or exercise, compiles and condenses the research into the importance of daily movement, and how this affects both our physical and mental health. I’ll look at how we can train more efficiently, including a workout I have created for you. We will also look into the ‘fourth meal’ many people are adopting these days, and also what to eat to boost your energy and also athletic performance.
About Our Author: Lucinda Abell is a Level 3 Personal Trainer, Group Exercise Instructor, UK Bikini Fitness Finalist and Sports Science Lecturer who is based in Cheshire.
Lucinda also works as a Freelance Designer and studied her Fashion Design Technology degree at the London College of Fashion, later going to specialise in Printed Textiles in her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art. You can discover more about Lucinda HERE