The gut is often referred to as the “second brain”, and Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy at Columbia University in New York says ‘That’s because if someone were to cut your vagus nerve – the major nerve between the brain and the gut- your gut would keep on working. Your gut can work independently of your brain and spinal cord. Also, your gut contains up to 100million neurons – as many as the spinal cord and approximately 40 neurotransmitters which are also found in our brains !’
Although anyone who has suffered from stress knows only too well that how your emotional state can hugely affect the workings of your gut – not many people understand that if your gut is not functioning properly it can and does affect your mental and physical health.
If your gut is not working properly, a host of conditions ranging from IBS (Irritable Bowel) and osteoporosis to malnutrition and eczema as well as auto immune conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus can result. Believe it or not, many doctors and most people remain unaware of this vital connection. In essence if your gut functions properly you are feel healthier….. And keep in mind that 85% of major degenerative diseases could be prevented or healed – by changing what you put in your mouth. Your body is made up of the nutrients (vitamins, minerals, essential fats, carbohydrates etc) that it absorbs (in the gut) from what you swallow. But if your gut is not working properly then absorption is affected and symptoms of malabsorption and malnutrition can arise.
It’s also important to realize that we all carry around approximately one kilogram of bacteria in our intestines – both ‘good and bad’. When we are healthy and our bodies are in a state of balance, the good bacteria outnumber the bad and our internal ecosystem fosters a stronger immune system.
In addition to keeping pathogenic (the bad) bacteria in check, friendly gut flora also help to break down food and some vitamins. If take antibiotics we create an imbalance which upsets the delicate balance thus contributing to many of today’s common ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, a condition which affects upwards of 20% of the population. Chronic constipation and inflammatory bowel disease are also very common. The friendly organisms, or micro-flora, are fragile creatures and very sensitive to pH changes, temperature, infections and any form of stress. The typical modern diet of processed foods high in sugar, fat, salt and refined flour is not conducive to proper colonization by the healthy bugs; neither is chronic stress or excessive alcohol consumption. If we add antibiotics into the mix; this can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
In addition, excessive use of laxatives or antibiotics sets up the perfect environment for the wrong type of ‘bugs’ to thrive. Stress reduces blood flow to the colon, slowing the peristaltic action of the bowel which can trigger over-fermentation – and foods that are not digested properly will also create over-fermentation. This commonly manifests in various gases being produced which can trigger bloating.
Two criteria are very important for gut health. The first is foods that are easy to breakdown and second is foods which serve as nutrition for good bacteria to thrive. Two fibres, fructo-oligosaccharides and inulin are crucial to this process. These are called Prebiotics and include globe artichoke, fennel, celeriac, onions, leeks, chicory and asparagus. For some people these oligo-saccharides can promote gas and if that is the case, another option would be to eat foods high in Stachyose (another form of prebiotic). This is found in beans (especially soy), peas and chickpeas but make sure you soak them for a few hours before cooking to help to avoid gas
There are also many foods which can create excess fermentation in the gut because of their natural sugar content – including bananas, melons, apples and pears which can be a problem for some people. Conversely berries and tropical fruit such as papaya and mangoes do not ferment as readily.
Beans, nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, pecans and pumpkin seeds have other potential problems. Basically these need to be either soaked overnight or sprouted, as they contain enzyme-inhibitors which for some people can be difficult to breakdown in the gut; leading to bloating.
A good bio- yoghurt (preferably goat’s or sheep’s which tend to cause less problems than dairy from cows) containing healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Bifidobacteria bifidum help to lower the pH of the large intestine thus aiding survival of good bacteria.
Certain foods such as dairy (from cows), wheat and foods from the nightshade family such as tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and potatoes commonly trigger gut problems – because of their lectin content which is difficult for the gut to break down. Wheat is high in gluten, an array of proteins which can trigger inflammation in the gut which can eventually cause the gut to become ‘Leaky’. This means that undigested food molecules can enter the bloodstream. The body will treat these molecules as an ‘invader’ thus triggering potential auto immune type conditions such as Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis in the body.
There are many different breeds of wheat; Spelt or Kamut for example have a lower gluten content and are therefore easier to digest. The major problem for many people when it comes to wheat/gluten is inefficient carbohydrate assimilation. Digestion of bread always begins in the mouth where it needs to be chewed; ideally until it tastes sweet. The higher the gluten content; the more chewing will be required. Other beneficial grains and grasses low in gluten include millet, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa and rice (wild or brown). Cow’s milk with its higher lactose content and larger fat and protein molecules, is much harder to digest than goat’s milk.
If you would like more information on Gut Health, it is a/v in both my Cookery Book and my book 500 of the Most Important Health Tips You’ll Ever Need.