Gut health isn’t always pleasant to talk about. This may be because the symptoms of an unhealthy gut can include diarrhoea, constipation or bloating – all of which can be embarrassing to admit. But, we mustn’t ignore them. Our guts “say” and “know” more than we realise, and it isn’t just physical.
That feeling in the “pit of your stomach” telling you something is wrong; a “gut reaction” where you didn’t have time to think; “butterflies in your stomach” when you are nervous – this is our gut communicating with our brain.
What exactly is the gut?
The gut is our gastrointestinal system and includes the stomach, intestines and colon. Put simply, it is responsible for digesting and absorbing nutrients from the food we eat and then “throwing out” the waste. Helping to make this happen is our own unique gut microbiome, which consists of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, that live in our digestive tracts and help to break down food and create nutrients for our bodies to use. Gut microbiota can also stimulate the immune system.
A healthy gut microbiome is one whereby the “good” bacteria outnumber the “bad”. Too much of a certain kind of unhealthy bacteria has been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Our gut health also impacts our emotional health.
To help understand how our gut works, we spoke to Katherine Dale, a doctor of naturopathic medicine at Northshore Medical & Aesthetics Centre.
“The gut is where we first respond to things that are going on around us,” she explained. “We have more neurons in our gut than in our brains.”
Conventional medical doctors, she continued “will see the function of the circulation, the heart, as the centre of the physiological self, but naturopaths look at the gut as the first place to see what’s out of balance”.
Many of the symptoms Dr Dale’s patients have could mean a variety of things, but as a naturopath, she always asks them about their digestion: “It could be something physical that’s going on in their body. There’s so many things it could be. They might have IBS or ulcerative colitis, but it could also be something they’re eating that they’re sensitive to and that’s a huge one that naturopaths look at.”
A food sensitivity, or intolerance, is when you have difficulty digesting certain food, or ingredients in food. Common symptoms include stomach pains, diarrhoea, bloating and gas. Other symptoms can include headaches, exhaustion, nausea, joint pain or rashes. A food sensitivity is different to a food allergy, the symptoms of which are more likely to be itchy skin, wheezing or swelling.
How do you know if your gut health is being impacted by food sensitivity?
There is a blood test that can help. There is also the elimination diet. “After a blood test, we would look at those foods and then we would talk about taking them out of the diet for at least four weeks,” she said.
Common allergens she removes are typically dairy and wheat, because some people are unable to digest gluten, casein and lactose.
A newer test is the GI (gastrointestinal) test, whereby you supply a stool sample, which is sent overseas so a laboratory can examine the balance of microbiota in your gut.
“They can look at whether there’s parasites, whether there’s bacteria in your system. It also looks at whether there’s a likelihood of coeliac. A likelihood of you being sensitive to gluten,” explained Dr Dale. “That test also looks at the function of your pancreas and how you’re digesting your fats, your proteins and your carbohydrates. That test is really helpful in allowing people to see visually where the issue is, so they can more comfortably make the changes they would have to make. So, looking at reducing inflammation by eliminating the sensitivities.”
Dr Dale emphasised that gut issues aren’t always physiological. They could be related to an illness or a disease, or they could be related to your emotions.
“A huge part of my practice is always asking people to consider, emotionally, what’s going on. When did the digestive issues begin? Was there something going on with your family, relationships, identity, self-identity?”
An important thing we can do for our mind and body, therefore, is to look after our gut by being more thoughtful about what we put into it.
“Food is our medicine,” said Dr Dale. “We need to eat regular meals and we need to sit at a table and give respect to the food. We don’t absorb the nutrients in the same way when we’re in a rush.”
She recommended, where possible, eating food grown in Bermuda, because it is fresh, has been picked at the right time, and hasn’t had to travel in a container. She also said the food we eat should be as close to its natural appearance as possible, by which she means unprocessed.
“Get a balance of proteins from animal, if you eat animal, and plant proteins as well – your lentils, or tofu, pea protein.” She suggested root vegetables instead of processed carbohydrates, along with leafy greens, fruits and healthy fats such as fish and seed oils.
Adding fermented foods to your diet can also be hugely beneficial, as can foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics, particularly if you have had to take antibiotics: “Antibiotics will wipe out a lot of your digestive microbiome,” she said.
“What’s on the inside of that gut is really important, because you’re absorbing the nutrients. You’re getting the messages of comfort and calm. That’s where everything starts, where [you get] your potassium that’s going to hang out with your kidneys and heart, and give them an idea of how much blood to be pumping through the body; there’s vitamin C, zinc and selenium that are helping with enzymatic processes.
“Our DNA, our energy, everything needs the carbohydrates, the protein, the fats. They are all the basics for why our bodies function.”