Nellie Pigot is a UK trained Naturopath/Nutritionist practicing for 8 years at a Holistic Medical Centre in Auckland, at The Centre (above our Kingsland Unbakery), and her own practice Nellie Pigot Holistic Nutrition. www.nelliepigot.co.nz
As the great Greek physician Hippocrates said more than 2,000 years ago “All disease begins in the gut”. In the last two decades or so research has shown how right he was in that gut health is critical for overall health and an unhealthy gut contributes to a wide range of diseases from diabetes, obesity, auto-immune disorders, chronic fatigue, low mood and behavioural problems. The constant stream of new scientific research is showing that the cornerstone of good health is very dependent on the healthy functioning and condition of your gut as a starting point.
Certainly in my practice the majority of people that I see either have some degree of digestive problems or other conditions that are most likely related to an unhealthy gut. There are lots of factors that come in to play to help with restoring good gut function but one of the most important is to make sure that we have a good balance of bacteria in our gut.
The Critters Within
Your gut is home to literally billions of microorganisms, in fact you could say that we are more bacterial than human as we have a lot more bacteria in our bodies than we do human cells. Our gut flora keeps our immune system strong, regulates metabolism, protects us from infections and pathogens and keeps our gut function optimal. When it gets out of balance it leads to those diseases that Ive mentioned above. And what causes it to be out of balance? There are a number of reasons but most commonly its caused by antibiotics and other medications such as birth control and NSAIDS (anti-inflammatories), antacids etc. Poor diet, particularly those that are high in refined carbohydrates, processed foods, sugar and large amounts of wheat and refined seed oils. Chronic stress and recurrent infections can be another factor and also a diet low in fermentable fibre rich foods - more on those later.
The consequence of all of the above is damage to your gut lining leading to “leaky gut” which in a nutshell means that large protein molecules that should remain in the digestive tube escape across the gut barrier into the bloodstream and cause an immune response which ultimately leads to inflammation. Having a permeable gut makes it much more susceptible to toxins from foods, chemicals and the environment. Leaky gut doesn't always just mean digestive symptoms. The inflammation that occurs can be the cause of heart problems, auto-immune problems such as Hashimotos (auto-immune thyroid disease) or Rheumatoid arthritis, skin problems like eczema and psoriasis, mental illness and depression and more.
Restoring gut bacteria is the first step towards correcting your leaky gut and thats the focus of this post. There are various ways of doing that through probiotics and probiotic rich foods such as fermented foods and prebiotics which are foods that feed the probiotics in our gut.
Probiotics are most important for restoring the bacterial flora particularly after antibiotics and medication but also as a good starting point whenever a permeable gut is suspected. They are primarily lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, sometimes with beneficial yeasts added and the majority reside in the large intestine or colon. They help complete the digestive process through fermentation, they protect the body against pathogenic bacteria and they stimulate the immune system, They are particularly helpful in cases of travellers diarrhoea, food poisoning and can help improve symptoms for those with lactose intolerance. There are different ways of taking probiotics, either in a supplement form or from consuming fermented foods. If you are considering buying a supplement it is always worth checking the ingredients. Its not the total number of bacteria in the product that is the most important but the variety of different strains so look for ones that have a variety of Lactobacillus and Bifidus. Keep in the fridge to keep the bacteria alive and viable and check the sell by date.
Fermented foods are also a great source of probiotics and have been used for centuries. Most of us likely know that live yogurt has always been a good source of healthy bacteria but there are a number of different foods that will also benefit. Sauerkraut, kefir - often made with milk but coconut kefir is also available, miso, kombucha, a culture of symbiotic beneficial bacteria and yeasts, sourdough bread, natto - a japanese condiment made with fermented soybeans, umeboshi salted plums, tempeh - all of these foods supply us with a daily dose of probiotics. They are also a great source of enzymes to improve both digestion and absorption. Sauerkraut is simple to make but fermenting any vegetable is relatively easy and there are some great books around now giving step by step guidance on how to do this.
Finally prebiotics. These are non-digestible fibres that pass through the intestinal tract and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestines, so foods that feed the probiotics in your gut. Examples of these are foods high in inulin and oligosaccharides such as jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, yacon, asparagus, chicory root, leeks, onions, garlic, dandelion greens and unripe bananas. Incorporating plenty of these foods into your diet are very helpful to stimulate the growth of good bacteria. The company Humanature has formulated a prebiotic supplement which they have used very successfully for many years. Not only does it provide good fuel for the bacteria in the gut but also is high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds which help to heal a damaged gut lining and settle down the immune system. It is an added complimentary supplement in the Little Bird Cleanse packs alongside some gentle liver herbs to support both digestion and detoxification and will be available in store soon, I use it in my practice for those clients with especially sensitive digestion to great effect. Read more about Humanature here.
So feeding your gut with naturally fermented foods and some help from short term supplementation can really kick start your health. Try the Little Bird Cleanse packs - what better way to start the year after the Christmas craziness and to give your overworked digestive system a break.