It feels like everybody is talking about gut health today, but not surprisingly given how integral our gut health is to the rest of our body and overall health!
A lot of people today have gut issues whether it’s an overgrowth of bacteria, parasites, fungus or yeast. Leaky gut is also very common now, where the gut lining is compromised or damaged from bad diets, medications and processed foods. This leads to undigested food, toxins and yeasts, causing inflammation, sensitivities or allergies to foods and even chronic disease. IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) is also increasingly common and often due to stress.
Many of us are therefore trying various diets from sugar free, grain free, legume free, nut free to help to reduce these complaints. No doubt you may be on one of these diets, have been in the past or are thinking about starting one…
So I wanted to just clarify a few points I have learnt on the way as a Naturopath and also as a patient suffering over the years with my sensitive little gut.
The role of bacteria
Firstly, we all have bacteria in our guts, trillions in fact, so bacteria in the large intestine is a good thing. And this is essential since:
- we need them for digestion
- they digest any dead material or debris to supply good bacteria
Causes of overgrowth
However, with our lifestyles today, often too much stress, poor diet, chronic infections, overuse of antibiotics and use of the pill can cause an imbalance in or overgrowth of bacteria in the gut, that starts to become a systemic inflammation throughout the body.
Other causes include:
- Gut infections that can change our gut bacteria
- Over eating, especially simple carbohydrates, such as cereals, toast, sandwiches, muesli bars, biscuits, cakes, pasta and other simple processed foods.
- Medications like anti-inflammatory drugs or other drugs that actually are supposed to lower stomach acid in heartburn can cause gut issues. They can irritate the gut lining and change the flora of the gut, and affect bowel health as well as bowel motility, causing constipation as well as stomach ulcers.
- Stress is huge!
When we are constantly stressed, the body goes into flight or fight mode and therefore all the energy goes into producing enough adrenaline and energy to the limbs and eyes to run away from a perceived threat, and thus the digestion and parasympathetic nervous system switches off, causing a whole host of gut issues.
This is fine short term, but, often in our high powered jobs and busy lives, this stress becomes chronic and thus our digestion suffers long term.
This can affect stomach acid and motility and thus we have difficulty digesting food and we poorly absorb nutrients allowing fermentation to occur. Signals to the brain via the vagus nerve are also compromised so we no longer know when we are full and thus we overeat.
When any bacteria is imbalanced or in excess, it can move from the large intestine to the small intestine as well as other parts of the body and cause havoc.
Symptoms of bacterial overgrowth/poor digestion include:
- Bloating, heart burn, diarrhoea or constipation, burping, gas, cramping pains
- Joint pain, skin conditions, rashes, eczema, food sensitivities, asthma and nutrient deficiencies are also symptoms that you may not necessarily link to gut health.
- Chronic illness such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue and obesity can also develop.
How to heal your gut and prevent these symptoms?
I have found the following to really help with my gut issues:
Cut out or seriously limit sugar
Sugar feeds on yeast and bacteria and thus any imbalance or overgrowth will just thrive if you eat too much sugar, causing fermentation, bloating and addiction.
Try firstly cutting out refined sugars, including tinned and packaged foods where hidden sugars are abundant. As your palate changes, you may be able to start to cut out sugary fruits, syrups and refined grains as well to improve your gut.
I found the best grains were quinoa, amaranth, millet and buckwheat. They are more seed-like and less acidic and have less impact on our blood sugars and insulin.
Non-starchy vegetables are the lowest in sugar and best for the gut. You can cook in coconut oil or olive oil and add avocado to make them even more yummy. I have to admit however to having the odd bit of pumpkin especially as we come into Winter, but it’s having that awareness and cutting back where necessary.
We do need to listen to our bodies as being a true Vata myself in Ayurvedic talk, I do need comforting, warming foods too to generate the fire in my gut for optimal digestion. It’s getting that balance.
A great way to help control those sugar cravings is to eat protein first thing and with every meal. If you start with a sugary meal, you will crave sugar all day and your blood sugars will be less stable.
For most people with a compromised gut, gluten can potentially add to your symptoms and cause bloating and undigested food to remain in your bowel resulting in fermentation and thus inflammation, toxins and brain fog, bloating and other symptoms. Gluten can irritate the gut lining and cause leaky gut which leads to systemic inflammation and thus constipation or diarrhoea.
Even if you are more mindful and just cut down, you should notice a difference. If you do need a treat or are out for dinner, eat good quality sourdough bread that is yeast free and free of any preservatives and additives.
Take a probiotic
Probiotics have become increasingly popular for good reason. Our guts are less able to maintain a good balance of flora without them due to our stressful busy lives, medications, environmental toxins as well as potentially more exposure to parasites with overseas travel. Our gut flora changes within hours of arriving at a foreign country and is exposed to different toxins, microbes etc. Thus our guts can become more susceptible to other bacteria if it’s not well populated with a range of good bacterial strains.
Probiotics help to rebalance our gut flora if we have been sick, on antibiotics, the pill, or stressed! That includes most of us then! They also help our immunity and reduce any bloating and sensitivities to foods.
Even if we’re not completely lactose intolerant, dairy can cause gut issues. It causes excess mucous production and is hard to digest, so can cause a sluggish bowel, bloating and gas. If our digestion is compromised it can also cause acne and eczema as the body finds another elimination route via the skin, to remove the toxins and digest the lactose.
Yogurt is better than milk and buffalo, goats and sleeps yogurt seem easier on the gut. Also go for full fat as this contains less fillers and lactose. Raw dairy is also tolerated by many as it still contains its natural enzymes as it hasn’t been heat treated. However, this is to be consumed at your own risk as raw can contain bacteria and thus certainly not suitable for children.
Hot lemon in the morning is great and so simple and really helps to get the digestion fired up and increase the production of digestive enzyme first thing in the morning, ready to help digest breakfast.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is also great for digestion and increases enzymes. I literally can feel the warmth in my belly and the gurgling after taking a sip in the morning.
You can also mix with olive oil for a yummy salad dressing.
Good fats & protein
It might feel that you are cutting out all the yummy foods, but the good news is you are allowed lots of yummy fats, such as avocado, olive oil and coconut oil.
A good source of protein is also great, such as organic, cage free eggs; sustainable low mercury fish like mackerel or sardines, both great sources of omega 3 fats. Organic, hormone-free chicken is also great with lots of leafy green vegetables.
A small amount of nuts is also a great source of fat and protein, however if you have potential yeast overgrowth, try not to overeat! I know, easier said than done! I realised nuts were my comfort food and in my attempt to cut back on sugar, – I cut out all fruit, grains and sugar replacements! – I started to eat more nuts.
These can be very hard to digest with their high fat content and they contain phytates that bind nutrients inhibiting absorption of iron, zinc and others. The skin on almonds can also be irritating to the gut lining causing inflammation and thus bloating. Therefore, if possible, eat a handful only and activate by soaking in water with apple cider vinegar and salt to make them more digestible. Almonds are also the least acidic of most nuts.
Eat fermented foods, prebiotic, probiotic beverages
I find fermented foods really helped me, but start with caution as it’s not for everyone.
You need to start very slowly and some people may not tolerate at all if there is a slight yeast overgrowth. Some find it can cause more bloating but this often can imply it’s doing some good by replacing the bad bacteria. It is live and can alter the gut flora so it is important to flush out any die off to reduce detox symptoms.
Kefir especially really helped me with sugar cravings and I found they subsided if I drank some kefir or added sauerkraut to my salad or steamed greens. It is also great to sip on if you didn’t quite manage to control the sugar cravings as it will feed on the sugar of that chocolate truffle that jumped into your mouth! Yum! 🙂
Sauerkraut is also full of yummy probiotic goodness.
I found the following helped to flush the system of bad bacteria and toxins and to reduce the symptoms:
- an enema or colonic can help to flush the old dead bacteria out
- drinking lots of filtered water and herbal teas
- saunas are another great way to sweat out toxins
- bentonite clay in water followed by slippery elm can also help to really flush out any bad stuff from the body
Jerusalem artichokes, chicory and dandelion are also high in inulin which a great prebiotic to provide a fertile environment for probiotics and good bacteria to flourish.
Inulin, an insoluble fiber, travels to the colon and ferments into healthy microflora. Other good sources of inulin include asparagus, leeks, onions, and bananas. Again, like fermented foods, it is good to ease into eating Jerusalem artichokes, as they may cause distress to people with sensitive digestive tracts.
I often worry that I have parasites or candida as I get bloated and full easily.
However, over the years I am realising that is also about my body type. Having studied a little Ayurveda, I love incorporating the body types when treating my clients.
I am very Vata in many ways and thus I need warming meals and herbs to help me digest. I therefore help my gut issues by cooking foods using yummy warming digestive herbs such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon. I have lots of herbal teas using similar herbs and spices including licorice which is also great for digestion and stress management and adrenals.
Ginger is very warming and great for circulation including circulation to the gut, thus drinking this as a tea before or after meals really helps my gut fire to help digest the food so I get the most nutrients out of my food. You might find this also helps for you, if you are also cold and dry like Vata.
If you are more Pitta and more prone to heartburn, then you may do better with less spicy food and more cooling herbs like gentian and peppermint teas to digest.
Kapha, on the other hand, can be more sluggish with often too much mucus, so less sugar, fats and dairy works best for them, with more spicy herbs to help with metabolism and thus digestion. Raw foods are also better for Pitta and kapha.
You can find out more about the doshas in my Ayurvedic Yoga workshops I run.
If you are really suffering there are some beautiful herbs to help.
Chromium, Gymnema and Cinnamon are great herbs if you really need some support with those cravings.
Gentian, fennel, licorice, Dandelion are examples of other herbs that can help digestion before or after meals and there are many beautiful calming, stress relieving herbs that can have an amazing impact on the gut. When contracted and stressed, our guts struggle to digest optimally.
This is the most important! We can cut out all the usual offenders, but if we are still stressed and running around, burning the candle at both ends..(yes, I am the ultimate offender), then your gut will not improve.
I used to get quite upset that my gut was always so sensitive and I had to constantly watch what I ate when I was eating a clean diet, no refined sugars, gluten, dairy. I wasn’t on the pill or barely taking antibiotics, yet I was still struggling with gut issues.
I realised it was mostly down to stress for me. And it’s not just physical stress, or work stress, but it’s also the stress we put on ourselves mentally.
I am talking about that inner mean girl who makes us feel guilty if we dare to have a tiny piece of dairy-free, gluten-free, refined sugar-free chocolate! Or a yummy Orchard Street Swami Soup nut milk – ok, so I do admit to having a bit of an addiction to these!
We have to be careful not to be too hard ourselves as this can cause more stress on the gut then allowing yourself the odd treat. I sometimes stop and give myself a little talking to before I grab for a piece of dark chocolate and if I either don’t have it or I allow myself to have it and enjoy every last piece of it! At times a little compromise and letting go of control of our strict regimes can actually be more successful.
However, if your bingeing is getting out of control and you can’t stop yourself, it’s often no longer physiological but emotional.
I used to crave chocolate when I was tired or felt like a bit of pampering /mothering or a big hug. Even though it wasn’t unhealthy chocolate, I saw the pattern and started to try and find ways to be softer and kinder to myself and replace the chocolate with other comforting things like a massage, bath, yin yoga or watching a movie with friends.
However, if you are like me, and realise a lot of your gut issues stem from stress and poor strung out adrenals, I can empathise! You might need to do some work on restoring your adrenal glands so they can effectively impact on digestion.
Watch this space for an article coming soon on adrenal fatigue, which is becoming more and more common. Often simply being softer, slower and kinder on ourselves can have a massive effect on your gut.
N.B. these are some things that worked for me and some of my naturopathic clients, however we are all different. I am here to help if anyone wants to know more or do ask for help by other practitioners if you can’t get any improvement in your gut.
It might be necessary to run some tests or to put you on an elimination diet or a diet low in sugar or FODMAPS, for example. You’re not alone! Good luck!
- Planet Naturopath
- The Whole Daily
- The Body Ecology Diet
- Physician’s Committee