I’ve recently returned from a couple of weeks away in beautiful NSW, where I was lucky enough to attend the 2017 International Congress on Natural Medicine. This event oh-so-conveniently happened to be held in the Hunter Valley (lets just say that this naturopath received an education in local wine – both production and consumption ?)
The event is held annually, and is a 3-day intensive learning experience for integrative doctors, pharmacists and natural healthcare practitioners such as myself to get to learn more about how to support certain health problems/areas more effectively. This year’s topic was the ‘microbiome’ – also known as your gut bacteria. These little guys are increasingly taking centre stage in the scientific arena, as we are discovering more and more about how our digestive system is affecting our health. You may have recently seen Dr Michael Mosley making headlines with his new book, ‘The Clever Guts Diet’. In fact, what is going on in your gut has been shown to play a role in allergies, autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel diseases, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes. It is becoming apparent that our over-use of antibiotics and other medications, junk food intake, pollutants, stress and lack of ‘gut-healthy’ food are contributing to imbalances within the gut.
The gut and allergies
Nowadays, it seems that so many children and young adults suffer from allergies or intolerances. How many kids did you know that had an allergy to a food such as peanuts, when you were growing up? I certainly can’t remember any (and I like to think that I’m not THAT old!). Allergies are only becoming more common, with no signs of the rates slowing down – if anything, they are getting worse. It is estimated that by 1 year of age, 25% of infants have signs of an allergy1 , and there has been a 5-fold rise in allergies pre-schoolers in the last decade.2 So the million-dollar question is – what could be causing this? Increasingly, we are looking to the health of the gut bacteria to answer this question. It has been found that improving the health and diversity of the gut bacterial population can help to reduce the symptoms of allergy, as well as reduce the likelihood that they will develop in the first place.
I was lucky enough to listen to be able to listen to Professor Mimi Tang at the event. Professor Tang made headlines last year after her groundbreaking research in treating peanut allergies in children. Now, 4 years after her experiment concluded, 23 out of the 28 children treated (who previously were severely allergic) were able to eat 5-45 peanuts per week without any problems.3 Her treatment? A gradual desensitization process, coupled with a specific type of probiotic.
The gut and moods
With mood disorders such as depression and anxiety becoming increasingly prevalent, people are looking for ways in which to safely lift moods. Whilst pharmaceutical treatment is usually the first-line treatment, unfortunately these medications and psychotherapy have been shown to provide relief for only around 1/2 of all cases. Even after using 4 different drugs, around 1/3 of people don’t feel any better. As such, it is becoming apparent that improving lifestyle habits such as exercising and eating well are an important (and often overlooked) part of improving moods.4 It has also been shown that some taking certain probiotic strains, and eating some fermented foods such as yoghurt regularly can help to lift moods. These provide good bacteria which possess anti-inflammatory properties, and they also help the body to absorb nutrients from foods eaten – both of which are helpful for easing depression.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Unpredictable abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea are among the most common bowel complaints, and they really can interfere with the enjoyment of life. Many of these symptoms can be traced back to an overgrowth of undesirable bacteria in the small intestine, a condition known as SIBO – Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. It is estimated that more than half (or even up to ¾) of irritable bowel syndrome cases are due to this imbalance.5 What happens in SIBO is that the bacteria that normally live only in the lower section of the small intestine end up working their way upwards, to an area where they don’t belong – where they consume the remnants of the food that you have eaten, before it is at the proper stage to be consumed. When these bacteria start acting on the food, they produce gas as a waste product, high up in the intestine. This can trigger discomfort, as well as causing more problems further down the digestive tract. This overgrowth in the wrong area of the gut can be caused by medications (particularly antibiotics and drugs for reflux), a poor quality diet, nutrient deficiencies (in particular vitamins A, C & D and the mineral zinc) stress, and use of artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda). Thankfully, there are effective herbal medicines, dietary strategies and probiotic strains that have been shown to help improve the health of the small intestine, and reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel, by targeting SIBO.
Food for a healthy gut
Did you know that what you eat influences what kinds of good (or bad) bacteria you grow in your gut, and how big they grow – which then in turn can influence your health. It’s a symbiotic, mutual relationship that we have with our gut bacteria, and that they have with us. Not only is fresh food beneficial for it vitamin, mineral and nutrient content, it also feeds your beneficial gut flora, and discourages the growth of undesirable bacteria populations. Fermented foods, prebiotic foods and fibre all help to establish and maintain a healthy gut. Avoiding processed, preservative-laden and high sugar/fat/salt foods means that you will be feeding less of the unhealthy bacteria that can live in your gut. Interestingly, when you possess a good healthy population of gut bacteria, they in turn help you to absorb more nutrients from the food that you eat, as well as contributing a few nutrients of their own making. The ultimate win-win situation.
I’ve got to say, the probiotics market is a minefield! There seem to be so many products on the market, all making their own claims. And it’s great that the message is getting out there that probiotics are a fantastic supplement to take, particularly if you have needed a course of antibiotics, have had a gastro bug, or have been overseas and experienced a dose of traveller’s diarrhea. However, one of the biggest misunderstandings I come across is that ‘more probiotics are better’. With probiotics, it pays to keep in mind that not all strains that are found in common supplements have actually been shown to be of benefit to humans. So they may potentially be a waste of money if you aren’t taking the right ones. Also, certain strains have been shown to work better for certain conditions. There are strains that are best for improving eczema and other skin conditions, strains that are best for boosting immunity to colds & flus, as well as others that have shown benefit in autoimmune disorders, allergies, irritable bowel or food intolerances. Another thing to keep in mind is that not all probiotic strains are able to survive the transit through the gut (remember that your stomach is full of acid!), to get to where they need to go (your intestines).
All in all, there is still a lot to learn about the gut, and how it is affecting our health. Thankfully the word is getting out how crucial this previously under-rated organ is to not only our digestion, but our moods, immune system and overall wellbeing and enjoyment of life.