What is a Healthy Gut?
Your stomach is responsible for a whole lot more than just reminding you to eat lunch and digesting it afterward. It’s part of a system that’s essential to making your weight healthy, your immune response strong and your mood positive. To keep it humming along, find out how to settle four common upsets.
The phrase ‘healthy gut’ may sound like an oxymoron. But your gut isn’t a few pesky abdominal kilos you want to lose, it’s a biological powerhouse you want to cultivate, because it’s critical to your digestion - and your overall wellbeing. The system that breaks down food to energise and nourish you also hosts trillions of bacteria, and when they thrive, so do you. They help you shed extra weight, control your cholesterol and boost your immunity. In fact, nearly 70% of your immune system lives in your gut.
What’s going on down there can also affect how happy and relaxed you feel. That’s why experts often call the gut the ‘second brain’ referring to the complex network of neurons, hormones and chemicals that link your grey matter and your belly - and why digestive woes can have such a profound effect on your mental health and vice versa.
When your gut is out of balance, you know it. A grumble here, a bout of gas there, burning that makes your chest feel like it’s on fire - these are all signs that something’s out of whack. Veering from your routine can cause problems, as can stress, too little sleep and exercise and grabbing whatever’s easiest (but perhaps not healthiest) to eat.
For healthy digestion, food needs to move through at just the right speed, neither too quickly nor too slowly.
Here are some common complaints:
Foods to avoid: tomatoes, chocolate, citrus and spicy foods
Eat less and eat early. Sit down to smaller, more frequent meals that contain fewer fats and wrap up dinner at least 3 hours before bed to give the body time to digest
Antacids neutralise acid however medications like Nexium cut the amount of stomach acid you produce by targeting histamines.
This is stomach inflammation brought on by bile reflux, alcohol or potentially harsh medications like NSAID's. You know it's gastritis if eating buffers the pain.
Try to work out what brings it on, for instance if it is stress or staring at a computer screen, build a lunch time walk into your day. Reach for NSAID's only after a full meal.
A bacteria called Helicobacter Pylori that lurks in dirty food and water can cause gastritis and gastric and duodenal ulcers if left untreated for years (though half of us carry it and and symptomless). Women with H.Pylori are 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with gastric cancer. Searing pain is a clue that it's there and acting up. A breath, stool, scope or blood test, followed by antibiotics and a high-dose proton-pump-inhibitor antacid will usually wipe it out.
Outside of your period, bloating isn't normal. Abdominal swelling and tightness can stem from stress, food sensitivities and chronic constipation.
Take digestive enzymes at mealtime to help your body metabolise food better. After 40 your body produces less of the fluids that help you break down what you eat.
Banish bubbles - Sparkling water, chewing gum and drinking through a straw all fill your belly with air. Sip still water from a glass instead.
A brisk walk around the block can help move gas through.
Some people find that quitting gluten and dairy can help their constipation issues however make sure that you are getting all the nutrients you need and ask to be tested for conditions like Coeliac Disease.
Is your digestive tract irritable? Do you have stomach pain or discomfort at least three times a month for several months? It could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), another common digestive condition.
An estimated 10 to 15 percent of people worldwide suffer from irritable bowel syndrome according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Symptoms of IBS can vary widely: You can be constipated or have diarrhoea, or have hard, dry stools on one day and loose watery stools on another. Bloating is also a symptom of IBS.
What causes IBS isn’t known, but treatment of symptoms centres largely on diet, such as eating low-fat, high-fibre meals or avoiding common trigger foods (dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and foods that produce gas).
Friendly bacteria, such as the probiotics found in live yogurt, may also help you feel better. Stress is a well-known trigger for IBS symptoms,
CHINESE MEDICINE HAS LONG ACKNOWLEDGED THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION
Chinese medicine has been screaming from the mountain tops for thousands of years about the profound relevance of the gut to overall health, including mental health. The recent, ongoing discoveries regarding the gut-brain axis are well described in Chinese medicine, albeit using very different concepts and language.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the right food is critical to good health. Not just because the western nutritional model has reduced food to vitamins and minerals, but also for the complex interactions and communication these foods have with the trillions of microbes and cells in our bodies. In Chinese medicine, this is referred to as the ‘energetics of food’. It represents the wisdom of listening and understanding the interplay between the microbiome, gut, brain and immune system.
A Key Connection Between the Spleen and Digestion
The concept of the ‘Spleen’ in Chinese medicine refers to some critical aspects of the digestion process, so I suspect many of the foods known in TCM to be beneficial for the Spleen, have essential interactions with our gut bacteria. Rice and sweet potato, for example, are understood in modern times to be crucial prebiotics. In TCM, both these foods are said to be ‘sweet’ and ‘neutral or warm’ thereby helping to strengthen the Spleen which likes to be ‘warm and dry’ and is nourished by a balanced amount of ‘sweetness’. Many other vegetables like carrot, pumpkin, turnips and beetroot also serve this purpose. It’s likely they too have specific actions on gut microbes, and this is one of the many reasons Chinese medicine encourages their consumption for digestive health.
TCM and the Microbiome
Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture are well known for their potentially beneficial effects on our state of health. While many studies are exploring the interactions between acupuncture and our bodily systems, far fewer have been undertaken to investigate the possible interactions between therapies like acupuncture and herbal medicine and our microbiome.
Studies Confirm Benefits of TCM on the Microbiota
There is an exciting study on Reishi mushroom which has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries and is now famous for its health-promoting properties. The study showed that Reishi might reduce obesity and alleviate inflammation by modulating the composition of the gut microbiota and maintaining intestinal barrier integrity.
Another study showed that the Chinese herbal formulas Si Jun Zi Tang (a well known digestive tonic) and Shi Quan Da Bu Tang (a tonic with digestive and immune indications) have been shown to regulate gut bacteria beneficially. This investigation revealed that as a result, there were changes in gene expression, i.e. turning genes on and off.
Likewise, acupuncture has also been shown to help regulate our internal bugs. A study on the effects of acupuncture on gut bacteria showed that beneficial bugs Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium increased after treatment, but potentially harmful bacteria, including Bacteroides and Clostridium perfringens, decreased.
More good-quality studies are required in this area; however, these demonstrate that the health benefits associated with traditional Chinese approaches to food and medicine are likely to include positive effects on the microbiome. The foods we eat and the medicine we use can and does have an impact, for better or for worse, on the ecology of our body.
TCM and the Best Food for You
I would encourage all people, especially those with chronic or unresponsive health complaints, to learn more about traditional food practices and consider this knowledge when making decisions about how, what and when to eat. Getting tailored information specific to your constitution from a practitioner experienced in traditional Chinese nutritional medicine can be an excellent place to start.
I wish you all the very best of health on your journey.