Too many festive brunches, cheerful nights out and more than a little over indulgence may have left your gut feeling miserable now the New Year has begun. Christine Fieldhouse talks to the experts to find ways of giving your digestive system a healthy overhaul for 2018
Most of us get regular health checks for our eyes, ears, heart and teeth, but we rarely give much thought to our gut and often just get help when we’re at crisis point with a stomach ache or upset.
Yet our gastrointestinal tract, to give it its correct name, is our largest immune system organ and experts believe that if it’s in good condition, we’re likely to suffer fewer illnesses, have more energy and be happier.
As well as housing between 70 and 80 per cent of our immune system, the gut is also thought to be our body’s second brain. That’s why we experience stomach churning when we’re nervous, and talk about trusting ‘our gut instinct’ when we tune into our intuition or emotions.
But how do we know if we have an unhealthy gut, and what can we do to improve its health?
Nutrition and life coach Victoria Tipper, who is based in Sports City , Dubai, has written an ebook – How to Heal your Body and Soul through Nutrition and Nurturing, which is available for free from her website.
She explains: ‘Our digestive system has a great ability to defend itself from bad bacteria, infectious diseases and toxins, but problems arise if we develop an unhealthy gut, or leaky gut, as it is known.
‘When the small intestine isn’t working at its best, it either prevents essential nutrients being absorbed into the blood, or it allows harmful substances like undigested food, bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream and cause damage.
‘Having enough of the right good bacteria is essential to maintain our gut health and immune system.’
Victoria says there are often obvious signs that we may be suffering from a leaky gut.
‘If you find your immune system is low and you’re taking numerous rounds of antibiotics each year, it’s time to boost your gut health,’ she advises.
‘You might find you have brain fog, memory issues and fatigue. An imbalance of beneficial and harmful bacteria can lead to an overgrowth of yeast or candida and parasites, and this can quickly affect brain chemistry, causing depression and sometimes psychiatric disorders.
‘Also, when toxins are in the body for a prolonged period of time, they can adversely react with skin and cause inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne. One study found that those with acne rosacea were ten times more likely to have SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).’
She points out that persistent allergies may be due to a leaky gut. Other signs are bloating and flatulence, and food sensitivities and deficiencies.
‘We need good gut bacteria to produce healthy thyroid hormones,’ continues Victoria. ‘Poor gut health can also suppress thyroid function, and low thyroid function can lead to a leaky gut, so the cycle goes on and on.
‘Even people who have a vegetarian or vegan diet need to make sure they’re doing it right. If people swap animal products for processed grains, or if they have too much fibre, they might suffer bloating, flatulence and acid reflux. However, many people find that eliminating red meat can improve bloating and post-meal fatigue.’
‘Even people who have a vegetarian or vegan diet need to make sure they’re doing it right. If people swap animal products for processed grains, or if they have too much fibre, they might suffer bloating, flatulence and acid reflux.
So if we’ve said yes to a few of those symptoms, what can we do to sort out our gut health?
For a start, we need to identify the foods and habits that are making us unwell.
Victoria advises: ‘As a general rule of thumb, if a food has more than three ingredients in, ingredients that you can’t pronounce, or is man-made, avoid it.
‘This includes foods such as pasteurised dairy and gluten, processed vegetable and seed oils like corn oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil, artificial sweeteners and monosodium glutamate, and processed grains. Sugar will fuel the pathogens that cause disease.’
But the nasties aren’t just in our food – they’re also in our body washes, make-up and antiperspirants.
‘Everything you put on your skin or inhale is absorbed into your body,’ says Victoria, ‘so avoid things with sodium lauryl sulphate, fluoride or propylene glycol in them.’
Once we’ve tackled the bad guys, we can look at introducing gut-friendly fodder. These include fermented foods like homemade yoghurt and kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi which help replenish our bacterial flora. Healthy fats such as olive oil, organic ghee, avocados, nuts and seeds move stools through the digestive tract and ease constipation.
‘Foods that are beneficial for good bacteria are raw garlic, artichoke, asparagus, chicory root, banana and leeks, and raw or cooked onions,’ adds Victoria. ‘Beetroot is good for easing constipation due to its high nitrate content, whilst fruit and vegetables, preferably organic, boost fibre to keep our colon healthy.
‘Coconut oil is a great healthy fat and it’s an anti fungal and antibacterial agent which will help to fight off candida or bad bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, which grows in the stomach lining. Other anti-inflammatory foods include turmeric with black pepper, cinnamon and ginger.’
To top up our good bacteria, we can take a probiotic.
‘Make sure it has a variety of strains and is a good strength,’ advises Victoria. ‘An adult can deal with 30 to 40 billion CFU (colony forming units) daily. Also, reach this dose gradually. Taking a high dose from scratch can cause ‘die-off’ which is when pathogens are killed off too quickly, leaving us feeling quite ill.’
There are also some new habits we can adopt to improve our gut health.
‘The first stage of digestion begins in the mouth so it’s vital to chew your food thoroughly to the point that it becomes liquefied,’ advises Victoria. ‘Take your time when eating.
‘We can also assist digestion by boosting stomach acid levels. This helps kill any bacteria in foods and stimulates our pancreas to release vital digestive enzymes. A good way to do this is to start your day with a cup of warm water and half a squeezed lemon.
‘Then 30 minutes before meals, add one or two teaspoons of organic apple cider vinegar to a glass of water. Start with a small amount and work your way up to two teaspoons as the taste doesn’t suit everyone!
‘Use organic body washes, toiletries and cosmetics, and avoid chlorine in swimming pools. Instead, head to the beach and swim in the sea.’
Daily detox baths are another way to boost our intestinal health.
‘Our skin is the largest organ and we absorb nutrients and excrete toxins through it,’ explains Victoria.
‘Take baths for at least 30 minutes. Add some Epsom salts. They contain magnesium, which many of us are low in, yet it helps to improve sleep and mood, ease constipation and reduce muscle soreness.
‘Seaweed can also be added to the bath – it’s an excellent source of minerals, such as iodine, and it helps with dry skin. Apple cider vinegar isn’t just for before meals – add it to your bath to normalise the skin and encourage appropriate skin flora.’
Finally, it seems getting dirty is good for us!
‘We were created as creatures of earth, not of offices and high-rise buildings,’ concludes Victoria.
‘If we live in an over-sanitised environment, we develop a low threshold for exposure to bacteria and other pathogens.
‘Interaction with our natural environment will regulate our bodies and especially our immune function. Great ways to do this include playing outside and getting exposed to more bacteria and moulds. Also, we don’t need to overly wash veggies from the farmers market. That soil or dirt can actually benefit our gut health!’
- Victoria Tipper is a nutrition and life coach, and has a qualification in NLP, neuro-linguistic programming, www.victoria-tipper.com