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Does Good Health Begin with Gut-Health?

Does Good Health Begin with Gut-Health?

What Is Gut-Health?
There has been lots of talk recently about what has become known as “gut-health.” The Johns Hopkins Medical Center, one of the most well-respected hospitals and Medical Schools in the United States, notes there is a good reason for this. Hidden within the walls of your digestive system is what is known as “your second brain” and this “brain in your gut” is changing the way that we look at the links between mood, digestion, health and even the way that we think.

Does Disease Begin with Gut-Health?
There’s no simple answer to this one. Not all diseases start in the gut, such as genetic or inherited diseases, acquired infections and trauma based disorders. But, there is evidence that many of chronic metabolic disorders and mental health conditions do begin in the gut, or are at least heavily influences by gut health. We can help prevent these diseases by following some easy steps.

Step 1: Know What Second Brain Is and Why It Matters
This “little brain” is called the “enteric nervous system” or ENS and it comprises of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line your GI tract from your esophagus to your rectum. The role of the ENS is to control digestion, including swallowing, releasing enzymes that help break food down, and control of blood flow to immediate tissues which aids with both nutrient absorption and elimination. The ENS communicates with our brain and body surprisingly effectively.

When you have an unhealthy gut the symptoms may manifest in other parts of your body. It’s your body trying to tell you that something is wrong or out of balance and needs attention.

Studies have found that increasing your gut-health can lead to improvements in:
• Immune function – 80% of our immune system is located in our guts
• Brain function
• Symptoms of disproportional anger, sadness, anxiety and depression
• Obesity
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• Allergies
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

How Is This Even Possible?
The ENS may ‘sense’ things that our cerebral brain can’t. Evidence has been found that when the GI tract is irritated it sends signals to the central nervous system (CNS), which can trigger our mood and ultimately affect it. Considering that between 30%-40% of the population have bowel problems of some kind and a high percentage of these individuals develop depression and/or anxiety, it’s reasonable to consider a possible connection.

Our bodies are filled with bacteria – good and bad, depending on whether they’re where they’re supposed to be in the right numbers. There are more bacteria in a human body than there are cells and there are an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms living in our bowels alone.  The key here is to have more good than bad bacteria in your gut.

Probiotics help us do things like:
• Digest food;
• Absorb nutrients;
• Break down medications; and
• Kill some of the bad bacteria that lead to negative symptoms.

Step 2: Get More Probiotics
There are quite a few ways to get good gut bacteria, but one of the easiest is to take a supplement called a probiotic. There are many different kinds and brands and talking to your qualified naturopath will ensure you get the the most appropriate one for your needs.

There are foods that are also high in probiotics, including:
• Kefir
• Yoghurt
• Tempeh
• Miso
• Sauerkraut
• Apple Cider Vinegar
• Kimchi
• Kombucha

Getting more probiotics into your system is one of the best ways that to improve your gut-health!

Step 3: Play in The Dirt!
This is true both literally and figuratively. Gardening is good for getting outside, exercise, and putting your hands in soil introduces your body to the microorganisms that are found on the plants and in the ground.
In a more figurative way, and leading on from last months post, avoid over-cleaning with antimicrobial substances.  There has been a recent push to reduce the amount of antimicrobial agents in cleaning and personal care products because both good and the bad are affected.  Pets are another way to get dirtier – in a good way!  Studies have shown that children who grow up with a dog have both a lower risk of allergies and a generally healthier immune system.  Dog companionship also helps in other ways by increasing exercise and outdoor time and lowering stress.

Bonus Step: More Probiotics, What Else?
Now we get to the ones we hate to be told because they’re painfully obvious.  Stress Less. Laugh More. Stress, especially long-term stress, not only affects our gut bacteria, but also affects the production of hormones and neurochemicals. In long-term stress these chemicals and hormones can change permanently (unless you specifically work to change them back). Long-term stress may also lead to high blood pressure, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), stomach ulcers, IBD, IBS, and potentially food allergies/intolerances.

Laughter really is the best medicine. It helps to reduce stress and floods your body with happy hormones and neurochemicals. This study even compared healthy people and those with atopic dermatitis (a condition often associated with gut bacteria imbalances) and asked participants watch funny movies daily for one week. In only one week, the patients’ gut microbes had changed and more resembled that of the healthy participants!

Conclusion
It may well be that a large part of maintaining good health is maintaining good gut-health. There are many ways that you can do this, however, some of the easiest changes that you can make include:
• Probiotics – through supplements and food
• Laughter
• Stress management, including exercise and time outdoors
• Avoiding over-cleaning and overuse of antimicrobials

 

Have we become too clean?

Have we become too clean?

There are a few ideas I’ve been toying with to do with how overt cleanliness is more closely linked with anxiety or desire for control and the effect this is having on our physical and mental health.  It’s an extremely complicated area and there are so many variables at play that it is certainly difficult to unravel them from one another – so why unravel?  Let’s look at the whole mess and see where we end up!
 
We live in a society that values cleanliness – I mean, we’ve all heard that “cleanliness is next to godliness”, right? There is also the obsession with ‘clean’ eating (which is not strictly the same kind of clean, but funnily enough also ties into the same areas of anxiety, desire for control and need to eliminate all ‘bad’ things from ones life).  So why is it that we are living longer, yet the quality of our lives (especially in the last few decades) is plummeting?  Increased rates of allergies and intolerances are certainly popping up in my clinic, but is it all down to better diagnostic techniques or is there something more to it?
Where antimicrobial gels and sanitisers were once only used in hospitals and labs, they are now staples in many handbags, nappy bags and backpacks.  In Australian society, showering morning and night (or even more often!) using surprisingly harsh products is widely accepted, despite the massive amount of water used and detergent run-off damaging our water systems – those who shower less often or with minimal detergents are seen as inherently dirty and somehow even unvirtuous.  The use of bleach or ammonia based cleaning products is standard in many homes, yet we still seem to be getting sicker.
Is the obsession with super-clean homes and bodies starting to kill us?  Not only are we avoiding useful triggers in building a healthy immune system, increasing rates of allergies and adverse reactions to innocuous triggers (the hygiene hypothesis of allergy), but the massive rise in the use of chemically based anti-microbials in cleaning supplies and personal care products (as opposed to primarily mechanical cleaning using plain soap and water) is not only wiping out the bacteria in your home, but also on your skin and potentially in your gut.
 
Why is this important?
 
Coupled with the overuse of antibiotics, we are losing our most important companions – our bacteria. The bacteria that we have in our gut and throughout our bodies are essential for so many processes, from aiding digestion to producing Vit K to even modulating mental health.  By destroying the delicate balance of microbes in and around us, we are perhaps doing far more harm than good.  ‘Fixing’ a broken microbiome is not a quick and easy task, taking months or years to repair damage to a multitude of systems.  Perhaps minimising the damage in the first place would be a far better (and more sustainable) option.
Reframing: Lifting the weight of the past

Reframing: Lifting the weight of the past

I am seeing a patient this month for unexplained weakness and perceived weight loss.  In the course of six months, he lost his mother and best friend (both overseas), cut his alcohol intake and started an almost vegetarian diet and very small portion sizes.

He’s not stressed, he tells me – he’s just a little sad. I can see right away that he is more than just a little sad.  He looks exhausted and drained and burdened.  As we talk, he reveals that he is sleeping fine – a few hours a night.  That his appetite is fine – for one or two small meals per day.  That his mood is fine – except that he last felt happy months ago.  That his energy levels were fine – except he was so tired.  He eventually concedes that maybe things are not all that fine after all.

I ask him about whether he’d considered grief counselling and he laughed and said he ‘doesn’t believe in that stuff’!  On the other hand, he did listen carefully to how much ‘that stuff’ can affect him not only physically in the here and now, but also when looking back at his life and reliving many of the moments triggered by the passing of two people so close to him.  He carries the memories and emotions of these experiences as heavy weights which have only seemed heavier in the last few months.  Is it truly any wonder he was feeling weaker?

I had set him a difficult task this month – to actively pay tribute and explore those memories, and to reframe them.  Some of the guilt, anger and sadness he has been carrying for decades will lift as he is able to see the events and the people involved from a different angle.  He cannot change the events, but he can change how he feels about them.  By changing his feelings surrounding these events, he is able to change his thoughts.  What’s more, by practicing this skill, he will be better able to assess future experiences and reframe them at the time, rather than (at times) years later after they have had time to become an almost permanent fixture in his psyche.

At the end of the month, he has filled pages in his journal with moments from the last 40 years that he can look back on now with a completely different vision.  It was not easy, but it was essential.  He will be able to carry those memories far more easily.

What appeared to be on the surface a simple case of nutritional inadequacy had a far deeper component.  I often mention that the mind and body are so closely linked that changing something small in one can have tremendous effects on the other – why not guide those effects in the best direction possible?