Many of us complain that we are constantly tired; that no matter how hard we try, every diet is unsuccessful; and we catch every cold that does the rounds. We try every pill, potion and fad we can possibly think of to feel better, but we are always unsuccessful. This is because we are forgetting to look after our gut and in turn our health.
The guts of it
Our gut, or what we should call the ‘engine room’, is believed to play a pivotal role in our wellbeing. From managing depression to weight loss, and immunity to acne, it all comes down to the gut’s microbiota. Registered clinical nutritionist, award-winning author, educator and speaker Maria Middlestead explains that the microbiota (formerly called gut flora) comprises the microorganisms in the gut, including bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi.
“They can weigh up to 2 kilos,” she says. “A healthy population enables good digestion and immunity, influencing mind, mood, cravings, weight and potentially every aspect of health. The living, adaptive gut microbiota is part of why the gut has been called the ‘second brain’.” There is, it seems, so much more to our guts than good or bad digestion. Experts and studies alike state the variety of microorganisms that call our gut home have pivotal roles in how many kilojoules we absorb from food, how well our immune system works and how much serotonin we produce. Middlestead believes that physical and mental health starts in the gut. “Without good gut health, myriad problems with digestion, absorption and elimination can occur,” she says. “Most recently, research shows that a diverse microbiome (gut population) from eating a wide range of whole foods can help prevent obesity and diabetes.”
Keep your gut healthy – your wellbeing counts on it
There are many signs of poor gut health, Middlestead says these can include bloating, gas and loose or sluggish bowel function. Thankfully there are plenty of things we can do to create a healthier lifestyle for our gut. “At last there is one dietary truth that every part of the nutrition spectrum – from Paleo, vegan to mainstream advocates – agrees on: eat minimally processed foods,” Middlestead says. “Emphasise high-fibre and eat five colours of fruit and vegetables daily. Read labels and avoid [additive] numbers, too much ‘white’ or otherwise highly refined food. Gradually achieve this for at least 80 percent of your eating, this allows for social flexibility.”
It isn’t, however, all down to what you eat. “Just as important is the role of stress on the gut,” she says. “Eat slowly and calmly, exercise, play, relax, socialise, contemplate and have heart-to-heart talks with supportive others to help deal with life issues. A healthy lifestyle can help reduce the need for medications, the most common side effect of which is digestive problems.”
Not all medical professionals agree
Hippocrates famously said, ‘all disease begins in the gut’ and years later, while some doctors and scientists are beginning to realise he was right, others remain hesitant. “Medicine has become so specialised and its toolbox too focused on drugs and surgery. GPs and most specialists commonly do not hear about the impressive research on how diet and gut health influence systemic health,” Middlestead says.
Research into gut microbiota is rapidly growing and expanding, according to Alan Fraser, associate professor of medicine at University of Auckland and gastroenterologist at Auckland Gastroenterology Associates. However, he believes the varying opinions between medical professionals and “alternative natural therapists” should be addressed with scientific rather than anecdotal evidence.
“There is the implication that a ‘healthy gut’ can improve overall wellbeing – now [that is] moving away from scientific evidence. This might include claims of improved energy and concentration… all of this is unproven!” he says. “There are no obvious risks to taking probiotics or taking natural products or making dietary changes that will alter gut microbiota, but the evidence for health gains are slim.”