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Two East Anglian nutritional therapists explain how important gut health is to our overall wellbeing.
Over the last few years, more and more research has been done into the importance of gut health, and how what we eat and how we treat our stomach has an impact on our overall wellbeing.
Nutritional therapists Maggie Franks, who is based in Felixstowe, and Norwich’s Catherine Jeans DipION mBANT CNHC, from The Family Nutrition Expert, both break it down for us by explaining what really goes on inside and how we can keep our digestive systems in top condition.
“When we talk about our gut, we’re talking about our digestive system,” said Catherine. “People often think that the gut refers to just the bowels - the large and small intestine - but in fact, our digestive system is a complex organ, that runs right from our mouth to our lower bowel, and includes our liver and stomach.
“Our gut communicates far and wide around our body, and has even been labelled by scientists as the second brain. That’s because of the gut microbiome - the trillions of organisms that reside in our digestive system, mostly in our lower bowel.”
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“There are 10 times more bacteria than all of the human cells in the entire body, making you wonder whether humans host them, or they host us,” Maggie added.
So how does this all happen? “The gut lining creates a barrier between our internal systems and the outside world,” Maggie explained. “The integrity of this is a major factor in auto-immune responses affecting physical and mental health. Intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’ is when this barrier is compromised. Large protein molecules are able to escape into the blood stream, causing an immune system response.”
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There’s a range of growing scientific evidence that proves gut health is incredibly vital to our overall wellbeing, and is often the first port of call when addressing other health issues.
“Researchers, for example those at the Quadrant Institute in Norwich, are doing more and more research into the importance of the gut microbiome for our health, including type 2 diabetes prevention, how we manage our weight, brain health and cancer,” added Catherine.
A common digestive condition is irritable bowel syndrome, which Catherine sees in many of her patients. “I see so many people in my clinic with irritable bowel syndrome, and this is a great way to describe what can commonly happen in the gut.
“Things can just get irritated - so you may have an imbalance in your gut microbiome, which can contribute to wind or bloating, or you may experience more constipation or loose bowels, or a combination of the two,” Catherine said.
“Without an optimally functioning gut, our bodies simply cannot break down and absorb all of the nutrients that we need for optimal health and wellbeing,” she explained.
“We are not what we eat – we are what we absorb. And this is one of the primary functions of the gut – to take all of the goodness from our food and get it to where it needs to be.
“Our gut is really important for detoxification, so anything not needed in our bodies, the gut is a major player in helping to get rid of it. If it is not able to do this, we may have unwanted chemicals such as excess hormones, toxins and other unwanted compounds re-circulating around our bodies.”
So which foods should we consume less of, in order to get our gut health in check?
“Nutritionally, diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods are the obvious contributors to leaky gut,” said Maggie.
Other factors include an imbalance in the bacteria, gluten, damaged fats and a diet low in fibre.
“On top of all that, stress also has a role to play and the use of antibiotics and some other medications,” she added.
However, there is a lot we can do in order to remedy this, and create a happier environment within. “We can do so much to support our inner eco system - by making the right food choices, by increasing the helpful ones and reducing or eliminating the challenging ones,” said Maggie.
“Think about eating a rainbow, and plenty of variety,” added Catherine. “Our diet in the UK tends to be a bit beige and often we eat the same foods every day.
“A good challenge is to try to eat 30 different plant foods per week, so a variety of veg, fruit, pulses, nuts, seeds, grains. All of these different foods and colours help to feed a varied and vibrant gut microbiome, and that is key for gut health.”
Fibre, which is often found in plant-based foods, is needed for bulk and movement of waste, but is also vital in making the gut’s good bacteria, ensuring healthy cell growth and gut lining. Additionally, protein helps to regenerate the gut lining.
“Fermented foods, such as raw sauerkraut and kefir, rebalances and restores good bacteria, while oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines help heal the gut. Turmeric is also an amazing spice therapeutically,” added Maggie.
“If you do have specific health issues and take medication however, you may wish to get guidance from a nutritional therapist if you want to use nutrition therapeutically.
“It is important not to eliminate food groups without ensuring you are getting what you need and always keep your doctor informed what you are doing,” she added.