This article appeared on the SumoSalad blog in 2019. Click here to read the original.
It’s World Digestive Health Day today and gut health is well and truly trending. However, unlike the lemon detox diet or skinny tea, gut health deserves its place in the spotlight. There is a growing volume of research that suggests that maintaining a healthy gut is critical for overall wellbeing. With so many myths and misconceptions about gut health, we quizzed nutritionist Ashleigh James about the biggest gut health questions out there.
Q: When people refer to the gut, what part of the body are they actually talking about?
A: The gut really refers to the whole human digestive system. It’s where food is broken down and nutrients are absorbed. Our gut plays an essential role in our immunity and overall health since the walls act as a barrier between toxins that we ingest and the rest of our body, while still allowing nutrients from our food to pass into the body, be absorbed and provide energy.
Q: How are your gut and brain connected? Is a “gut feeling” a thing?
A: Science has shown that the brain and gut and inextricably linked. The gut is now referred to as the second brain, and the gut-brain axis has been the focus of intense and consistent scientific research. We also know that the gut is very much affected by stress. The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is our central stress response system and does a great job of keeping us alive by activating the sympathetic nervous system in times of need, so we can get away from imminent threats. If the sympathetic nervous system is chronically elevated from a stressful job, financial problems, family stresses and even a bad diet for example, this system will move blood, oxygen and energy away from our gut and vital organs to ready us for ‘flight’. This will cause digestive issues, and even long term issues like cardiovascular disease – this is why many people who are stressed end up with digestive issues. We want a balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system – aptly named our rest and digest state – to support good gut health.
Q: What are some signs that your gut needs some attention?
A: There are a number of signs people should be wary of, and not just the obvious symptoms like bloating. Many people don’t realise how much a bad diet will affect their gut, and how this plays out in their overall quality of life.
If you have a build-up of toxins in the body from gut permeability for example, then it can show up as brain fog, concentration problems, skin issues like rosacea, fatigue and moodiness. It isn’t normal to feel tired all the time if you are getting enough sleep, so if you are it’s a red flag that something might be up. Our gut is also where we make about 90 percent of our serotonin, a major neurotransmitter linked to emotions, appetite and sleep. If your gut is out of whack and it’s affecting your serotonin production, that’s when we see bigger problems like anxiety and even depression. Unexpected weight gain or weight loss is another sign that food is not being absorbed properly and that it’s time to look more closely.
Q: We’ve heard people talk about leaky gut. What is this and is it actually real?
A: “Leaky gut” has gained quite a bit of attention lately, and although it’s been more talked about among natural health professionals, recently the medical and scientific community has started to acknowledge that it is indeed a real thing.
Leaky gut refers to increased intestinal permeability, and is a digestive condition where bacteria and toxins are able to “leak” through the intestinal wall and into the blood stream. Although some level of permeability in our gut is essential, since this is how nutrients from food are absorbed, if too much bacteria and toxins enter the bloodstream, it can cause widespread inflammation.
It is hard to know if you have leaky gut since the symptoms are ambiguous, but some of the major ones are digestive issues, fatigue and brain fog, skin problems. It can even be the source of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Q: We know that probiotic foods like yoghurt, kombucha and kimchi give your gut good bacteria. But, is it possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to probiotics?
A: It is possible to have too many probiotic foods, and you will most likely notice since it will probably make you feel gassy, bloated, and a little bit nauseated. Just notice if this happens and cut back, but it’s not likely to cause long term damage. In terms of gut health however, the research is actually much stronger for prebiotics than probiotics. Prebiotics are fantastic since they feed the good microbes. You want diversity and a good population, so try to include naturally rich prebiotic foods like asparagus, chicory, and onions.
Q: It’s cold and flu season, which often means antibiotics… How do these impact the gut and what are the best foods to eat after a course of antibiotics?
A: It’s such a big issue, and unfortunately there is no simple answer. Antibiotics are an amazing medical invention, but they can destroy the good bacteria in your gut. Research also shows that one or more courses of antibiotics can increase risk of anxiety to 15-44%, increase risk depression 23-56%. If they are taken consistently they can also increase insulin resistance and increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. They are also in our food system through the meat and dairy industry (if you choose to eat these foods). Unless you are eating only organic, you will have some antibiotics in your animal-based foods. If you do have to take antibiotics, increasing your prebiotics before the course of antibiotics starts, and taking probiotics during and after the antibiotics can help, but talk to your health professional about the timing and type of probiotics you choose to make sure you get the right strain.
Q: What is resistant starch and do I need it for my gut?
A: Resistant starch is ‘resistant’ to digestion, and isn’t fully absorbed in the small intestine. Instead, it makes its way to the large intestine (colon), where intestinal bacteria ferment it. There are numerous health benefits to eating resistant starch such as improved blood cholesterol, better satiety due to its effect on our hunger hormones (leptin, peptide YY) and better insulin sensitivity, since our bodies don’t release as much insulin in response to it. Additionally, resistant starch allows for increased production of butyrate (the preferred fuel of the cells that line the colon) by our gut microbes, which acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent for our colon, decreasing intestinal permeability and keeping toxins out. The best sources of resistant starch are found in grains, seeds and legumes, which resist digestion because they are bound within the fibrous cell walls; pasta, potatoes and other tubers that have been cooked and cooled, as well as starchy fruits and vegetables. I suggest trying to include some resistant starch in your daily diet if you can.
Q: What are the best and worst foods for the gut?
A: The worst foods for the gut are actually the worst foods for you generally – so if you know it’s healthy for your body it’s likely that it will be healthy for your gut, and vice versa. The worst for your gut is sugar, alcohol, processed foods, high fat foods, refined carbohydrates. Coffee and caffeine is also not great, either is a lot of meat. Good food for your gut is high fibre foods and good carbohydrates – vegetables, tubers, fruits, wholegrains, beans, lean proteins, nuts and seeds. If you have IBS or food intolerances however speak to your nutritionist or dietitian about tailoring a diet for your specific condition.