What’s your gut telling you?
Scientists call it the ‘second brain’, and it can be responsible for everything from heart health and premature ageing to weight gain and depression. Cue our easy-to-digest guide to inner health and – yes – happiness
UNLESS YOU SUFFER from irritable bowel syndrome, colitis or Crohn’s disease, you probably don’t pay much attention to your gut. Why would you? But the gut, or gastrointestinal tract – a tube that runs from the stomach to the bowel, via the intestines, forming the digestive system – is central to our health. ‘A weakened, damaged gut affects everything from our heart, brain and immune system to our skin and how happy we feel,’ says Dr Vincent Pedre, a New York-based physician and author of new book
Happy Gut (R385, Jonathan Ball Publishers, out in 2016). ‘It can lead to so much more than bloating and food intolerances.’ Put simply, if our gut isn’t healthy, we can’t be healthy.
The bloating myth
Most of us don’t even realise what a healthy gut feels like, according to nutritionist Amelia Freer (British singer Sam Smith recently credited her with his 12kg weight loss). ‘Many people think it’s normal to wake up with a relatively at stomach then gradually see and feel it expand throughout the day. But it’s not,’ says Amelia, author of Eat.
Nourish. Glow (R277, HarperCollins). ‘A healthy gut means no daily bloating, gas, constipation, discomfort or tiredness after eating. You’ll also have better-quality sleep, more energy and fewer mood swings.’ Our body is home to 100 trillion bacteria, and most of them live in the gut, where there’s a constant tug of war between good and bad. The build-up of bad bacteria, caused by toxins in the food we eat, is neutralised by the friendly bacteria to keep our immune system stable. ‘Anything that alters this delicate balance – such as stress, poor diet, hormonal contraceptives and antibiotics – can inhibit the healthy bacteria and disrupt digestion,’ Amelia says. ‘And this causes bloating, discomfort, constipation or diarrhoea.’ Another culprit is anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen.
A key player is the modern diet. Vincent says, ‘We’ve moved too far from eating from the earth. Sugar, re ned carbs, processed food and alcohol all overwork the good bacteria that are trying to break down food during digestion. Organic meat, sh, vegetables and eggs, on the other hand, promote a healthy gut. An unhealthy gut can become “hyper-permeable” or leaky. The gut becomes inflamed and mesh-like, so food particles get through to the bloodstream. Your body develops antibodies to ght them, and that’s where food intolerances come from.’
Nutritionists agree that wheat, gluten and lactose (the natural sugars found in milk) are the biggest triggers for food intolerances, but don’t rule out other, more obscure, food groups – even trout and red wine have been found to cause allergies. ‘Your gut is nature’s best nutritionist, because it will react to what it can’t tolerate,’ says Dr Stephan Domenig, medical director from The Original FX Mayr Health Centre in Austria, where the philosophy is ‘healing the gut to heal the body’. He recommends cutting out all processed, sugary foods, as well as chewing thoroughly and avoiding drinking between mouthfuls, as this slows digestion.
Bacteria don’t just dictate your digestive health, they’re crucial to your mood, too. There’s a reason why you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or excited – it physically knots up in response to your emotions. ‘The gut contains the second-largest number of neuro cells, after the brain,’ Stephan says. ‘So inside your gut there’s a huge entity of bacteria that impacts on the neuro cells to in uence moods and emotional well-being.’ Experts are now increasingly looking at the link between the gut and mental health, with a recent study from McMaster University in Canada nding that poor gut health equates to heightened anxiety and depression.
The reason, nutritionist Henrietta Norton says, is because ‘the gut houses the enteric
‘AN UNHEALTHY GUT WILL SHOW IN DULL, TIREDLOOKING EYES, DARK CIRCLES, ECZEMA, INFLAMED SPOTS AND A PUFFY FACE’
nervous system (ENS). This controls the activity of more than 30 neurotransmitters, and produces hormones, including dopamine and serotonin, that are key to controlling our moods.’ About 95% of the body’s production of serotonin – the happiness hormone – takes place in the ENS. In short, you really can eat yourself happier, and it all begins in the gut.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso soup and kombucha tea have emerged as the superfoods of 2015 – thanks largely to their effect on the happiness of your gut. ‘Eating small amounts of fermented foods daily is good for you, because fermentation makes the food easier to break down, and this protects the good bacteria,’ says nutritionist Vicki Edgson, author of new book Gut Gastronomy (R756, Aurum Press Ltd). The fermentation process involves foods such as cabbage and cucumber being soaked in their own juices (or in salt water) until their sugars and carbs turn into bacteria-boosting lactic acids, making them much more digestible than non-fermented foods. Fermented foods also contain natural probiotics to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. Try a shot of apple cider vinegar in warm water every morning. Miranda Kerr swears by this to boost her digestion and clear her skin.
Beauty from within
‘I can tell just by looking at somebody’s face how healthy their gut is,’ Vicki says. ‘An unhealthy gut and overloaded digestive system will show in dull, tired-looking eyes, dark circles, eczema, inflamed spots and a puffy face.’
A recent study from the University of Turku in Finland found that eczema sufferers have slightly different gut bacteria to those who don’t have eczema. ‘The gut has a tissue layer that’s similar to that of the skin, so if you’re experiencing imbalances in this layer, it will show on the skin’s surface,’ Henrietta says. ‘Similarly, if you’re not effectively absorbing the nutrients from your food (because of low levels of bene cial bacteria in the gut), you may not be getting enough skin-nourishing vitamins.’