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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Words MARIA LALLY @Mari­aLally1

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.

Gut feel­ings

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.

New su­per­foods

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.’

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