A balanced gut doesn’t only promote good digestion but is also responsible for our overall wellbeing
Most of us take for granted our digestive system, simply relying on it to process our food and deliver the nutrition and energy our body needs to keep going. However, research has shown that our gut is responsible for far more than a simple breakdown of nutrients. “We need to go beyond our traditional understanding of the gut to know its impact on our overall health,” shares Dr Stan Chua, resident doctor of BioBalance, a centre for measured wellness. “Traditionally, we understand the gut to simply digest, absorb and excrete our food, but with the latest advances in gut research, we are finding out more and more that the gut also plays a major role in hormone balance, neurotransmitter balance, detoxification of our body and inflammation.”
Having a healthy gut can directly affect our overall wellbeing and health, including our mental health. “Understanding the other roles the gut plays shows us that what we put into our bodies can change the course of diseases,” explains Chua. “These include hormone-driven diseases such as acne, polycystic ovarian syndrome and diabetes; those driven by neurotransmitters such as depression and anxiety; by inflammation such as hypertension and even cancer.”
What exactly constitutes a healthy gut?
“The gut refers to your gastrointestinal tract which is the group of organs from your mouth to your anus,” says nutritionist Harvie de Baron of Baron Method, a programme that supports personalised nutrition through the healing power of food. “A healthy gut means your intestines and stomach are inhabited by a lot of good bacteria and little of the bad. This ecosystem of bacteria, also known as the microbiome, loves a diverse group of microbes, bacteria, fungi and viruses. Thus, when there is less diversity in the gut or when the bacteria associated with disease is plenty, we experience a breakdown in our immunity and an increase in inflammation.”
Chua also says that “the first sign of an imbalanced microbiome is having any digestive symptoms whether or not you take in food”. “You are not supposed to have symptoms when you eat food. So, when you get symptoms like reflux, hyperacidity, bloating, excessive flatulence, constipation or diarrhoea, the gut is already imbalanced,” he elaborates. Other signs are mood swings, brain fog, allergies, bad breath and even skin inflammation like eczema and acne.
“Gut health is the foundation for wellbeing,” says wellness advocate and co-founder of Holy Carabao Farms, Hindy Weber. “It is a multi-functional network that affects so many processes from our emotional state, mental clarity, energy, vitality, immune function and defence against environmental toxins.”
Everyone’s microbiome is unique and there are many factors that contribute to its balance or imbalance. Which is why experts recommend personalised tests such as food intolerance tests, heavy metal exposure, blood sugar and the like to assess your overall state of health. The creation of our individual microbiomes begins at birth, with studies showing that babies born vaginally, as opposed to C-section, have more healthy bacteria from the get-go benefitting from the mother’s natural flora. Breastfed babies have an advantage too. Certain medicines like antibiotics can also kill off good bacteria in the gut. Our environment likewise plays a large factor; living in an environment that is too sterile or too “clean” prevents good bacteria from populating our microbiome.
“Eat clean and get dirty is my mantra,” declares Weber. “Eat clean means to eat living, sunlight and soil-grown food. Get dirty means to get your hands into the soil, get your feet onto bare ground, breathe fresh air, be amid nature as much as possible, get good sunlight and earth yourself.”
Exercise, proper hydration and good sleep also contribute to maintaining good gut health. However, the most important factor remains what we eat. “More and more the tenet of ‘what you are is what you eat’ is becoming a reality,” says Chua. “The majority of the illnesses that burdens us right now arise from poor lifestyle choices mostly owing to food choices which affect our gut foremost before others.”
Avoid processed foods, refined sugar and, in the words of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, “anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food”. He goes on further to say, “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients or ingredients you can’t pronounce.”
There is no real secret; eating fruits and vegetables is imperative, one that can have a truly lasting and transformative impact on our entire system and promote homeostasis. For most of us, our gut needs a little help in the recolonisation of good bacteria through the form of probiotics. “The easiest way to improve your gut health is through probiotic-rich foods and supplements that are not high in sugar or artificial ingredients,” shares de Baron. “Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and yoghurt are natural sources of probiotics. It is important to note that not all probiotic-rich foods and drinks are created equal. You may think a yoghurt drink is great because it has good bacteria; but make it a habit to check the label for refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavours or colours. Remember, the good will not negate the bad. And filling your gut with the mentioned bad ingredients will destroy your gut health.”
De Baron also recommends eating your fair share of prebiotics or fibre-rich foods which is necessary for the good bacteria to thrive. “Think whole grains, like unpolished rice and quinoa, bananas, garlic and dark leafy greens. If you want to supplement, psyllium husk is a great prebiotic.”
He goes on to say that “the smallest change you can make today with the biggest impact is to start taking probiotics capsules as it can instantly populate your gut with good bacteria. However, if you don’t fix your eating habits and choice of food, these probiotic capsules are only band-aid solutions to having a truly healthy gut.”