Intro by Nathan Sparks
It was early fall last year that I happened upon Sara Pugh’s TikTok channel. A UK-based biochemist, Sara’s videos were engaging and informative, consistently encouraging me to consider aspects of my health that I hadn’t been considering. Finally answers to questions that I had, from what seemed like a reasonable and reliable source. As we prepared for our health issue, I reached out to Sara across the pond and asked if she would join us this issue for a guest column on one of her most popular topics. Through email and Zoom calls and many hours of time difference, Sara presents us with this 101 piece on gut health, an opportunity for us to learn from one another whether we’re just across town or on an entirely different continent.
Is your gut health really affecting your mood, immune system and metabolism ? Why have I written this for you? A 2018 study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found a staggering 61 percent of Americans suffer from chronic digestive diseases or gut issues such as IBS, constipation, bloating, or abdominal pain.
Millions more suffer from mysterious mood disorders, metabolic problems, and immune system dysfunction that stem from a gut problem. This is a classic example of ‘find the symptom, look for the problem somewhere else.’
I want to show you the link between your gut health and overall health, and give you some bite-sized practical tips on improving them.
A whirlwind tour of your gut
To be accurate, your gut is your gastrointestinal tract, also referred to as your intestine or bowel. The cells in your gut are only one layer thick, and this is both good and bad.
This is good because it’s easy for nutrients like amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to cross quickly into your bloodstream and be taken to different organs.
This is bad because it is easy to damage such a thin layer of cells, and this can result in problems like inflammation or a leaky gut, which I will dive into shortly.
Fortunately, the cells in your gut renew very quickly. In about three days, your body can grow a brand new gut lining—if you provide it with a ‘healing environment.’
The brain-gut axis
Your brain and gut are connected by the vagus nerve and this is known as the “brain–gut axis”, so your gut is often referred to as your second brain.
The vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system which is rest and digest or ‘calming’, the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system which is fight or flight or ‘stress’.
The vagus nerve controls a vast array of crucial bodily functions along with digestion, mood, immune response, and heart rate.
Immune system and leaky gut
Your immune system health is tied to your gut health in another way. If the cells in your gut become damaged, the spaces between the cells can widen and your gut can become what we might call “leaky”. If your gut is leaky, little bits of partially digested food particles can escape into your bloodstream.
Your immune system then fires up and attacks the food particles, which could have just been the toast you ate for breakfast. One of the aftermaths of this battle between your immune system and the food particles is inflammation. If you have lots of food sensitivities and the list is growing, it is likely you have a leaky gut.
Inflammation is a perfectly normal process in the body, especially when it is dealing with a real infection or helping you heal. When inflammation is present when it shouldn’t be or present all the time, this is when problems start. For example, chronic inflammation can lead to joint pain, skin problems, premature aging, depression, and metabolic problems like type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The gut microbiome
Approximately 100 trillion micro-organisms (most of them bacteria, but also viruses, fungi, and protozoa) live in your gut. This is your microbiome, and it’s an ecosystem or community of microorganisms that help you digest food as well as produce thousands of biochemical products that consequently influence your health.
Your gut microbiome can influence your mood, appetite, weight, energy levels, immune system, mental clarity, and certain food cravings, especially for sugar.
The idea of ‘good and bad’ bacteria can be a bit misleading as emerging data shows that having a diverse microbiome with lots of different species of bacteria is what is important for health. Variety is the spice of life.
Interestingly, scientific studies showed lower gut microbiome diversity resulted in more disease and higher body weight
Your gut microbiome is flexible so you are not stuck with a bad one, like a bad hand in poker. It changes if you change your daily habits
Let’s look at what you can do to improve your gut health based on what you have just learned about your gut.
Maximize Your Nutrients
Undigested food hanging around in the gut can cause gas and bloating as well as robbing your body of important nutrients. Here’s what you can do:
- A good quality broad-spectrum digestive enzyme can be very helpful for improving digestion.
- Chewing each mouthful of food 30 times also helps digestion and helps prevent overeating.
Protect Your Gut Lining
There are ways you can protect your gut lining by simply managing what you put into your body, such as:
- Food Additives – Avoid an emulsifier called Carrageenan as it is known to irritate the gut. Check the ingredients of foods like yogurts, milkshakes, creamy sauces, ice cream.
- Alcohol – Alcohol damages our gut lining so cutting down or giving it up could help prevent leaky gut.
- Stress – Cortisol is a stress hormone and if you have high cortisol for long periods of time it can cause leaky gut as well as make you feel awful. Making time to exercise, have a massage, go out in nature, meditate or soak in the bath will help with stress levels.
Strengthen Your ‘Gut Clock’
All your organs including your intestines have their own biological clocks as WHEN an organ performs a task matters. Your body clock being out of sync means your brain doesn’t know what time it is, and this is a stressor to your whole body, including your gut. Some things to consider:
- Eating late in the evening or before bed puts stress on your gut as it likes to rest in the evening same as you. Eating late also disturbs your sleep, and sleep is vital for healing.
- Seeing the sunrise and sunset, going outside for light breaks, as well as avoiding screens two hours before bed helps strengthen your body clock.
Processed foods and gluten from wheat are gut irritants and avoiding these can be very helpful if you suffer from gut issues.
- Simply eating too often also causes inflammation as the act of digesting food is an effort for your gut. Studies have shown that some people in the US and UK eat 8 – 9 times a day, which is far too often.
- Your gut and your teeth need regular rests from food, and fasting is a safe and natural way to do this. This might be a 12-hour fast if you are new to fasting or several days if you are a seasoned faster.
Master Your Microbiome
Probiotics are live bacteria taken as supplements, usually in capsule form. Probiotics can be beneficial, especially if you have recently used antibiotics. They help replace the useful bacteria in your gut that were killed by accident by the antibiotics. Some ideas for you if adding probiotics to your diet:
- Live fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, and kombucha are probiotics. They can be purchased or made at home.
- If you use probiotics it’s a good idea to change brands every two months to make sure you don’t end up with a few species of bacteria dominating your gut and reducing diversity, thus creating a new gut issue.
One more thought on your gut…
Studies have shown that red and infrared light are healing and beneficial to your whole body, not just your gut. Sunlight contains both red and infrared light, but a good quality low flicker rate red / infrared light can be used on your stomach if you don’t want to go shirtless in the sun.
I hope you feel you understand why gut health is such a buzz word these days. Remember that even making one or two changes can help you have a happier, healthier gut.