Forget the latest diet. Eat to nourish your gut and expect to reap the benefits: better mental health, high energy and weight loss, says Clodagh Finn.
IF YOU think that acting on a ‘gut feeling’ or a ‘gut instinct’ is mere intuition, maybe it’s time to think again.
A growing body of research shows that one of the best ways to ensure long-lasting physical and mental health as well as weight loss is to, quite literally, go with your gut.
More than 2,500 years ago, Greek physician Hippocrates said as much when he claimed that all disease began in the gut. It turns out science has proven that he was on the right track.
The billions of bacteria that live in our gut ensure good physical and mental health and their absence has been linked to a range of illnesses such as obesity, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is something akin to an information superhighway linking the brain to the gut.
Known as the gut-brain axis, the gut is constantly updating the brain on what is going on and vice versa.
So, if the pit of your stomach is telling you something is wrong, it makes sense to listen.
While many experts say more research is needed, there is a general consensus that the microorganisms in our gut — or the microbiome — play a very big role in maintaining good physical and mental health — and a healthy weight.
In 2014, a review paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation said: “The composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease.”
The link between your gut, the bacteria it harbours and your health is the focus of research at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) Microbiome Institute in Cork.
Dr Harriët Schellekens, a principle investigator, explains that the Institute is investigating how the gastrointestinal bacteria in our gut — the gut microbiota — affect stress, mood and appetite regulation.
To take one example, researchers are trying to establish how microbes may influence hormones that signal to the brain when we are full — and how others signal that we want that piece of chocolate cake.
Working out the role gut microbes play in the gut-brain axis will help the centre develop strategies to curb appetite (for those who are obese) and to stimulate it in cases of illness and malnutrition.
While the microbiota plays a very big role in maintaining a healthy gut and possibly good mental health, more research is needed before therapeutic gut strategies can be developed to combat psychiatric illnesses and mood disorders, says Dr Schellekens.
Though, there does seem to be a link between obesity and the role of gut microbes.
One 2013 study on mice led by Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, found that obese mice who ingested the gut microbes of lean mice lost weight.
The relationship between diet and how our gut works is very intricate, but there is certainly a truth to the saying “we are what we eat” and our “gut feelings”, says Dr Schellekens.
Research within the APC by Prof John Cryan and Prof Timothy Dinan is already showing that microbes can influence anxiety and social development in rodents.
Dr Schellekens adds: “There is also evidence to suggest that omega 3s, short-chain fatty acids, and plant polyphenols (or micronutrients) help the gut and its inhabitants, but the general advice – to eat healthy, whole unprocessed foods — always applies.”
Back in the world of human beings, nutritional therapist Jeannette Hyde says she finds it incredible that so many people suffer gut pain in silence for years.
“Their quality of life is blighted by chronic heartburn, bloating, constipation or loose stools.
"They haven’t realised until now that there is so much you can do about it by altering your diet and paying attention to chewing well and trying to relax when eating,” she says.
She knows exactly what she is talking about because it took her some time to stop eating sandwiches and croissants from the trolley on the train to work and to start filling her diet with a variety of colourful fruit and veg.
It was only when she was too sick to work as a journalist any more, about ten years ago, that she started to make changes. “I had neck and back pains on the level of a car crash and I was crying non-stop,” she says.
She went on to qualify as a nutritional therapist and recounts her story in The Gut Makeover. It, too, has a four-week plan that aims to nourish the gut.
“The two big issues people have are digestive problems and being overweight. So by tackling the digestive issue and improving the gut flora, the weight falls off.
"A balanced microbiome equals improved metabolism. This is the wonderful side effect of better digestion,” she says.
The plan is not a diet. In the first two weeks, the focus is on repairing the gut by cutting out caffeine, sugar, certain grains, dairy and alcohol as well as changing the way you eat.
Weeks three and four are about ‘reinoculating’ by introducing foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics.
Food rich in prebiotics include apples, bananas, asparagus, cold (not hot) potatoes, fennel and garlic, while probiotic foods include kefir-fermented milk, Roquefort and fermented live miso.
Jeannette Hyde is particularly keen to warn people about diet fads and trends, such as ‘clean eating’.
She says rather than focus on eating fewer calories and exercising more — “a mantra that has been in place for decades but we still have an obesity epidemic”— it is better to focus on the quality of what you eat.
“Eating specifically to boost your gut bacteria is more important than calories if you want good weight and health for the long term,” she says.
Lee Holmes knows that more than most. Six years ago, when she was 42, she woke up one day to find she couldn’t get out of bed to go to work at her busy TV job in Sydney.
She was diagnosed with a non-specific autoimmune disease and fibromyalgia and spent the next three months lying in a hospital bed.
She lost more than 15 kilos and her body was covered in hives and bruises.
Her doctors prescribed a concoction of drugs – immunosuppressants, antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, steroids — but they made her feel worse.
“I felt like a 40-year-old woman in an 80-year-old’s body,” she says.
“But I had a little voice inside me that never gave up hope. I have a daughter, so I kept trying to stay positive so I could be a good role model for her.”
When she made no progress with conventional medicine, she made a conscious decision to take her medical destiny into her own hands and try to discover where her illness stemmed from and how she might heal herself naturally.
At her lowest point, she had developed allergies to most of the food she was eating, so she took a step back, drew on her previous nutrition studies and started a slow journey back to health.
She filled her diet with lots of liquid foods that were easy to digest. After four weeks, she felt better.
Then, she started to take probiotics and eating probiotic-rich foods (such as kefir milk and fermented miso).
Now, she says that she is 95 per cent better — she still has autoimmune disease and her arthritis flares when it’s damp or cold — and has written Heal Your Gut to explain how eating natural, easily digestible wholefoods helped her heal.
“I would say to anyone suffering to really look at your diet and gut health. It’s incredible once you improve your gut, the epicentre of your body, how much more improved your health becomes.
“A healthy gut can improve your energy levels and general wellbeing and it can also improve your emotions because of the gut-brain connection via the vagus nerve.”
She has gone on to qualify as a nutritionist and health coach and her new book has a four-week meal plan and 90 anti-inflammatory recipes designed to sooth the gut.
She advises anyone with gut problems — she blames her own problems on repeated use of antibiotics for cystitis — to start by making small changes.
“Don’t do anything radical and take your time introducing new foods.
There are a lot of fancy fermented products on the market that are good for gut health but some people have trouble digesting them and can feel worse, especially if they rush in. It’s better to take it slowly and start with an easily digestible diet.”
She also advises people to look at the link between the gut and emotions.
“Stress depletes the gut of beneficial bacteria so try and find ways to de-stress like gentle exercise, yoga or meditation.”
Antibiotics, too, have been shown to alter the gut microbiota.
Studies have shown that, in rodents, exposure to antibiotics early in life leads to weight gain, even after the digestive balance has been restored.
Dr Schellekens at UCC says: “Maybe we should think more on how to feed our microbes. Caffeine and sugar get a bad rap, but there is something to say for everything in moderation. Beware of controversial advice – and extreme diets.”
The Cork centre is continuing to investigate the effects of prebiotics on mental health and weight gain in mice.
“This is a very active area in health,” says Dr Schellekens.
“There is a lot more to come. Watch this space.”
The Gut Makeover by Jeannette Hyde is published by Quercus
* Heal Your Gut by Lee Holmes is published by Murdoch Books
The gut makeover
Small changes can make a big difference to your gut bacteria and, in turn, your health, says Jeannette Hyde, author of The Gut Makeover.
Here are her top six tips:
Cut out alcohol, caffeine, sugar, dairy, gluten-containing grains, pulses (if you are not vegetarian) and try to get masses of fruit, vegetables and the best-quality protein into your diet.
Planning is key to healthy eating. Putting aside a little time at the weekend can have big consequences for successful eating during the week.
Cook generously at weekends, or evenings, so there are plenty of leftovers. They are delicious, cheap, and filling — and it means you control what is going into you.
Aim for a 12-hour fast between dinner and breakfast. It costs nothing and can help your gut bacteria proliferate.
Get together with a friend to make changes to your diet. Who we hang out with can have a significant impact on what we eat.
Chew slowly. Again, it costs nothing and means you are more likely to digest and absorb nutrients and less likely to have bloating or acid reflux.
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