Gut Health: Everything You Need To Know

Laura Beaney

7 min read

Two thousand years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates, declared that all disease begins in the gut and today it seems that the world of medicine is in agreement.  

The gut’s main function is to process food from the moment it enters the mouth until it’s processed by the body. From vitamin and mineral absorbency to hormone regulation, digestion, and immunity, more and more evidence is mounting to suggest that there is a clear link between the state of our internal bacteria and a plethora of health issues such as depression and cancer that might otherwise seem unrelated. Hippocrates’ theory makes sense if you consider that 70 per cent of our immune system calls the gut its home with over 100 trillion bacteria living there. To put this figure into perspective, that’s 10 times the number of cells in the entire body, weighing around 2kg. The gut is also where 80 per cent of our serotonin production occurs; indicating that our levels of the chemical, closely linked with happiness, may be affected by our internal environment as well.

Considering the age-old sentiments of the Greek physician, investigation into this area is nothing new, what is different, however is our understanding of it. “As science has developed over the last decade, what we’ve come to realise is that microorganisms play an incredibly important, positive role in not just our digestive health, but in our overall health and wellness,” explains Dr Mahmoud Ghannoum, the scientist who first discovered and named the mycobiome, our body’s fungal community. Through his lifetime of research Dr Ghannoum discovered that bacteria and fungi work together to create digestive plaque in the gut. His findings have been named as a breakthrough in internal health, with potential applications that span an array of health issues. What we’ve also come to understand is that health problems can start to arise when the balance of good and bad microorganisms in our body are put out of kilter. “I’ll give you a specific example,” Dr Ghannoum continues. “Many people have heard of Candida, and in fact, it actually generally has a bad reputation. But when Candida is present at the appropriate levels in our system, it actually aids our body’s ability to absorb nutrients and properly digest food. However, if Candida is allowed to grow out of control, it can start to break down the gut’s tissue lining, which can cause very serious issues.”

The serious issues Dr Ghannoum refers to come in the form of conditions like leaky gut syndrome that occurs when the intestinal lining becomes porous, meaning that larger, undigested food molecules escape from the digestive tract. As well as these food particles yeast, toxins,and waste also make their way into the bloodstream. This puts extreme pressure on the liver to detoxify as its functionality is impaired. These toxins are able to pass through the body, finding their way to different tissues and causing inflammation- a reaction, which has been linked to diseases like diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Our ability to understand exactly what organisms a person has in their gut’s microbiome, and at what levels, provides far reaching information into these conditions, allowing the scientific community to really examine what these organisms are doing, connecting the dots between gut health, balance, and overall wellness.

Telltale signs of an unhealthy gut include diarrhea, bloating, feelings of fullness, constipation, lethargy and an upset stomach, but sometimes the symptoms are subtler. The only real way to know whether your gut is out of balance is to have your microbiome genetically sequenced. “Through sequencing the DNA of organisms in someone’s digestive tract, we are able to not only identify the specific bacteria and fungi present in that person’s gut, but the levels of each organism as well,” explains Dr Ghannoum.

Enhanced awareness of the community of bacteria and other microbes living in your intestinal tract seems like a wise move for longevity, but what’s the first step towards an optimum environment? Much of the microbiome’s composition is established early in life initiated by factors out of our control, ranging from genetics to extensive use of antibiotics and breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding. What we can alter is some of the other contributing factors such as diet, stress levels and our eating methods. “Many people will be surprised to realise that even just lowering their stress will positively change the balance of their gut’s microbiome, which ultimately has an impact on their digestive health,” notes Ghannoum.

Good bacteria can be boosted by probiotic-rich foods that include fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi and natural pickles, as well as fermented dairies like cheese, laban, and yogurt

Discovering that a diet based on sugar, caffeine and fast food is detrimental to a healthy gut may not come as a shock, but bad bacteria does not discriminate. Feeding off of any kind of sugar, even those from fruit juices, namely fructose, is known to overload the liver and are more closely linked to type 1 diabetes and conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome than their much more vilified counterpart, glucose. With this in mind, should we be throwing out our juicer, or at the very least reexamining what we put into it?

“Our diets should be diverse and there isn’t one framework that fits everyone,” notes Neha Jamani a therapeutic chef and founder of The Sacred Kitchen, a Dubai-based events concept that provides healthful, nutrient-dense foods. “I think it’s very important to eat a varied diet because the microbiome is very diverse, so one should aim to eat foods that are rich in both prebiotics and probiotics.” Good bacteria can be boosted by probiotic-rich foods that include fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi and natural pickles, as well as fermented dairies like cheese, laban, and yogurt. Prebiotics are also crucial and come from certain types of carbohydrates that are mostly fibre-based such as whole grain or sourdough bread. As humans, we cannot digest these fibres but the beneficial bacteria in our gut rely upon them to feed and promote the growth of healthy gut flora. Some prebiotics include legumes, beans and peas, bananas, asparagus, cabbage, artichokes, root vegetables and apples as well as those found in the allium family, for example, onions, garlic or leeks.

Altering our microbiome is an immeasurable task – nobody knows exactly how long it might take and it varies from person to person. This is because our gut’s ecosystem is already in place and this establishes how nutrients are absorbed and processed. If the microbial community in your gut has been molded around processed meats and refined sugar for example, it won’t react as quickly to dietary changes compared to a gut formed from fresh fruit, vegetables and grains that provide varied microbiota to begin with. If the intestines are inflamed, they cannot process nutrients, so in order to heal the gut from the inside out, many turn to supplements and probiotic drinks. “First it would be good to find out, if a person has food intolerances and then cut out this food in order to keep inflammation levels in the body down,” clarifies Dr Maria Ridao, medical director of The Dubai Herbal Treatment Centre. “Take probiotics to balance the bacterial flora in the gut, especially after taking antibiotics and take digestive enzymes. Get checked for vitamin deficiencies, especially Vitamin D and B12 and look to supplements like Glutamine,” she continues.

The only way to influence the digestive process is by chewing
Dr. Harald Stossier

As with any health overhaul, dietary and supplementary changes are to be expected but one thing that might not often be considered is the way we consume them. Much like Hippocrates, the Viva Mayr clinic have built the foundations of their globally revered retreat on the belief that our gut health is the epicentre of overall wellness. Dr Harald Strossier, its founder maintains that while the quality of the food we consume is important that’s only half the story.

“The only way to influence the digestive process is by chewing,” he explains. “Each mouthful should be chewed at least 30 times, and it’s important not to drink tea or water while eating as this dissolves the saliva we need to digest.” Strossier also advises being mindful of the time we consume certain foods. Raw foods should not be eaten after 4pm, so for evening meals dishes like soups and even grilled foods are preferable to salads. This is because of the time it takes to digest these items. “If we eat more than the digestive tract can handle then a fermentation process occurs in the gut, in the case of excess protein from a meat-heavy diet, it becomes putrefied,” he adds.

The result of the fermentation and purification processes can often be seen externally in the form of skin conditions such as dermatitis, psoriasis or in the yellowing of the eyes. Strossier’s patients are also educated on the critical inclusion of omega 3 fatty acids for healthy gut function. Found in cold pressed oils like flaxseed or linseed, the oils should be ingested cold at around two tablespoons per day, drizzled over salads or fish. “They regenerate the surface of the intestine and the skin,” says Dr Strossier.

One of the most important practices that patients take away from a stay at a retreat like Viva Mayr is that of mindful health and eating habits. Stress reduction, positive food choices, enhanced chewing habits and eating in a controlled and timely manner are all part of the journey to a healthier gut. More than just a trend in the health world, science today insists that next time you’re feeling tired or unwell it might be wise to consider how you’re treating your gut.