This question comes after a few conversations I had with my colleague and pharmacist Tom Lim about the gut and how difficult it is to keep it healthy nowadays. It made me want to write on the subject of our gut and digestion. Gut by many scientists has started to be called our second brain but in my view an importance and role of it is almost equal to our brain! You may say that it is overstatement but I truly believe if your gut is functioning well you are well. What is interesting about our digestive system is that it can be affected by many different causes, physical and emotional, but it has an enormous capacity to self heal when we provide ‘right environment’.
What is that ‘right environment’? Gut is such a large organ so it depends on the part it requires different pH (acid, alkaline or close to neutral) for optimal work. When you look at our digestion which starts already in our mouth with slightly acidic pH then comes our stomach with extreme low pH around 2 (environment extremely acidic). Often pH in our stomach is not low enough which affects protein digestion and absorption of minerals and vitamins. I wrote more about it in my first blog last year (https://bit.ly/2HRQTxR).
Also for digestion to take place a variety of probiotic bacteria is needed. Essential bacteria, which live in our gut and take part in digestion, belong to two main genus: Lactobacteria and Bifidobacteria. There are many different (more than 50 in case of Bifidobacteria and more than 200 of Lactobacteria) species within each genus. Maintaining low pH in the stomach allows good bacteria to thrive preventing the once which are not so friendly like Helicobacter Pylori to grow.
Helicobacter pylori became famous because it is blamed to be a cause of stomach ulcers. In my opinion, it is down to the stomach environment: too high stomach pH, lack of right nutrition and friendly bacteria as well as emotional or other physical reasons. All of it causes inflammation and eventually ulcers to appear. Ulcers are a great place for Helicobacter pylori to thrive which as a result leads to different digestive problems. Treating overgrowth of Helicobacter pylori with antibiotics is not a solution to the problem. If the causes described above are not changed then the digestive system can not go back to balance.
However going back to the digestive system and gut. The next part of the gut where the most important processes of enzymatic digestion and absorption in our body. The gut is not an equal in pH starting from duodenum which is much less acidic compared to stomach with pH around 6. Continuing our journey down pH gradually raises to alkaline 7.4 in the terminal ileum. Natural habitants of our gut should represent, like Tom nicely said, the versatility of rain forest with different animals and plants, which in case of the gut is a full range of friendly bacteria like Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and good funguses. Complexity of the digestion and absorption process requires many different enzymes and co-factors. They are normally produced by the whole range of rain forest’s creatures and some of them occur naturally in different foods.
You may ask what happens when the versatility of our gut is not present? Our digestive system starts to compensate for it and it may start not working properly. That means vitamins and minerals are not absorbed from food or produced in the gut. Irregular bowel movement and diarrhoea or constipation might occur. That normally leads to nutritional deficiency which affects other parts of our body. Also a variety of minor or moderate digestive problems can appear as a result of prolonged inflammation of the gut. That in consequence allows the development of different chronic states like IBS, Crohn’s disease or in very extreme cases tumours and cancer of part of the gut. But not only gut is affected but also other organs. For example you can see that on the skin because one of the main causes of eczema is bacterial imbalance of the gut. Our bones, teeth, nails and hair will become weaker because of lack of nutrition. In addition many different processes on cellular level can be disturbed due to insufficient substrate for them to take place.
Rain forest of our gut is responsible for many other processes than just digestion. It is a role of some of those lovely bacteria to produce B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, which is responsible for production of blood red cells. Essential brain neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and Oxytocin are also fruits of efficient work in our gut’s rain forest. Insufficient levels of those neurotransmitters directly affect the state of our mood and well-being. No surprise that our gut is called our second brain because deficiency of those neurotransmitters is considered a main cause of depression. Obviously the origin of low mood state and depression may come from more than one factor. However, the digestive system plays a major role in the availability of those essential neurotransmitters. Low vitamin D level, for example, also contributes to low mood which I have described in more detail in my blog about cholesterol (https://bit.ly/2TdP6K0).
Another important question to answer is what are the main causes of disturbance in our gut flora? Unfortunately, the answer is most of the things which we put in our mouth! Starting from processed foods to medicines like antibiotics are the most obvious reasons. Not so obvious but equally or even worse for gut flora are medications which alternate pH of digestive system (PPIs), synthetic hormones, vaccinations and steroids… One course of antibiotics disturbs gut flora even for 6 months and it is not only because of its direct effect on gut bacteria! Antibiotics, PPIs, synthetic hormones and steroids due to their metabolism strip our body from essential vitamins and minerals. So not only these medications are trying to stimulate processes in our body which are opposite to what our body is doing. They also use it up essential zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C, calcium, vitamin B12 in those processes…
A good example of the effects of medications on the gut are PPIs which increase pH in our stomach to 7 (making pH of water in our stomachs). As a result high pH enables to digest proteins and absorb different vitamins and minerals. It also favours different gut flora to thrive in our stomach. It is beyond this blog to describe in detail the full picture of effects, undesirable effects and mechanism of action of those groups of medications so just to conclude. Each medication may affect our gut in a different way so it is important to familiarise yourself before starting any therapy.
Another examples of things which can affect our gut are food pesticides like for example glifosat which can cause leaky gut or symptoms of gluten intolerance. Other things to watch out for are alcohol and smoking. Yes smoking also affects the digestive system by suppressing hunger and alternating our food desires. Digestion can also be affected by food packing and methods of food preparation for example use of microwaves. Microwaving food completely changes the water structure within a meal and makes it difficult to be recognised by our body. In addition microwaves wipe off nutritional value of foods. So not only what we eat is seen as “enemy” but also has no real nutritional value. Microwaved food actually becomes just a filler for our digestive system and clogs it up. It becomes obvious that food itself is as important as its preparation! But not only microwaves can jeopardise good ingredients in our meal. Aluminium based pots and teflon pans are just one example of cooking equipment that can alter the food as well as our gut.
It is important to remember that not only things we put in our mouth can affect the gut. Also products we put on our skin like topical creams, shower gels, sterile wipes and other cosmetics can affect our skin flora which is directly linked with our gut flora. The more ingredients in those products, the more different substances our body needs to deal with, affecting the digestive system and vice versa.
If for example liver is overworked with detoxifying our body and lines of elimination are not working (bowel movement) then this can result in skin problems like eczema. Popularity of sterile wipes and alcohol gels also has an effect on our skin by reducing natural skin flora and the same time our gut flora. Recent studies show strong links between increased rates in food allergies and autoimmune diseases with overuse of antiseptic products (including antibiotics) and reduced versatility of bacteria in our gut flora…
What we can do then to improve our good flora and functioning of our gut? Probiotics are very important but even more important are probiotic foods. Regular eating of probiotic foods, that normally are part of traditional diet, is a great source of good gut bacteria. In Asia, a great variety of miso, kimchi, tempeh, natto and kombucha are part of their traditional diet. In Europe, we also have probiotic foods like, kefir, sourdough, sauerkraut and sour cucumbers or sour cream which our grandmas used to prepare at home:). Unfortunately modern diet moved away from those rich probiotic foods. We often do not eat them regularly enough and that may set off our gut’s rain forest. Especially if our diet includes a lot of carbohydrates. This can cause a growth of different nasty funguses, like Candida albicans which presence normally is prevented by strong gut flora.
Being a pharmacist you would probably expect me to talk more about pharmacy probiotics? Why am I not focusing so much on over-the-counter probiotics then? I see them more as an additional and supportive measure in people, who take antibiotics or for some reason can not tolerate probiotic foods. Most of the shop probiotics, even the good quality products would contain limited, no more than 15 species of good gut bacteria versus hundreds in the food. That is why taking off the shelf probiotics for a long time, makes our gut flora very selective with overgrowth of strains we provide. Probiotic foods on the other hand provide many hundreds of pre- and probiotic bacteria, making our gut more versatile. So, if you can tolerate it, my advice would be to incorporate probiotic foods in your diet instead. Probiotic foods also bring rarely present flavours in the modern diet, like sour and bitter. They stimulate production and release of the digestive enzymes.
Other things which affect our gut flora, may seem very obvious, are refined sugars and trans-fats. Sometimes we do not realise how much crap is packed in all processed foods off the shelf! Reading labels of what we buy is an essential routine, just because not everything that looks healthy is really healthy… Buying organic products may feel like an expensive capricio but nowadays it becomes a must! Otherwise we may need to pay that difference later. Invest in your gut now or pay later is one of my favourite golden thoughts. With massive production of food, organic products are the least treated with chemicals, they are free of GMO and they are not processed… I feel like I am describing a chemical laboratory rather than a grocery shop…
It may sound like a not related topic to our healthy gut but I want to mention cooking meals at home. It sounds very simple and fairly normal, but with current trends and accessibility of delivered foods, our “normal” habits have changed. For many people cooking at home has become an unnecessary waste of time! People nowadays not only order pizza or Chinese takeaway but basically rely on ready foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner… The most healthy bought foods available will always contain more ingredients than the once cooked at home. And those additional ingredients like flavourings, colouring and preservatives clog up our digestive system affecting our gut. I find cooking at home very therapeutic and it makes me experience food differently. Don’t get me wrong, I do like to go out to restaurants, who does not !? Eating out is great but not everyday, three times a day… Not mentioning how much extra rubbish takeaway foods create… As well as those containers that they pack food in… Are they so great for the health of our gut? Home cooking allows you to choose your ingredients as well as to build different relations with food. Every stage of that process, pretty much, sets you for better digestion and absorption of nutrients.
When the food is cooked the next essential stage is eating. Nowadays the way we eat has become very chaotic for a lot of people. Eating or rather shuffling down foods for many is a normal thing but not necessarily for our body… And I do not want to be extreme by saying, we should chew each bite 50 times to allow proper digestion… However, a little bit of attention and care is needed. When we eat consciously we allow our gut to have some benefit from what we provide to it. Our brain is a big part of that process too, so by keeping it less busy benefits our gut. Because even the most amazing food, if it is not digested it becomes an obstacle to the gut, causing constipation or diarrhoea, bloatedness, gases and discomfort. If those symptoms become chronic they can lead to lack of energy, anemia, problems with sleep and even with libido. Also when the digestive system is not functioning well it may cause irritation, low self-esteem and as mentioned before the depression.
Again just to emphasise it again when your gut is well you are well but if it is not…
Speaking from my own experience and my digestive problems which started in Vietnam during our journey around Asia last year. As I mentioned in my first blog (https://bit.ly/2HRQTxR) I went to see Dr Brown kinesiologist in Bali and then on the return to Europe I saw my homeopath but only once.. And then I restarted seeing her regularly a few months ago. I have been having better times and worse times, but I noticed my energy levels get affected as well as my sleep and irritability.
For the past 5 months I have included daily probiotic foods in my diet like sauerkraut or sour cucumbers, daily sourdough (baked at home) and often kefir or kombucha. My diet is mainly organic, vegetarian and cooked at home. I take different supplements like vitamin D, turmeric, super berries and recently started to drink Moringa Oleifera tea. I go to yoga, pilates and Tai-chi every week. Despite all my efforts I still felt deep down that there was some energetic blockage. Maybe never been well since the food poisoning or rather salmonella I had last year or some emotional stagnation? So I went to have an acupuncture and cupping session. A Chinese practitioner told me the same as my homeopath, that my liver is weakened and a bit sluggish and my large bowel is overreacting.
According to Chinese organ energy flow, liver stores anger, frustration and rage and large intestines are associated with being stuck and defensiveness. I have experienced a lot of those feelings in the months before my digestive symptoms have started. I also tried releasing trapped emotions from different parts of the body with my friend Karolina, who offered me a session of Emotion Code. That is a new discovery for me and a great friendly tool to use even yourself at home. As you can tell it has been a slow process of getting my gut back on track with different complementary therapies. All of them work towards the same goal but on different aspects of this imbalance. It is a process but it is all worth it!
Let me summarise a bit. Gut is a large and important organ which receives, processes and absorbs food and emotions. It is connected with all our organs as well as with our brain. Most disturbances in our gut are caused by external factors like processed food, medicines, insufficient probiotic intake however a variety of emotions can affect its different parts. That is why correct nutrition, homeopathy and other complementary therapies can bring our gut back to balance. At the same time a balanced gut benefits our whole body and mind. I hope I draw an importance of the gut and its system of connections with mind and body.