The Gut Has Become Known as the Second Brain
I’m in the business of helping others heal their bodies with better food choices but that’s not the whole picture. The truth is that food is a large part of our healing process, but there are many other factors at play: our gut microbiome, how we deal with stress, how much we move, how well we sleep, our environment and our inter-personal relationships, all of which play important roles in our journey to heal and arrive at our best health.
In this article I am putting gut health in the spotlight and will be sharing some of my beliefs and tips about how we can enhance and optimise our gut health to help us arrive at GOOD health.
But before we dig into gut health deeply, let’s take this conversation back a step: what does GOOD health mean? To me good health is when you feel energetic throughout the day, your mood is stable, your weight is naturally managed, you can easily switch to a more relaxed state as the day winds down, (without needing a glass of wine), your skin and eyes are clear, you don’t experience digestive issues, get sick very rarely and generally experience a feeling of wellbeing – not aches and pains. Taking a quick survey of these above-mentioned health goals can help you assess whether your health is optimal, or if an intervention is needed.
Often, I hear from clients whom I coach that they experience unexplained health issues, which lead to them using chronic medications to help manage these mysterious symptoms, but then confess that these medications either don’t work, or that they cause other issues. All of us have the desire to be healthy and to live a full life that’s medication free… it’s perfectly put in the following quote: “When we are healthy, we have a million wishes, but when you don’t have good health you only have one wish…”
So, in order to heal and restore your body’s inherent ability to heal and thrive, many of the answers to our health are tied up with our gut health.
Every single human being’s microbiome is unique. It may be similar to those of your family and loved ones as you spend most of your time with them, but different all the same. Your microbiome is a community of bacteria that assist your body in more ways than you can imagine. Why do these microscopic organisms assist and perform so many functions in our bodies? Well, the simple answer is that we cannot live in a sterile world and, inevitably, become a host to bacteria and their only agenda is to help create our best health to ensure their host’s longevity.
We can think of our microbiome as a garden, in the case of our ‘gut-garden’, the healthiest garden is a diverse one. The greater the variety of bacteria, the better. Great gut health is a delicate balance, but the good news is we are in charge of their environment and we can feed them and expose them to just the right climate for them to thrive, diversify and multiply.
Feed them! Our greatest tool in feeding our microbes is providing them with fibre. The type of fibre our microbes love to feast on is fibre from vegetables, especially the difficult to digest ones like the stalks of vegetables, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes and even peel of vegetables. All vegetables are a good source of fibre and my recommendation is to eat as many different kinds every day as possible – different vegetables encourage different bacteria species to thrive. I challenge you to try and eat at least 7 cups of veggies per day – which brings me to carbs…
Carbohydrates is such a confusing subject to most of us. We know that they can cause insulin resistance, which leads to so many diseases (Alzheimer’s, diabetes, hormone imbalances and much more – not to mention brain fog, cravings, low energy and chronic inflammation), but we need their fibre for our best gut health and striking the right balance with carbs is where most flounder. Herein lies the paradox, the delicate balance we have to strike to stay in a low-grade ketosis by allowing the body enough fibre for the gut to thrive and for good fats to become our fuel, not glucose! The simple answer is to stick to watery vegetables: Cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, mushrooms (technically fungi), cauliflower, leafy greens, tomatoes and avocadoes, (actually fruit). Slightly more starchy vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, zucchini and squash can be enjoyed twice per week and vegetables such as butternuts, sweet potatoes and white potatoes once per week.
A simple shift to transform your gut health is therefore to increase your watery vegetable intake dramatically, even better if you choose organic vegetables grown in microbe-rich soil, which gives us even greater microbe exposure to enhance our microbe community’s diversity. I therefore highly recommend NOT washing organic vegetables – or just lightly if needed – and eating their peels where possible.
There is a reason why children who play in the dirt (and inevitably ‘eat’ some dirt/soil) have better immune function – because our immunity is directly connected to the health of our gut microbiome. We need to keep in mind that modern farming practices that heavily spray crops with pesticides have destroyed the diversity of the soil’s ‘macrobiome’, which leads to our microbiomes lacking diversity.
Another useful tip about including tons of vegetables in your diet; is to start with cooked vegetables (think stews and soups) in order to help your body to adjust to the increased fibre. Winter is therefore a wonderful time to make this gentle shift. It will take a while for your microbe community to expand, multiply and diversify and be able to cope with all the extra fibre. Once you are coping well, you can increase your raw vegetable intake if you want to, but it’s not essential. I find that warming, cooked food is most nourishing and often only recommend a leafy greens and avocado salad served raw with meals to enhance digestion with the added enzymes they offer. I love the ayurvedic food principles that just make so much sense: eating warming foods, chewing well and slowly, which helps your digestion immensely, and choosing your meal times carefully for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption.
Know and avoid the real bad guys! In addition to adding lots more fibre to your diet, another simple change to enhance your microbiome’s health is to avoid second-hand antibiotics in the food you choose. Choose organic and grass-fed animal products that specify NO antibiotic use in rearing. Antibiotics kill bacteria, the good and the bad, with one single course of antibiotics we can wipe out a third of our microbiome and some species lost we may never be able to recover. It is therefore essential that we avoid antibiotic treatments unless absolutely needed and certainly give second-hand antibiotics in animal products a wide berth.
In addition to antibiotics, avoid preservatives. They act as antibiotics do, suppressing or killing bacteria growth, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to happen in our microbiome. We are often so focused on avoiding pathogens (bad bacteria that makes us sick) that we end up killing our good guys in the process, but, to be honest, pathogens can easily be avoided with good selection, preparation and storing of food… as it turns out, the ‘real bad guys’ are our farming and food manufacturing practices.
Put out the fire: Inflammation is like a slow-burning fire in our bodies and, as we now know, chronic inflammation in the body leads to disease. In fact some would argue that most diseases are rooted in inflammation.
One of your most powerful weapons against inflammation is healing your intestinal barrier; restoring its ability to succeed in allowing the right nutrients in and keeping out potential threats and this can be done by excluding foods that compromise our gut lining’s permeability.
Avoid the following: Refined carbohydrates, gluten, sugar, processed foods, low-fibre diets, processed vegetable oils, chronic stress, infections, antibiotics, antacids and anti-inflammatories… all of which shows us that food is only part of the picture.
In addition to healing our gut lining, avoiding refined foods and focusing on good fats to become our fuel, we avoid inflammation in our brain, causing brain fog and many other brain diseases that creep up on us earlier than we think. In fact, researchers are discovering that non-genetic Alzheimer’s markers can already be found in individuals in their late 30s and early 40s and they go hand-in-hand with a diet high in refined foods which lead to insulin resistance. You are therefore not only healing your gut by avoiding the wrong carbohydrates, you are also ensuring good brain health into a ripe old age.
And, on that note, I will end by highlighting the importance of a high-fibre, clean diet that excludes processed foods. In a nutshell; choose the right fibre, good fats and proteins to power up your microbes and brain to heal your gut and ensure your best health.
Marlien Wright is a nutritional therapy coach, healing-retreat facilitator and the author of two cookbooks; The Yoga Kitchen and The Mandala Kitchen. You can get in touch with her and learn more about her food and meal plans and workshops via www.yogakitchen.co.za