By Namu Ju
We all know the gastrointestinal system is incredibly important to human health. The GI tract shuttles food from the mouth to the stomach, absorbs energy and nutrients from food, and transports waste out of the body. It’s relatively simple, right?
Without proper nourishment, we don’t survive. But in recent years, Western science has been catching up with ancient medicine (and the “you are what you eat” warnings of mothers throughout history). It is starting to realise that the GI system affects even more of our physical, mental, and emotional health than previously understood.
WHAT IS GUT HEALTH?
When people talk about gut health, they’re talking about the human gastrointestinal microbiota, gut flora, or most commonly, the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome refers to the billions of microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi present in the gastrointestinal tract. This microscopic ecosystem of organisms has been linked to numerous aspects of health that may be seemingly unrelated to digestion, including the condition of the immune system, emotional stress, and chronic illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and cancer. Gut health has even been linked to neurological conditions, such as schizophrenia and dementia.
The composition of gut microbiomes varies from person to person, but for everyone, a wide diversity of organisms is a good thing. In general, people have about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria in their GI tract. A wider variety is linked to a stronger immune system, emotional resilience, and healthy weight regulation. Less healthy people carry much less diversity and usually a disproportionate amount of bacteria associated with certain diseases. An overabundance of specific types of bacteria is linked to an enhanced risk of asthma, allergies, cancer, and chronic illnesses like heart disease and multiple sclerosis.
Gut microbiomes can change quickly depending on the food a person does, or doesn’t, eat. Poor gut health can manifest itself in multiple ways. Stomach disturbances like constipation, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhoea, and heartburn indicate an imbalance in the gut microbiome. Fluctuating weight, autoimmune disorders, sleep disturbances, fatigue, skin conditions like eczema, and even food allergies may also be signs of a gut in need of attention.
Research suggests that though animal protein — such as meat, dairy, and eggs — may offer many health benefits, high levels of animal protein consumption is associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that reflects poor gut health. Studies on mice have shown that switching from a Mediterranean diet, rich in fibre and antioxidants, to a Western diet heavy in protein and fat can alter the microbiome’s composition within a day. Red meat may be especially unhelpful, as it raises levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which has been linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
High sugar diets take less than a week to decrease microbiome diversity, which has been associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diabetes. Antibiotics (which are present even in certain foods) and antibacterial soaps have also been found to disrupt not only gut flora but microflora of all parts of the human body, making the body more susceptible to illness or disease. High stress levels and lack of exercise also contribute to poor gut health.
Most people have vices that contribute to less-than-optimal gut health, but there are ways to strengthen and restore balance to the gut microbiome.
Foods that reinforce a healthy digestive system include fermented, probiotic-rich foods, such as kimchi, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, and kefir yoghurt. Probiotic supplements may help restore the overall composition of the gut microbiota, especially in unhealthy people. Legumes, beans, and fruits are also helpful, though it’s important to be mindful of sugar levels, even from fruit. Most people don’t meet the recommended daily fibre intake, but studies indicate that high fibre levels are essential to maintaining a healthy gut. Whole grains are a great source of fibre and non-digestible carbohydrates. Exercising regularly, decreasing stress levels, and having good and regular sleep are other important factors for a balanced approach in regulating gut health. Even simple efforts like staying mindful of hydration can help restore a healthy balance.
Revitalisation programmes may help jumpstart gut microbiome realignment to mark the beginning of a new, healthier lifestyle. The Natural Detox Resort, a holistic retreat on Koh Samui offers a five-day detox programme. It aims to help participants clean the intestinal tract, reduce ageing due to free radicals, regulate blood sugar, and boost the immune system. The Wild Tribe Superfood Cafe located at the Natural Detox Resort offers plant-based nutritional options, raw foods, green juices with little to no fruit sugar, and superfood smoothies. Incorporating the freshest locally-sourced ingredients, Wild Tribe Superfood Cafe is the perfect addition to one’s journey in restoring gut health. The Natural Detox Resort offers eight- and fifteen-day packages that utilise natural detox and fine-tuned exercise routines for a thorough, natural approach to restoring health to the mind, body, and spirit. So listen to your gut and contact us today.