The phrase “you are what you eat” was most likely coined from an article written by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr in 1942. In recent decades the phrase has stuck and is often used in relation to gut health, the lack of the latter affecting millions of people in the modern world.
The term is in fact literally true, as our general well-being and health is tightly linked to how healthy our digestive systems are. This in turn obviously relates to what we eat and drink, but also how our bodies respond to what we eat and drink.
Although older generations were correct about diet and our health, they did not necessarily understand why.
Surprise! Your gut is an ecosystem
Decades of advertising disinfectants and chemical cleaning agents has firmly entrenched in our minds the notion that everything so small that you can’t see it is a “germ” or a “bug”. They are bad by nature, are out to get us and the only way for us to be healthy is to kill as many of them as possible.
More recently however it has been discovered that our intestines are in fact inhabited by ten of trillions of micro-organisms, most of them not only living in harmony with us but actually necessary for our health.
This is called the microbiome. The microbiome consists of micro organisms (mostly bacteria, formerly known as “gut flora”) belonging to more than 1000 species, totaling ten times more than the cells in your body and can constitute up to two kilogram (4.4 lbs) of you body weight.
While about a third of these micro organisms are common to all people, the exact mix is unique to every individual person, almost like a fingerprint.
What do the microbiota do in our gut?
- The human stomach and small intestine can not digest all types of food, the micro organisms help with the digestive process.
- The GOOD bacteria kill the BAD bacteria and fungi (like Candida albicans) and maintains a healthy balance in our gut ecosystems. This is important to keep the intestinal mucosa (a kind of barrier that keeps pathogens out) in place.
- Micro organisms manufacture some vitamins like K and B.
- They play an important role in maintaining the immune system.
- Good digestive functioning is maintained by a healthy and balanced gut microbiome.
Where do they come from?
We are born from a sterile environment so are born without them. However a baby starts picking them up in the birth canal already, and then from being breast fed and from contact with the general environment. As we age the balance of micro organisms evolves so as we get older the mix of species in out gut changes as determined by our diet and environment, and differs from one person to the next.
What happens when an imbalance occurs?
Sometimes the balance between good and bad microbiota in our guts gets disturbed, leading to a condition called Dysbiosis. This is linked to bowel disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and diabetes. In fact there is a whole range of disease and health conditions that can be linked to dysbiosis. Recent research even indicates that mental issues such as depression and anxiety can be linked to dysbiosis.
Our general health, immune system, food allergies and intolerance, and our mental health are all interlinked and it may be difficult to determine what the source of an imbalance might be.
Causes of gut health problems
In modern times “we are what we eat” means we ingest a lot of highly processed, genetically modified, sweetened and chemically preserved foods low in nutrients. It’s no wonder we are getting sick! Also, modern life puts a lot of stress on us on a continuous basis leading to a range of health problems. While a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables can provide our gut microbiome with all it needs to be balanced and healthy, the fact is that our diets do not include enough of it. And a lot of what we eat actually promotes disease.
Agricultural food production has systematically focused on commercial scale production of food that “looks” better, lasts better (for transportation across the globe), and is nuked with all kinds of synthetic substances for fertilizing and pest control. The number of different species of plants farmed has also shrunk to a fraction of the variety available 100 years ago, so we’re simply not eating food with enough variety.
Western medicine also sometimes contributes to the problem by concentrating on trying to kill the pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi) responsible for disease without treating the PATIENT. How many times have you been given antibiotics without the doctor giving you instructions on what to eat or prescribing probiotics to counter the effects of the medicine?
(The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) define probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”). Prebiotics are basically compounds that act as substrate for probiotics in the large intestine.
Antibiotics kill the good as well as the bad bacteria so you have to replace them with probiotic-containing food and supplements if necessary.
How to restore gut health
- As far as possible, include a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruit (include fermented foods) in your diet to restore the balance of micro organisms in your gut. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, kefir, aged/raw cheeses, pickles, tempeh, natto, and kimchi. Apple cider vinegar and wine also contain probiotics.
- If you are aware that certain foods make you feel bad, depressed, cause headaches or stomach cramps you may be intolerant to them. Avoid those foods. Consider having tests done for food intolerance. Food allergies and intolerance is a broad topic that requires more discussion. You may want to consider following an elimination diet to determine which foods you should avoid.
- Stress can cause imbalances in your gut (and vice versa), look after your mental health with appropriate therapies.
- Get enough exercise. Exercise is vital to maintain gut health and boost your immune system.
- Take high quality supplements. As discussed, modern lifestyles don’t always make it easy to achieve all the above. Fortunately there are some excellent natural products out there which are a convenient way to help you restore a healthy gut. They will help you balance your gut micro organisms and your health can improve accordingly.
To sum up
Gut health is a very neglected area of focus when we get sick and are diagnosed with a large variety of illnesses. Gut health is dependent on a proper balance of micro organisms in the digestive tract. Imbalance can be caused by a modern lifestyle and eating habits, lack of exercise, stress, toxins in our environment and medicines like antibiotics.
Remember, WE ARE WHAT WE EAT. If you are unable to eat healthy fresh fresh foods all the time due to lifestyle pressures you will have to supplement your diet with prebiotics, probiotics and digestive enzymes to help restore and maintain your gut health. Fortunately natural high quality products are available from reliable sources. It is worth the cost because you’ll be visiting the doctor less frequently.