Over 2500 years ago, the founder of modern allopathic medicine Hippocrates was quoted as saying “All disease begins in the gut.”
The importance of good gut health and how it is linked to much of our mental and physical wellbeing has been known and incorporated into traditional medicine for thousands of years. But now modern medicine is catching up.
Modern diets and lifestyles (particularly the impact of dietary choices and stress) can wreak havoc with the delicate natural balance of our gut, in turn affecting our overall health. The first step to good gut health is knowing and understanding how your gut health influences your wellbeing, before discovering different ways to support your body naturally as you move through each day.
Many modern illnesses have no cure or direct cause in allopathic medicine, but the underlying root cause can often be traced back to issues in the gut. So how does our gut health influence our daily lives? What role does gut health play from sleep and emotional wellbeing, to skin and hormonal health?
A delicate balance
All of us are guilty of forgetting all the little things our body does for us during the course of our day-to-day lives. The thousands of tiny, intricate processes that take place every second just to keep us alive. The gut is no exception – far from simply being a vehicle for the processing and transformation of food into energy, it is an incredibly complex and crucial area of the body that literally and figuratively feeds many others.
The importance of a balanced gut microbiome is becoming more commonly known and appreciated – but for many, the gut-health connection is still a complex concept that feels hard to understand, let alone do something about.
Restoring, developing and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome isn’t as simple as popping one probiotic pill. It takes a personalised and consistent approach to build up the good bacteria in your gut and achieve balance and harmony that can then improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Seeing an Ayurveda practitioner to determine the current state of your gut health and provide tailored advice and support may be necessary in extreme cases of illness or discomfort. But there are steps you can take to start to determine the status of your gut health, and begin to move towards a healthier, happier state of being.
Inflammation in the gut
Inflammation is a hot topic right now – especially as the impact of modern lifestyles reveals a devastating impact on the body’s ability to manage the process. Inflammation sounds like a bad thing – but it’s actually one of the first lines of defence our bodies utilise when we are injured or sick. Issues arise when inflammation becomes chronic or prolonged.
A host of contemporary (and often chronic) illnesses are linked to inflammation in the body, from asthma and fibromyalgia to IBD and eczema.
When inflammation affects the gut, your overall health will usually feel unsettled. Symptoms include chronic constipation, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), nausea, fatigue, mood swings and irregular periods.
To soothe an inflamed gut targeted dietary choices are key – as always, removing highly processed, refined foods including refined sugar, carbs and alcohol from your diet is the first place to begin. Steps should be taken to rebalance the gut microbiome, and possible vitamin deficiencies should be explored.
If discomfort continues, an elimination diet or food intolerance testing may be necessary to determine which intolerances or allergies could be behind the symptoms.
Yeast overgrowth in the gut
Yeast, or candida, is a type of fungus that grows all over the body, but is particularly prevalent warm, moist areas. Its presence alone isn’t cause for concern as it’s naturally found in and on the body – but when overgrowth occurs various issues can arise. Symptoms of candida overgrowth in the gut include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, gas and nausea.
Modern diets and lifestyles can accelerate yeast overgrowth as they tend to be high in refined sugars, refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, and alcohol. Yeast overgrowth in the gut can be combatted in a number of ways – usually as part of a multi-faceted approach to rebalance gut flora.
In Ayurveda, yeast overgrowth can be linked with low ‘agni’ – digestive fire – a condition known as ‘mandagni’. This leads to incomplete or insufficient digestion of food, which has a link to Kaphic qualities (read more on the doshas and dosha types here). The Ayurveda approach to Candida involves a clean, balanced diet without sugar, as this feeds the yeast. Natural herbs and supplements to support a healthy gut are often also used in conjunction with dietary changes.
The Liver/Gut connection
In Ayurveda medicine, the liver’s intimate connection with other organs, tissues and systems within the body (including the gut) reflects what allopathic medicine confirms. It is the source of agni, the sacred metabolic fire which fuels digestion and detoxification – and is closely linked with Pitta Dosha, the heated dosha responsible for metabolism and energy production amongst other things. This is where the liver-gut connection in Ayurveda strengthens further – the small intestine is the primary seat of Pitta dosha.
Modern Western lifestyles can result in a fair amount of liver bashing – from overconsumption of alcohol and chemicals in water to coffee dependency and fatty foods. So to protect the liver, it’s important to consider your dietary choices carefully, and drink plenty of filtered water. Certain supplements and herbal extracts can support healthy liver function, including turmeric, amla and neem.
Healthy gut = happy brain
Remember the expression ‘gut feeling’? It’s widely acknowledged that we feel many of our emotions physically in the gut. But in recent years science has explored gut-brain connection in depth, with startling results.
In 2012 Harvard scientists determined that there is a scientifically tangible gut-brain connection, confirming what ancient healers had known anecdotally for thousands of years. Their research showed that the brain’s ‘direct effect’ on the stomach and intestines (which stimulates digestive functions prior to and after eating) can also be triggered by emotions such as stress and anxiety. “A person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected. It is difficult to try to heal a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.”
This means that there is a symbiotic relationship between our emotions and our mental health. The research showed that stress and mental conditions can disrupt gut health, just as much as poor gut health can trigger or exacerbate poor mental health. This can result in a vicious cycle, one in which it’s hard to determine which condition is feeding the other. Anxiety, depression and stress can also actively disrupt digestion, which in turn affects absorption of essential nutrients.
Our emotional and mental health isn’t the only aspect of our brains to be affected by gut health. It can have a profound impact on our hormones, too. The microbiome of friendly bacteria in the gut directly influences your Estrobolome, the part of the microbiome responsible for metabolism and moderation of oestrogen. A microbiome that functions well aids the synthesis and regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters, facilitates good absorption of macro and micronutrients, supports the immune system and contributes to regulation of oestrogen levels in the body. This is especially important for female health, as gut dysbacteriosis (the technical term for an imbalance of bacteria in the gut) can cause a host of issues arising from hormonal imbalance including obesity, PMS, endometriosis and mood swings.
Good gut health is crucial for overall wellness – both mental and physical. Poor gut health can cause many chronic conditions – from chronic fatigue and IBS to PMS and psoriasis. Good gut health is a two-fold affair – involving both the delicately balanced microbiome of good bacteria that help the body to function normally, and the strength and integrity of the gut lining.
A natural, gentle approach can help to create and maintain this positive environment, in turn having a beneficial impact on wellbeing. Herbs and supplements can be used alongside dietary and lifestyle changes to support better gut health – and a transformation that benefits both body and mind.