Good Digestion

In a recent question posted in Ask the Vegan Naturopath (our facebook group), a member asked if I had any tips on how to get your gut flora or digestion super healthy. As so often happens, I started replying and then realised the reply was too big, so here I am, turning the reply into a blog:

HEALTHY DIGESTION

There are some basics to consider, as well as remembering to take a holistic approach (hint: it isn’t just about food choices!), but essentially the journey for each person is unique and the most important thing is to experiment and listen to your body. Here are some tips:

  • Please recognise that it can be very confusing for your body if you are constantly chopping and changing with diets, especially if those changes are sudden and/or extreme. It takes time to build up gut the gut flora needed to digest (breakdown, ferment, transform) specific foods, if you haven’t been eating them (or much of them) previously. For this reason, there are times when making slower, more gradual changes can be kinder and more sensible that jumping from one therapeutic way of eating to the next every couple of months.
  • When testing out an approach to eating to see if it’s right for us, we need to be constantly listening for that sweet spot that sits half-way between really giving the therapy a decent chance to work its magic and really listening to what your body is telling you. And this can be confusing, because in the early stages, how do you tell the difference between ‘I feel uncomfortable because my body is still adjusting to the changes’ verses ‘this food/approach really doesn’t work for me’. This is why transitioning gradually can be wiser: your body struggles less and you can test the various elements of the new way of eating/living more slowly and effectively. As my husband says, reduce the variables: test one thing at a time.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to diets, because we are all so uniquely different. The true therapeutic diet that is going to work best for you is one that is probably a mish-mash of different approaches from different eating philosophies. Find what works for you by exploring and experimenting. I personally think cherry picking can be a smarter move than copying what someone else has found works for them. Because you are not them! It’s imperative that you listen to your body and find what works for you. Having said that, every nutrition/health teacher and therapeutic diet is going to teach you something. Keep a diary and note down what seems to work for you as an individual, rather than needing to subscribe to a particular ‘club’, no matter who that external authority happens to be.
  • Now that I’ve told you that, I’m going to share what I have learned about a healthy gut from my training, my personal experience, working with clients, research and so on. But my opinion is of course, just one more in a sea of clamouring voices and I hope I don’t add to the overwhelm! All I can do is share my take, but my personal and professional perspective is not The Truth, The Way…. you have to find your own truth, your own way (ie listen to your body while you experiment):

FOR HAPPY GUT HEALTH

Base your diet on plant-based whole foods. Your gut flora thrives on fibre and this is only found in plant-based whole foods. Processed foods tend to have the fibre removed, and the food then becomes unbalanced. We need our carbohydrates to be INTACT for them to be healthy! Refined sugar is sugar that has been isolated from a whole food and concentrated- like refined salt and oil, it’s unnatural and more drug-like than food-like (drug-like substances disturb homeostasis i.e. balance, in the body, rather than repairing or nurturing it.) Each of us is more sensitive to one of these refined foods than the other because of our unique make-up.

If you are more sensitive to refined sugar, and you have disturbed/damaged your gut and health by consuming it, you will most likely become sensitive to some whole foods containing natural whole sugars/carbohydrates as well, but I don’t think these foods were the original problem in the first place, and recovery should ideally see them being re-included rather than avoided indefinitely. Being able to consume them is, in fact, a good sign of recovery, but they should never be over-consumed. For example, it’s probably not smart to become a fruitarian if you are sensitive to sugars, but ideally, it’s great if we can work towards being able to have a little bit of fruit every day.

To recover, and be able to consume the natural whole sugars/carbohydrates that are such a beautiful and vital component of a healthy diet, you have to knuckle down and get rid of all the real demons first:

No refined sugar at all. This doesn’t just mean don’t eat lollies or cake. It means don’t consume fruit juices or ANY juice that has had the fibre removed. Don’t consume white rice. Brown rice is fine. Don’t consume white pasta or white bread. Wholemeal is better but it’s still quite processed. Don’t consume any alcohol AT ALL, full stop, no questions asked. It baffles me that people are talking about avoiding potatoes or fruit when they are still consuming things like alcohol and alternative milks (yes, the fibre has been removed).

Identify food sensitivities. You can do this by keeping a food journal and tracking mood/energy/symptoms and food intake. You can also eliminate one food as a time then reintroduce it 3-6 weeks later to see how your body responds. Coming from an allergic family I can tell you that if you’re eating a food you have trouble digesting on a daily basis, your symptoms will be muted and chronic- you are so used to them you tend to accept them as normal. But they also tend to be less extreme than they would be if you only ate that food once in a blue moon. I came from an allergic family and can tell you that some of us choose to keep allergy foods in our diet so we can eat them sometimes (eg socially) without a full-blown reaction, but these members are happy to put up with a slightly sub-par health level in general. Others avoid these foods altogether and lose any digestive/tolerance edge they might have otherwise have. Give them a small amount accidentally once a year and all hell will break lose! The reactions will be extreme. I’m sure, in part, that this is because we haven’t cultivated the bacteria needed to digest this food, but many of us also say ‘I’ve just got a cleaner system that won’t tolerate crap! The truth is somewhere between the two.

There is also the case of the ‘build-up’ and ‘other compounding stresses’ that can make identifying food sensitivities a bit more challenging. With a build up, we can tolerate the offending food so long as we don’t overdo it, but have it one too many times and wham! The reaction hits you like a ton of bricks. You are also more likely to tolerate a sensitivity food if your health is otherwise in fine form. But if you are stressed, haven’t slept properly etc, you are more likely to have a bad reaction. These are some of the reasons why we might react sometimes, but not at other times.

SLOW DOWN

Beyond your food choices, there are other things to take into account when improving gut or digestive health:

*Eat slowly, don’t eat on the run, and address any obsession with doing, achieving, and constantly being busy or going at a fast pace through life. Slow down, so that you can properly chew, be present with, and digest your meals.

*Avoid caffeine. It tends to aggravate gut conditions and essentially, as a stimulant, it isn’t going to be supporting digestion. Instead, it will be funneling blood supply and resources away from digestion, and inhibiting appetite, which means the production of digestive enzymes will also be inhibited and you won’t digest your food as effectively.

*Address stress, develop emotional intelligence/health, learn mindfulness skills and stress-management skills, find deeper meaning in life (beyond doing and acquiring and ego), learn how to meditate, do yoga or tai chi. Find ways to slow down and be present with yourself. Learn how to feel safe listening to how your body feels, rather than ignoring it, or medicating it to make it shut up. Learn how to consciously relax tension out of your muscles and breathe more deeply, as this will enhance digestive health.

REMEDIES

Focus on the following:

*Probiotics and/or fermented foods and prebiotic foods (personally I think all fibre is prebiotic but the gut researchers love specific foods like leeks!)

*Improve digestion with bitter and/or carminative herbs eg dandelion, chamomile.

*Improve digestion by gradually adding a wider range of herbs and spices to your cooking or meal prep eg thyme, rosemary, cardamom, fennel seeds, garlic, etc

*Use calming-down herbs to soothe your nervous system, so that you calm down and are better able to digest your food eg chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm etc. This will also help your immune system function better, and improve the health of your gut flora.

*Consider using herbs that balance the immune system, such as Echinacea.

PROTECT YOUR MICROBIOME

Your gut flora is connected with all of who you are as a person, so improving your health as a whole being will make a difference. This includes looking after your microbiome as a whole. Your microbiome is ALL of the bugs or microbes that – with your physical body. We have tended to become a bit too obsessed with hygiene and have declared war on microbes as though they are all the enemy, when it reality, most of them are an integral part of being healthy. Don’t overdo it with chemicals (eg cleaning, personal care etc) or with herbs or drugs that declare war on microbes (eg antibiotics, oregano oil, colloidal silver etc). Experts in gut flora research tend to wash less rather than more, the more they learn, and for them, antimicrobial  hand soaps are the devil in disguise.

As one researcher once put it, “Don’t out it on your skin if you wouldn’t eat it” and as I always say “if you are breathing it in, you are consuming it”.

Understanding Zinc

zinc

ZINC and the IMMUNE SYSTEM

I can’t say that zinc is a go-to solution for me when I’m boosting the immune system, even though deficiencies in zinc can impact the immune system. In part, this is because I know immune boosting herbs tend to be rich in zinc as well as the many other nutrients required for healthy immune functioning.

Zinc is not the only or even the best answer for immune deficiency, by a long shot. It’s worth noting zinc is often prescribed or self-prescribed for immune deficiency even when there is no evidence of a zinc deficiency. The thing is, while correcting a zinc deficiency can help improve immune function, boosting zinc levels when they are already fine won’t do anything to improve your immune function, and may actually be counter-productive.  Continue reading

Recommended Nutrient Intake

Question:

“I am looking for “naturopaths’ advice” on vitamins and minerals levels -zinc, magnesium, calcium, chromium, iron, B12, D, C etc. I know the GPs recommended levels, which are not the optimum levels, I would like to know where I can find the “real” levels we actually need.”

Answer:

GP’s recommended nutrient levels, so long as the GP in question is staying up to date with changes, are generally coming from the best research available at the time. You can access this information via government websites such as this: https://www.nrv.gov.au/introduction

As you can see from this Australian Government page about Nutrient Reference Values, there are quite a few different methods used, with the approach used and amounts recommended varying between countries. It really isn’t as cut and dried as you might think: there is no definitive “ideal nutrient intake” list. Researchers, organisations, governments and countries don’t necessarily all agree, and the lists we do have are a ‘best guess’ for the average person. Continue reading

The Super Hero

I had a lovely morning talking with my daughter and she has inspired some blogs. Here’s the first one, before I forget everything she told me!

“I don’t understand. You get these people who go vegan, but they haven’t done their research and they aren’t eating properly, and they get sick, and then instead of fixing up their diet, they just decide veganism is bad for them and they stop altogether. Where’s the sense in that?

It’s like being a super hero and burning out because you are saving too many people and doing it all night when you should be sleeping. So you go to the doctor and you ask him for advice and he says ‘Oh you should stop being a super hero, it’s bad for you’.

If you really loved helping and saving people, you wouldn’t accept a lame kind of response like that. You’d think ‘This doctor is useless. If he was a decent doctor, he’d say ‘Let me help you organise your time and energy better, and set some limits on how much work you do and when, so that you can keep doing what you love’.” Continue reading

Injury healing and tissue repair- Part 2

In Part 1 we looked at the role of inflammation in wound repair and the management of inflammation. Part 2 is about tissue perfusion. A lot of this information is applicable for preventing tissue damage in the first place and explores practises that ensure better recovery. Injuries, wounds etc obviously come in many different forms, so this information is general only.

What are tissues? Tissues are groups of cells that are bound together or are working together as a team to do a special job. You could think of cells as being the bricks in the house, and tissues as being the walls i.e. the bricks/cells combine together to form the walls/tissues. Just as cells combine to create tissues, tissues combine to create organs. Using our house building analogy, an organ would be a group of walls working together to become a room! And all of our organs working together as a team are the equivalent of the house as a whole.

Good tissue perfusion is a good blood supply to the tissues. Good tissue perfusion is really helpful when it comes to repairing wounds and/or reducing excess inflammation. When enough blood is being delivered to our body tissues, the cells in our tissues are being nourished with nutrients and oxygen from our blood. As well as delivering what the cells need to survive and thrive, our blood also helps to remove waste products from the tissues and cells, which is just as important for maintaining healthy tissue and cellular function. Continue reading

Injury healing and tissue repair – Part 1

 Managing inflammation

Inflammation is often what causes pain but it’s important to understand that inflammation is the bodies attempt to repair a wound and resolve or prevent infection. When there is a broken bone or broken skin, inflammation is the magical process that helps knit everything back together again.

A little bit of inflammation is natural and helpful, but quite often when it comes to healing, it can help to dampen the inflammation process slightly, because our Western/modern diet and lifestyle tends to tip inflammation into overdrive or to steer it in unhelpful directions that hinder rather than help healing.

In some scenarios, inflammation is a natural response to irritation and friction. For example, in osteoarthritis the loss of friction-avoiding, shock-absorbing cartilage means that bones start to touch and rub against each other. This causes inflammation. Friction-based inflammation can occur on a day-to-day basis when we neglect our posture, put too much pressure on the musculoskeletal system by being overweight or ignore injuries and continue to aggravate them rather than resting and getting help to recover properly. One of the most important things you can do to prevent inflammation is to avoid sitting too much, pushing your body too hard, and engaging in repetitive physical movements that result in wear and tear of specific muscles and joints. Continue reading

Probiotics, prebiotics and gut flora

Taking a probiotic or fermented food can be helpful to our gut flora but only to an extent. They really don’t survive long if they aren’t being fed and the quantity of microbes in the tablets or fermented food compared to the the population in the gut itself…. well, think of it as being a bit like asking one doctor to service an entire hospital. A mere drop in the ocean so to speak!

Probiotics and fermented foods can add new strains (species) but they don’t do a lot to really boost numbers. What really makes a difference is your diet. Within days of changing what you eat, your gut flora changes too, because it’s your diet that boosts or starves each strain. And the healthiest bacterial populations in our gut feed on plant foods (indigestible fibre) so this is what we need in order to nurture and build a thriving healthy gut environment. Animal products don’t contribute to this healthy population because they don’t contain fibre. In fact, by having too much animal foods in your diet, you risk starving your healthy gut flora, and as I’ve pointed out previously, this can lead to inflammation both in the gut and the body as a whole. Continue reading

Nourish rather than destroy

Your microbiome is your personal ecosystem of microbes that live in and on your body. Microbes are small organisms, e.g. bacteria and viruses, more commonly known as ‘germs’ or ‘bugs’. These microbes out-number our cells 10 to 1, and while most of us think of microbes as being bad, the vast majority of microbes within and around us are friendly or benign. Many of the microbes that share our body with us are vital to the function of body systems, and we could not survive without them. While most of them live in our gut, they inhabit every surface of our body that comes into contact with the outside world, such as our skin, throat, nose, lungs, bladder, vagina and so on.

A healthy balance of microbes in your body is very important to the healthy functioning of your immune system. Imbalances in our micro biome can contribute to many modern diseases involving inflammation and immune dysfunction such as allergies and automimmune disease. In a way, you could think of your microbiome as being part of your immune system, because it helps keep bad bugs under control. I think of these microbes as being a support team for our white blood cells. Continue reading

Enhancing Iron Absorption

When we source iron from animal products and/or supplements, our body isn’t able to intelligently modulate uptake. The iron is absorbed, whether we need it or not, and this can put us in danger of iron excess. Iron is pro-oxidative and hence damaging to DNA and other molecules.

Iron excess is associated with a broad range of chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal and other cancers. Chronic (long term) iron overdose can result in aggressive behaviour, fatigue or hyperactivity, gut damage, seratonin imbalances, liver damage and so on.

When we source our iron from plant based foods, our body automatically adjusts how much we absorb based on what we need, which means we are in no danger of iron excess. If we need less, we will absorb less; if we need more, we absorb more. Vegans and vegetarians typically develop lower ferritin stores and this optimizes their absorption of iron.

WHAT ENHANCES IRON ABSORPTION?

You can dramatically enhance this absorption process by making sure you have vitamin-C rich foods with (or around about the same times as) iron rich foods. Most fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, but some of the richer sources are broccoli, cabbage, kale, parsley, capsicum, black currants, guava, kiwifruit, mango, orange, pineapple, rockmelon, and strawberry. The citric acids in citrus fruits also enhance absorption, as do the beta-carotenes in yellow, red and orange foods. Continue reading

St Johns Wort- safe use

St John’s Wort is probably one of the most researched and self-prescribed herbs around, so I thought I’d let people know some info for safe usage. These are some of the things I have to think about, as a professional, before prescribing:

Pregnancy and breastfeeding: while this herb appears to be safe so far given studies on both pregnancy and breastfeeding, I tend to err on the side of caution in pregnancy and use less or no herbs (or only miscarriage-prevention herbs), especially if there is any history of miscarriage.

There is a wonderful word we use in herbal medicine called ‘contraindicated’, which is the opposite to ‘indicated’. When someone says “St John’s Wort is indicated in ___”, this means “use this herb for this condition”. If a herb is contraindicated for a particular condition, it means DONT use it.

For example, St Johns Wort is contraindicated for people who have skin photosensitivity, and people taking high doses should be careful if they get a lot of sun exposure or artificial UVA irradiation.

St Johns Wort has been listed as contraindicated with the following drugs: warfarin, digoxin, cyclosporin, indinavir and related anti-HIV drugs, the contraceptive pill… and many others! This is because doctors are worried that something in SJWort may make the body metabolise prescribed drugs faster and thus reduce their effectiveness. It looks like the cause for this might be a specific phytochemical called hyperforin that is present in some subspecies of STWort and not others. Low SJW doses of no more than 2g per day, and/or a form containing less hyperforin (e.g. liquid herbal extract like the ones us herbalists use!) can make SJW safe to use with prescribed drugs, but it should still be done with professional supervision. I’ve certainly seen people get pregnant while on the pill due to taking SJW concurrently (at the same time). So basically, if you are on prescribed medication, don’t self-prescribe SJW- get professional guidance. Continue reading