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:
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.
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.
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”.