Recently, I presented a talk and a sauerkraut demonstration at the NSW Health Wellness Expo. It was such a pleasure to meet up with all the other wonderful community and business groups who offer an amazing array of Health and Wellbeing services to our community.
I'd like to thank those who attended the talk and for your positive feedback. I thought I would re-cap on the talk for those who attended and for the others of you, who may be interested.
To understand the role that gut health plays in disease prevention and progression, first we need to look at gut flora.
What is gut flora? What are its functions?
And how does it get out of balance?
Research into the human microbiome (gut flora) is one of the most exciting areas of study in human health. This is a relatively new field with most being done in the last 20-30 years, so there is a lot more to be discovered. So what makes gut flora so important? Let’s run through a few of the functions of our microbiome.
Have you ever wondered what differentiates us from....say a carrot?
Well not that much genetically speaking. One of the surprises of the Human Genome Project was the discovery that the human genome contains only 20,000 - 25,000 protein-coding genes, about a fifth the number researchers had expected to find.
Researchers are now looking to the human microbiome, which houses a whopping 90% of our overall genetic material.
In other words, we are 10% human genes and 90% bacteria! Our microbiome is our second genome!
This burgeoning science is discovering just how much influence our microbiome has over our health and our genetic expression of disease.
We are beginning to understand that our evolution- what makes us a more “advanced” species over that of a vegetable may be down to our gut flora.
The microbiome is made up of a huge range of bacteria, yeasts and viruses. Rather than thinking of our gut microbes as either being just bad or good, we need to recognise that they can be either, depending on what species is dominant.
Research is now beginning to discover that the microbes in our gut communicate with each other. Gut microbes can sense how many of each microbe is present and send out messages between microbes. Essentially microbes are constantly conducting a sensus and coordinating a collective response according to the information that is being gathered. This is known as quorum sensing.
If only the Australian Bureau of Statistics was managed by gut flora our recent online sensus might have gone better- just another way that microbes could be more evolved than humans!!
Through quorum sensing gut bacteria can respond to incoming bacteria and viruses, and communicate with our brain using neurotransmitters via the vagus nerve.
This gives weight to the importance of having the right bacteria in dominance. When beneficial bacterial species dominate, it leads the response and keeps the opportunistic bacteria in check. I don’t want to get political here, but you really want the right guys in power, the ones that will look after the terrain (your body). Not the ones that decimate the environment and cause disease.
Transitional microbes are the ones that don’t take up residence in the body. They just come in, hang around for a few days then leave. But they can still have a huge impact on health. And a good example of this is a yeast called saccromyces boularrdii (SB). SB has been extensively studied for its use in gastrointestinal diseases such as post antibiotic diarrhea, blastocystis infection and other infections like travelers diarrohea, Bali Belly, that sort of thing. It is also very good for thrush or candida overgrowth and should be used in conjunction with antibiotics to prevent post antibiotic thrush. SB crowds out the candida, but does not take up residence in the body.
Healthy gut flora creates and extra barrier from the outside world.
It protects the gut lining from becoming inflamed when coming into contact with incoming food or pathogens and restricts the adherence of incoming pathogens to the gut wall by forming a blanket lining over the intestine. This also filters access to the blood stream.
Healthy gut flora creates short chain fatty acids, like butyrate, that help heal the gut lining and repair intestinal permeability or leaky gut.
Healthy gut flora is important in detoxification, neutralising nitrates, indoles, phenols and other toxic substances that can be ingested or made in the body.
Gut flora is involved in the breakdown and fermentation of food to make it more easily digested or converted to essential vitamins.
The following vitamins, synthesized by gut flora: K2, B5, Folic acid, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12 are important in bone health, cardiovascular health, DNA replication, mental wellbeing and energy production.
Lymphoid tissue which makes up part of our immune system is located just inside the gut wall. Bacteria in the gut communicate with the lymphoid tissue and modulate the production of lymphocytes (the cells that eat up parasites and viruses)
When the gut flora is out of balance, the immune system is compromised, causing allergies, leaky gut and autoimmunity. This is another complex subject- I have a whole other talk about Gut Health and Immunity!
Have you heard of the term "The Gut Brain Axis"?
The gut–brain axis is the biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system and this includes the gut flora.
Interest in this field was sparked by a 2004 study showing that germ-free mice showed an exaggerated stress response when compared to non-GF laboratory mice.
Most of the work that has been done since on the role of gut flora in the gut-brain axis has been conducted in animals, or has categorized the various neurotransmitters that gut flora can produce. Gut flora are responsible for making some of our most important neurotransmitters. One of the ones you might recognise is serotonin. Serotonin enhancing antidepressant prescriptions have tripled in the last 20 years, with a study published in 2014 showing that between 2010-11 8.9% of the Australian population were prescribed anti-depressants and this ranked the second most prescribed medication in Australia. Second to blood pressure medications (also strongly linked to stress).
What if Drs could prescribe a probiotic and some diet and lifestyle medication before heading for the antidepressants?
For more information on this topic see leading Australian researcher in this field Professor Felice Jacka of Deakin University.
Although serotonin is well known as a brain neurotransmitter, it is estimated that 90 percent of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract. In fact, altered levels of this peripheral serotonin have been linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.
I won’t go into too much detail about the other neurotransmitters,- it’s another talk that I do! But you get the picture, dopamine- parkinsons disease, norepinephrine- blood pressure, heart rate, stress; GABA- downregulates stress response, down regulates excitatory response (think ADD ADHD). And so on……
So what can damage our gut flora?
So that brings us to the question:
How do we look after our gut flora?
Following these simple rules can go a long way to looking after your second Genome.
If you feel you need help, please consider my 12-week gut health program. I have researched extensively on gut health and have put together a plan that incorporates the most successful diets for managing digestive symptoms and healing & sealing the gut lining. As well as following and elimination diet my plan includes the GAPS diet (Dr Natasha Campbell McBride), the Low FODMAP diet ( Dr Sue Shepherd) and the Autoimmune Paleo Diet- AIP (Dr. Loren Cordain).
Show me one person that isn’t under stress these days. We all seem to have financial worries, family issues, work pressure, not to mention life’s lovely curve balls that bowl you off your feet.
So why is it that some people seem to be coping with it all, while others are falling in a heap or flying off the handle at the slightest bit of pressure?
There are quite a few people out there who champion the theory that there is no such thing as stress. They quite validly make the point that there is no event or external pressure that creates stress, but instead our stress response is created by it is our perception. Stress is officially defined as a physical response to a physical pressure. As our perception is not a tangible thing and can be changed with a change in mindset, therefore there is no such thing as stress, only a perception of stress.
So all we need to do is change our mindset and stop perceiving things as stressful situations and everything will be hunky dory……..Right???? Yeah because, you know, when you are really stressed about something and your well-meaning friend says “just RELAX, stop stressing” it makes you feel a whole lot better doesn’t it?? NOT!!
There are some holes in the “There is no such thing as stress” theory.
One particular weakness in the stress/perception theory is that there is actually an inequity in stress perception. We are not all as capable of changing our perception to reduce our stress response. This is because people who have chronic stress, (a prolonged and elevated exposure to stressful events) have a consistent elevation in stress hormones, so they lack the buffer from acute situations that will cause a stress response.
You may even be born with elevated stress hormones. Researchers have found that the level of the stress hormone, cortisol is passed on from mother to baby. What they found was, that women who were highly stressed and materially-deprived, had associated higher cortisol levels and delivered babies with higher cortisol levels. When cortisol is consistently elevated, as with chronic stress, the ability to cope in stressful situations is diminished.
So in short our cortisol levels contribute to our perception of stressful situations.
So if you are suffering from chronic stress, your capacity to cope becomes diminished over time. This propels us in to a negative spiral of not coping and an over response to stressful events, things or people. Until eventually the adrenals become exhausted and burn out.
So while we CAN change our perception of stressful situations, sometimes it is actually harder to do than say. People that have suffered chronic stress have a harder time changing their perceptions because they have elevated stress hormones keeping them on edge.
That’s why I like to describe this kind of situation as adaption deficiency, because it is our capacity to cope that is impaired. We need find ways to increase our ADAPTION to stressful events. We need to nurture our adrenals to down regulate stress hormone imbalance and promote appropriate stress responses. What we don’t want, is to have elevated stress hormones coursing out unnecessarily, making us feel jittery, snappy, and cranky, upsetting our digestion, disturbing our sleep and making everyone around us walk on egg shells. And just quietly guys, if you don't want to have a gripey, cranky baby make sure you look after your lady when she is pregnant!
Cortisol imbalance is also associated with the occurrence of eczema and asthma in babies.
It is now well documented that elevated stress hormones is related to a raft of chronic illness, such as: auto-immune diseases, asthma, eczema, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, menstrual disorders, low libido, infertility and cancer, blood pressure irregularities, thyroid issues, gut issues just to name a few. So getting your stress response under control is kinda important!
As a Naturopath I love to use herbal medicine to nourish the adrenals. Why? Because they produce amazing results in my patients. The premium herbs for stress adaption are Withania, Siberian Ginseng and Rhodiola. These herbs are classed as adaptogens- meaning that they assist your body to adapt to physical and emotional stress. I will often mix these adaptogens with an adrenal restorative such as Licorice and Rhemania. Giving the hard working adrenals, a bit of love can create amazing results in healing. I like to call this my “bottom up” approach, bolstering and nourishing the adrenals rather than attempting to suppress the stress response with sedation. People describe the feeling of taking these herbs as like "a warm hug" and they start to experience sustaining energy that is nourishing and supportive.
The nutritional vacuum that is created in the body through elevated stress may require nutritional supplementation of activated B vitamins, vitamin C and zinc.
Empty sources of energy are often the go to for those under stress. Depending on your level of adrenal exhaustion you may be reaching for the coffee as soon as you wake to get you out of bed, you will be craving high carb salty and sweet snacks to keep you going through the day and at night after a full day of feeling tired you will be reaching for the wine, as you now can't seem to wind down.
All of this serves to deplete your body further of the nutrients that it needs to cope with the out put of stress hormones.
In my clinic I advise my adrenally exhausted patients to eat a nutritious whole food diet that includes a good amount of clean protein, lots of colourful vegetables and plenty of hydration.
So if you feel you need a bit of help to increase your adaption to stressful events, you may like to try some of the herbs and nutrition that I have mentioned or you may like to make an appointment to see me.
Melanie Turner, Naturopath, mother, gardener, lover of wholesome food