Now there is big talk about GUT health. So what does it even mean, and why is it so important?
New research shows that our brain, heart and gut are interconnected. It's like we have three brains that communicate with each other and keep us well. We've all known for a while that we feel a certain way if we eat certain foods. Bloating, wind, painful cramps, runny/sticky poos and swelling can all be symptoms of a gut that's not happy.
So if we can help keep our tummy happy with the right microbiome, which means the right kind of bacteria that keep the gut happy. More recent research suggests poor gut health can lead to Cohron's disease, bowel cancer and other autoimmune disorders. So what affects our gut?
I've never been a coffee fan, but I have heard many great things about proper coffee. I have a love/ hate relationship with tea, as I'm sensitive to caffeine, and I love it, but it doesn't love me mainly because I can't drink it without three sugars and can easily have 3 -4 cups a day, which is not great for my gut, aesthetically or otherwise! I've given up tea in spells for 15 years, then four years. I'm currently off it to decrease my sugar intake, which helps me feel less fatigued in the mornings.
The Western Diet
Over the years, we have lost gut-supportive food habits such as chicken stock from leftover bones, live yoghurts, fermented foods, quality bread, smelly cheeses, and regularly eating greens, veg and fish. And we have moved to convenience foods with refined carbs (pasta/rice/white bread), which quickly become sugar in the body. Sugar (drinks, biscuits, and stuff high in fructose) harms our microbiome. Then there are trans fats (fried stuff, low-fat spreads, cakes) that also have links to depression. You might think they are better, but artificial sweeteners in fizzy drinks or anything that says 'reduced sugar'. And finally, alcohol, the thing doctors typically ask you to give up first when ill, zaps our gut flora. The lack of diversity in the plant-based foods we often eat means the spectrum of varieties is way too narrow.
So what's it doing?
Recently I learnt that caffeine doesn't keep up away but blocks the part of our brain that tells us were tired and releases less melatonin (the chemical that helps us sleep). Too much sugar & caffeine trigger adrenaline and cortisol to alert us, but this affects our parasympathetic nervous system - which we need to digest food efficiently. Gluten sensitivity can affect a person's ability to absorb food properly. So even if you are not sensitive, reducing it for a month will allow you to replace it with more veg! Gluten-free products are often highly processed, so where possible, go fresh!!!
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT BLOATING?
Bloating is common, and foods like onion, garlic, stoned fruit and cabbage can worsen it. Another food group is dairy, which many people don't realise they might be sensitive to as they've had it their whole life.
Keep a food diary. It doesn't have to be long, just the days you felt at your worst. That's how I discovered I was sensitive to dairy. Even a splash of milk in tea regularly is not ideal for me. We have to start with a few things to create a healthy gut lining. What you eat and how you eat it.
Since my trip to Mexico, I've intentionally reduced my sugar, caffeine, dairy and white flour-based products to build a better microbiome and feel less tired, especially in the morning. Mornings have been a real slog of late, and a sunny morning does help, but the lethargicness felt in the evenings and at the start of my day was very real.
Now part of me thinks it's probably Peri - menopausal, but gut health will undoubtedly have a positive impact either way. And I'm pleased to report it definitely has. Mornings are more manageable, and I feel lighter getting up. The other day I had a couple of packets of beef Monster Munch crisps and felt it the next day. So it's making a difference. The other thing I also started doing is simplifying the order I eat food. Now I looovvve variety on my plate, but eating veg first, then protein followed by carbs last, without having different things in my fork (I swapped the quantity of veg and carbs around) makes my gut a happy-larry!
HOW TO DO IT FOR 7 DAYS
Building a healthy gut is about happy gut lining, and that means poop passing through nice and quickly and nice and thick! Skinning poos are a sign of lacking fibre (veggies). To create a resilient gut, a wide range of bacteria is needed. Try and see if you notice the difference in 7 days.
The right environment means less sugar, which has many code names - Rice syrup/sucrose/fruit juice concentrate/ glucose/coconut sugar/stevia/treacle/saccharine/brown sugar are a few). Have sugar sparingly, like honey or maple syrup (which helps keep your body in a more alkaline state, which is better for cell health and recovery repair when ill.)
It can damage the mucus in our small intestines, and eczema can worsen after a night of drinking. Loose stools and poor mood the morning after could be dysbiosis. So in moderation.
Limit for a time to get the gut healthy.
Wheat, Rye, Spelt, Grains
Reduce for now and reintroduce after a month to give your gut a chance to repair.
Rice, Oats and Quinoa
I cut back on rice and don't eat oats that much, but find a way that works for you, maybe to have smaller portions so that you are not stacking food and pushing your body beyond its limits - e.g. one spoon of rice, perhaps not 3.
I've always thought that beans were great for us, but when eaten in high quantities, as vegans and vegetarians may do, they can cause bloating.
I didn't know that tomatoes, aubergine, potatoes and peppers are like some pulses and high in lectin protein, but the vitamin and mineral value is still good.
WHAT YOU CAN TRY
Meat in its original state - just like my grandfather in Jamaica used to do on the farm. Fish & eggs fresh. Use olive oil and coconut oil. Drink filtered water - lemon hot water (my fave). Tea swap could be - hot water and ginger or mint leaves. Now there's no caffeine hit, which can take some getting used to! Chicory root is a good coffee switch.
Nuts contain zinc which helps with mood and is excellent for healthy gut lining. I have a nut tin (a bit like a biscuit tin but with nuts). I have been known to nibble a nut or two during a meeting! I love cashews, brazils, and pistachios (although I cracked a tooth once, so not anymore). Go easy on portions as they can be high in fat, and too much has been linked to unhappy microbiomes. Sunflower/pumpkin seeds are also some of my faves.
Veggies, herbs and spices are good to go and help make those bland veggies get their glam on! Heavy on the herbs as they are anti-inflammatory and give you microbiome variety. Apples, bananas, asparagus, cold potatoes, leeks & pak choi as gut boosters. Whoop whoop! Olives are great, but not the black-dyed ones. Sea salt contains minerals, and Sumac is great in salads and meat for that limey Middle Eastern twist.
Now I can't do fermented stuff - Ohhh, I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan, but again I know some people swear by them, so they deserve a mention.
ON A PRACTICAL LEVEL
If you don't normally cook from scratch, plan time into your calendar to prepare meals and make a food shopping list. It will be challenging, as with any change, but give yourself time to adjust. Or if it's in the budget, subscribe to a 'send you the ingredients and recipe card' box to kick start you.
3 steps to getting started:
Plan, plan, plan. Being organised will help when your willpower or motivation lets you down. Even when eating out, be intentional about your choices.
If you are like me and you get bored of the same foods, mix it up a little and try new foods from other countries. This will help with a variety of herbs and spices and keep you interested. Or make dishes you usually have with a few swap-outs.
Enlist a buddy to help - do it with someone or help keep you accountable. Tell people so they can encourage you too. My friend offered me some banana cake (which I love), and as she handed it to me, she reminded me I wasn't eating cake. "Brilliant, thanks friend!" It can take a community.