What's Gut Got To Do With It?
With the rising increase in gut health concerns across Europe, it’s about time we turned our attention to the importance of our own, says colonic hydrotherapist and personal trainer KAREN DE SOUZA. She’s here to help re-set our belly well-being, incorporating lasting changes to achieve better overall health. Creating a symbiotic relationship with gut bacteria means reaping physical, mental and emotional rewards.
The Digestive Health Across Europe report  identifies that one in four Europeans are affected by Irritable Bowel Syndrome [IBS] and only one in three people seek medical assistance for their digestive health concerns.
These figures highlight the vast amount of people who suffer in silence, perhaps managing it as best they can and considering it a normal but inconvenient part of their daily lives, i.e. until they reach breaking point.
It is important to acknowledge that with our modern lifestyles, our gut health is being compromised by increasing stress factors and poor diets, but good gut health isn’t just something we should focus on when we are trying to get out of pain and distress. It is part of a better understanding of developing an ongoing intuitive connection with our gut and acknowledging its importance.
This may seem like an alien concept to most, but given that 70 to 80 per cent of your immune system is held within your gut, poor gut health can and does have far-reaching consequences on your general health, well-being and energy levels.
Who wouldn’t want to feel healthier, happier and have more energy?
When we do eventually seek medical advice for digestive discomfort, having struggled for some time, we are often looking for an immediate solution, but it can take a long time before a digestive health diagnosis is found and several trial-and-error attempts, with different pharmaceutical recommendations, before there is an improvement in symptoms.
The thing about gut health is that it is more than just a ‘what goes in must come out’ approach – good gut health is about lifestyle choices, individualised nutrition and developing an awareness of what works for you.
Over the last decade, research has focused on the microbiome; for the average Joe and Jane, that’s your gut bacteria. Your microbiome begins its own unique development when you are born, as you leave and obtain bacteria from your mother’s birth canal, and this is continually altered every time you eat something, or come into contact with others.
Your day-to-day environment plays an important role in your microbiome. Think of it as your tiny village within! Peter Turnbaugh et al  found that there can be variations of 10 to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells held by every person and that these are largely within the gut, thus making up a hugely diverse set of nationalities [gut bacteria] among the villagers.
For most, this can be a difficult or strange concept to understand, but the important thing is to comprehend that by creating a symbiotic relationship with your gut bacteria, you will reap physical, mental and emotional rewards.
The thing about bacteria is that in order for the good to thrive, just like humans, they need to be fed and provided with a good environment. Thankfully, you have full ownership over how you choose to house these bacteria, and every time you eat and drink, you have the opportunity to replenish and feed them.
It is incredibly important to consume a diet that is high in fibre, not only because your gut loves fibre, but also because it helps to keep you fuller for longer and has many nutritional benefits.
But as Andreu Prados  found, where a diet lacked in fibre, this impacted on permeability, the quality of the gut mucous and increased chances of pathogens entering the gut barrier junctures. In addition to this, it is incredibly important for your gut mucous, immune system and microbiota that your diet contains probiotic and prebiotic foods. The better your food choices, the more your gut will thank you in return with tremendous benefits.
Have you ever noticed how the more sugar and unhealthy fats you eat, the more you want them?
Well, that’s because the bacteria that live off these food choices are multiplying every time you feed them, and when they multiply, they take over more space, speak louder than the good bacteria and win in the foods you consume. Hence you give in to your cravings.
It’s a case of: ‘He who shouts loudest wins.’ In the same bite, it is important to acknowledge that the healthier you eat, and the more plant varieties, the more plentiful your good gut bacteria, which ‘call’ for better food choices. It shouldn’t have to take a nutritionist or personal trainer to inform you that the better your food choices, the better your health, sense of well-being and physical performance both in your daily activities and fitness and wellbeing pursuits.
The better shape your gut is in, the greater ability you have to provide your body with the nutrients from your foods, directly affecting your physical, mental and emotional functioning.
“The gut has been referred to as the second brain and this goes beyond just having a ‘gut feeling’”
So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty… What is the link between your gut and your brain and what can you do?
The gut has been referred to as the second brain and this goes beyond just having a ‘gut feeling’. The brain and gut are directly connected via the vagus nerve, referred to as the gut-brain axis. Your left and right vagus nerve, starting in your brain, take a web-like descent to your vital internal organs via your central nervous system, down your spine, and connecting down to your small and large intestine.
Every primary digestive organ and assisting organ is connected by your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve [just like your muscles] is better off when well-toned. This takes practice and repetition. It is not good for your sympathetic nervous system to be out of balance: neither your sympathetic ‘flight and fright’, nor your parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’.
It is acknowledged that it’s pretty difficult in this hectic world not to be in fight and flight mode, which impedes good digestion. But in life, we should practise obtaining balance, the yin-yang effect. In today’s constantly active culture, it is vital to value the importance of your parasympathetic nervous system as a serious part of your daily self-care. This can be something we have to re-learn, to tap into, particularly in a world of the ‘crazy busy’, ‘superman/superwoman’, ‘driven’ professional, ‘burning the candle at both ends’.
You can develop your self-care by accessing and creating some quiet space in your life, for you. This can be done through meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, walking in nature, reading and engaging in any calming activity. Find what works, take the time, make the time and, in time, you will feel the benefits.
It is also equally important to ensure that you engage in regular exercise – not only so you can reap all the health and aesthetic benefits, but also to encourage the process of detoxification through sweating and elimination.
Just strike the balance. You owe it to yourself and your gut bacteria to improve your health and well-being, and those around you will benefit from your renewed vigour and mood.
What’s the link between your autonomic nervous system and your gut health?
It is important to know that your digestive system is governed by your parasympathetic nervous system and, as a process, functions best when uninterrupted and in a calm state. This means giving yourself the time and space to enjoy food without being interrupted by your bleeping messages, e-mail notifications, or being distracted by the humdrum of the background television and, worse still, your inquisitive mind of social media scrolling.
Put in place boundaries with yourself, acknowledging the benefits of these and the carry-over they provide. These modern technology vices will all be there when you have finished your meal. For now, I challenge you to be present in your important bodily function of absorption and digestion. Notice the smells, taste and textures of your food and the satisfaction that follows with mindfully eating. Then take a moment or two to allow your stomach to start digesting. These could be your first steps to changing your digestive health.
It should come as no surprise that your digestive system is affected by stress, which comes in different forms [relationships, finances, deadlines, toxic load] and it impacts us all differently. Paul Enck , in a study of military soldiers, found that the gut wall lining [intestinal permeability] and microbiota were impacted upon due to the physiological stress during their training period.
Although this study is of a group of participants undergoing intense physical and psychological stress, it’s important to acknowledge that we all experience stress to some degree, but our body cannot differentiate between the different types of stress. A little stress can be beneficial; it can be the driving force in meeting your deadlines. But ongoing and persistent stress, which is not managed and counteracted with rest, relaxation and selfcare, will have an impact on you physically and mentally.
There have been links between those affected by IBS and being affected by anxiety and depression. A large proportion of your feel-good chemicals are made in your gut and a healthy gut makes and retains more happy chemicals. This provides further reason to find and engage in activities, to spend time with others and to give yourself positive experiences for your feel-good factor.
Let’s also not underestimate the importance of good quality sleep, one of the most underused, naturally restorative functions available to us, and at no additional cost. Your gut lets you know the benefit of good sleep by way of easier and fuller elimination, no bloating, no sugar and unhealthy fat cravings and improved mental clarity.
Become a master of your own sleep hygiene and you are one step closer to developing a good gut and get even closer to total health. This can mean regularly going to bed at a set time, committing to your natural circadian rhythm and making sure you have at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
So What's The Take-Away?
• Understand the importance of your nutrition and making conscious food choices. This includes prebiotics, probiotics and fibre.
• Make time for exercise in all its different forms.
• Give your head and gut some space to relax and de-stress.
• Enjoy your food, honouring the process of digestion, and make sure you are well hydrated every day.
• Give your gut-brain axis some enjoyable joint experiences by spending time in nature, which is great for your parasympathetic nervous system.
• When your gut is out of kilter and you would benefit from a re-set, seek professional help from a colonic hydrotherapist to help you restore balance.
• And finally, but most importantly, don’t forget to listen to your new friend, the gut-brain connection. It’s likely to be whispering – or screaming – something that is valuable.