Just as Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, once said, “all disease begins in the gut”.
One of the first things I learned when I began my studies as a Naturopath more than 20 years ago, was the importance of the gut and that its improper function was the underlying cause of many common and some serious health conditions and diseases.
Back then, there wasn’t a lot of science to support this theory but, never the less, it formed an essential foundation for the holistic treatment of every patient under my care. Fast forward a quarter of a century (now that makes me feel old!) and the impact that the gut has on health is being accepted and embraced by the medical science community. Many believe that the science of gut health could radically change modern medicine and how we prevent and treat many common diseases in the future.
The typical gut is home to some 100 trillion bacteria of anywhere from 300 to 1200 different species. When they are in balance, these microbes (good gut bugs) have many roles to help preserve good health. They coax nutrients out of dietary fibre, make vitamins, produce hormones, fend o disease-causing pathogens, regulate our metabolism and our immune system. They even influence our moods and affect our behaviour. But, when things go wrong with these important gut bugs, things go wrong with us – gut bacteria are paramount to our general health and well-being. In fact, current research indicates that the health of these microbial communities is a major factor in the skyrocketing rates of allergies, autoimmune disorders and obesity.
Safe (chlorinated) drinking water, treatments for bacterial infections, food that is sanitised/ pasteurised or that has a shelf life (so it doesn’t spoil quickly)—these are important innovations, but they may have an inadvertent side effect of damaging our gut flora and hence our health. The gut microbes that keep us well rely on complex carbohydrates found in plant material, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables to thrive and grow. In a nutshell, the health of our gut bacteria is dependant upon exposure to dust, bugs and germs in whole foods. This is especially critical early in life for proper immune-system development.
So to help our gut microflora thrive we need to ‘eat cleaner and live a little dirtier’. Eat more vegetables (preferably skin on) and focus on eating a variety of whole foods daily. Processed foods are not only sterile, but we don’t know the short or long term effect of additives on the good bugs that we need to maintain health. Also throw away your hand sanitizer – soap and water will do. Take antibiotics sparingly – it should be a therapy that’s reserved for when you need it most. The benefits need to outweigh the risks. Nurturing the bacteria in our gut is paramount to maintaining a healthy body and mind.