We have all heard it: “You are what you eat!”, and the ongoing research is backing up what our predecessors have always known, and confirming this adage in surprising ways.
Though it may not be all that surprising anymore, as the wealth of mainstream nutritional information we have access to today, compared with 20 years ago when I started my practice, is vast. In 2005 when I first set up my practice as a Naturopathic Doctor, I was only the 3rd in the city, the 13th in the province.
Most of my patients would look at me cross-eyed when I suggested a “probiotic” supplement, and their mouths would drop open if I went on to mention the importance of increasing fermented foods in the diet. At the time, most people knew of “sauerkraut” and that was about it, and its reputation was tarnished, as children many of us of eastern European ancestry would have been force-fed this sour/ bitter & very smelly food by our well-meaning grandmother.
Today, we have ready access to all types of fermented foods and beverages, from the aforementioned “Kraut” – not readily available in delicious flavours from turmeric-pineapple, to dill pickle! And probiotics are commonly listed on someone’s daily supplement regime, right beside Vitamins C and D.
That being said, there may be some of you reading this that aren’t aware of what a probiotic is, and since gut-brain health is the subject of this article, I had best explain!
A probiotic is a supplement or food that is high in beneficial bacteria. Our gastrointestinal systems (GITs), right from our mouth to our anus, are lined with specialized bacteria, almost 6 pounds worth in our entire system!, that help us to digest food, they make vitamins for us (like Vitamin K and many of the B vitamins), they help boost our gut-related immune system, and thus help us fight infection, they metabolize fibre and create short chain fatty acids that are great for energy, maintaining a healthy weight, and keeping the lining of the gut healthy. They also synthesize certain neurotransmitters – those chemicals that are also made in the brain – that are responsible for our mood, motivation, memory and sense of calm.
The key is.. the bacteria in our systems do all of these things, provided they are the right kinds of bacteria, and in the correct ratios.
Due to diets high in sugar, alcohol, processed foods, low in dietary fibre (the kind we get from vegetables, legumes, ground flax/ hemp/ chia and other medicinal seeds), the use of medications (particularly antibiotics, psychotropic medications, steroids, and immunosuppressants), high stress levels, and sedentary lives, our gut microbial population shifts. And rather than be comprised of the types of bacteria that do all these wonderful things I listed above, these “good guys” are replaced by bacteria, and yeast, that secrete toxins that lead to local inflammation, and disrupt the lining of the gut. They don’t digest our food, but rather they ferment it. So like yeast acting on flour and sugar in your bread recipe, when we eat higher starch foods, they ferment in our guts resulting in gas, bloating, and a swollen abdomen.
Over time the gut lining breaks down (and it is important to note that this happens, even in the event we have no digestive symptoms!), allowing undigested food particles, inflammatory molecules, and microbes (bacteria, yeast, viral particles, and their toxins and genetic material) into the bloodstream, creating further inflammation within the body. This leads to everything from joint pain, muscle aches, memory loss, low energy and fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, to depression.. and many, many more symptoms.
And the thing is, the more imbalance we have in our guts, the more gut imbalance will continue to exist, as they help determine what we crave. Because they want to stay alive, we have a hard time staying away from sugar, chips, pop, alcohol, etc. They are putting in their orders for their survival. Meanwhile, we are producing fewer of the chemicals needed for mood, motivation and focus. And we are producing more stress hormones, as cortisol is used by the body to attempt to fight inflammation. Because of this, we essentially might WANT to change, somewhere deep down inside, however we have great difficulty changing, because we have no energy or motivation with which to do so.
In other words, we are caught in a vicious cycle.
It doesn’t help that the demands of life don’t often give us the time to stop, and make the changes that are needed to get into a constructive cycle.
Much like being an alcoholic that needs to go through a detoxification process when they quit drinking, and are essentially debilitated for several days as their systems get used to being deprived of alcohol, often this sort of “break” from our lives is what we need to get ourselves out of the negative loop, and into a constructive loop.
The thing is, it is worth it! And a constructive loop will sustain itself, just as much as a destructive one, as we begin to learn that while initially eating healthfully, taking supplements, moving our bodies, having healthy boundaries, giving up self-sabotaging strategies, disguised as soothing strategies – aka coping mechanisms, and instead turning towards nurturing strategies. Think choosing a bubble bath over ice cream and you will have the idea.
What we seek to do as Naturopathic Doctors is to provide you the tools to break the vicious cycle, and create a constructive one – and doing so in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. We will often use testing methods, such a stool analysis, salivary or urinary hormone assays, urinary neurotransmitter measurements, heavy metal burden assessment, food sensitivity testing, just to name a few, in order to determine where the best place to start to get you back on track with your health!
We then look to put together a treatment plan specific to each individual, which means working with the person directly in front of us to determine how to break the cycle. I work with people who aren’t ready to make food changes, but they are willing to do therapy, and energy work to support their nervous systems. Then, feeling better, they are ready to embark on the nutritional changes also very much required for optimal health.
For others, they might be ready for a cleanse, and dedicated to changing their nutrition, to change their gut flora, to start craving the healthy foods, and as such balance the rest of the internal chemistry like mood and motivation.
And sometimes, supplements is where someone wants to begin in order to create the positive cycle.
It doesn’t matter where we start, just so long as we start, and if we want to make health sustainable, addressing all three aspect of the cycle: 1) coaching/ counseling/ therapy/ energy work; 2) nutrition, and 3) supplementation are fundamental. Each feeds in to the next and before you know it you are in the groove, feeling energized, inspired, motivated and free to move.
Here are a few things you can do TODAY to get yourself on track for a thriving life:
- Ditch sugar (including natural sugars from honey, and maple syrup, and highly sweet/ starchy foods like dried fruit, bananas, melons, potatoes, pasta, bread, baked goods of any sort – to make sure the sugar-loving taste buds are reset), processed foods, alcohol, red meat for at least 3 weeks.
- Drink lots of water every day. Half your body weight in ounces! And make about 500 mL of it contain some sort of healthy electrolyte mix. NOT a commercial preparation that glows in the dark, but rather an unsweetened or naturally sweetened with stevia, powder with the basics: sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
- Eat at least 4 cups of veggies every day: raw, and lightly steamed. Add them to soups, stir fries, blend into smoothies, or eat them on their own, dipped in hummus or a bean dip. Just get ‘em in!
- Eat at least 1/3 cup of fibre rich legumes each day, in the form of hummus, chickpeas, lentils, or another favourite bean. They are one of the best sources of prebiotic fibre, and help to mop up toxins.
- Keep your starches limited to those that come from root vegetables, green leafy vegetables, non-gluten whole grains (quinoa, rice, wild rice, buckwheat). Again, these are great for feeding the types of bacteria we WANT inhabiting our digestive systems.
- Eat 2 Tbsp ground flax per day, and another 2 Tbsp of another type of seed, like hemp or chia.
- Drizzle healthy oils from good fats like olive, avocado, flax and coconut onto your food. And eat the food sources of those oils too!
- Heap several forkfuls of fermented foods onto your plate.
- EXERCISE and BREATHE!!!
- Book an appointment with an ND! We will get you the testing, protocol, and accountability you might need to optimize your health and life