Hippocrates’ famous words are still eagerly cited over 2000 years later. Even though he knew that the digestive tract was a special place, at the time he may not have known why exactly. So what does it really mean that ‘all disease begins in the gut’? Many chronically ill people have never experienced any digestive symptoms so how can they relate?
The gateway to good health
The answer is in the INDIVIDUAL MICROBIAL ECOSYSTEM, also called the microbiota, microflora or microbiome. Although every part of the body has a unique microbial environment, most organisms colonise the gut and include bacteria, fungi, archaea, parasites and viruses. Even parasites play a key role for our health by helping us detoxify or modulate the immune system. Whether you like it or not, we all have them.
We now know that the human body has a lot more microbes than cells, and it has been estimated that our gut carries around 2 kilograms of various organisms. While we all have a similar DNA, only around 5% of microbial genetic code is shared among people. Some say we are only 1% human. Depending on the type and strain, the microbes produce all sorts of messengers, nutrients and toxins, making us who we are (yes, personality too!), energising us, keeping our metabolism in check or causing disease. While microbial imbalances can disrupt digestion, they often don’t, which depends on the specific organisms and their action within the human body. In other words, the fact your digestion is smooth doesn’t mean you don’t have a microbial imbalance.
Factors that positively influence gut microbiota:
Maternal health and diet before and during pregnancy
Being born through the vaginal canal
Diet and lifestyle throughout life
Contact with animals and nature
Getting your hands dirty (e.g. gardening)
Major disruptors of microbial balance:
Antibiotic treatments and other medication (e.g. antacids, anti-fungals or the pill)
Living in a sterile environment
One man’s meat is another man’s poison
The main factor that influences health and diversity of our microflora is food. After all, we may not be what we eat but rather what our unique microbes can eat and process into beneficial or toxic substances. Before food is available to us, it is first processed by microbes. This brings nutrition onto a truly personalised level and is the main reason why I become a nutritional therapist. I think that out of all therapies, food has the most direct effect on the microflora, therefore influencing our biology and addressing the root cause of illness. While the reasoning and research behind Hippocrates’ words are relatively new, I hope that it will be the future of medicine.
While eating a whole food diet is great for anyone, there are no universally healthy foods. The various microbes feed on different substances, and what makes one person healthy can be inflammatory for another. For example, while some people do great on raw fruit and vegetables, others may get bloated after eating raw apples or carrots. Many are unable to tolerate fermented foods which are routinely recommended as a blanket remedy for gut health. Spinach, blueberries and broccoli may cause adverse reactions too, from joint pain to hives. My rule of thumb is:
The same goes to fad diets. While one person may be doing great on a high fat diet, another will need a lot more carbohydrates. Research is now emerging about how the same food can affect two people differently, even in terms of weight management. Did you know that the microbiota are responsible for extracting calories from food?
Functions of microbiota
Coating the gut, preventing it from toxins and allergens (i.e. preventing from the ‘leaky gut’)
Digestion and absorption of nutrients
Production of antimicrobial substances
Production of various enzymes
Production of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances
Production of nutrients
Detoxification of hormones
Modulation of cholesterol levels
Metabolism (including extraction of calories from food)
Binding and excretion of heavy metals
Health problems that originate in the gut
We are just starting to understand the microbiome but below are some health conditions that have been well researched in terms of their relationship to unhealthy microflora:
Respiratory infections like asthma or chronic sinusitis
Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, schizofrenia, behavioural issues)
Neurodegeneration (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s)
Weight gain / obesity / metabolic syndrome
Physical degeneration, e.g. arthritis
How does unhealthy microfora cause disease? By producing inflammatory toxins (called endotoxins or lipopolysaccharides) that escape through the ‘leaky gut’ and attach themselves to various tissues and receptors.
How to support the microbiome
‘Test, don’t guess’ is the first step to evaluate individual gut environment. After that, it’s about feeding specific beneficial microbes with the foods they thrive on, and eliminating any pathogenic overgrowths. Optimising digestion and stress response are key elements of the process because pathogens feed on undigested foods and tend to outgrow when chronic stress is present.
What about probiotics for gut health?
While there are many wonderful products on the market, probiotics should be left to professional advice. Each strain corresponds to specific health properties and without the expertise, it’s easy to waste a lot of time and money. Probiotics on their own won’t shift health if concurrent dietary and lifestyle changes are introduced anyways. Home made fermented foods is a safe start for anyone who can tolerate them.
How I can support you
In order to address any health complaint, I first analyse the function of the gut which covers digestive capacity, microbial balance, infections, gut integrity, inflammation and oral tolerance to foods. I can also offer advanced functional testing for all health concerns, with testing kits delivered to your preferred location. Based on the information I have gathered, I formulate a recommendations plan which includes a personalised list of foods that are optimal for you, meal ideas, lifestyle tips and supplementation, if needed.