"Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es." [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are].
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
The phrase dates back to 1825, from the man many consider to be the godfather of low carb diets - Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. (more on the benefits of low carb diets will be found in a not-too-far-off article).
Savarin is the author of 1825’s The Physiology of Taste – a masterpiece of discourse regarding the philosophy and science of the pleasures of the table. It is widely considered to be the most famous book about food ever written, and is still analysed to this day.
While not a chef, Savarin had a goal of bringing the level of cooking to a true science. Through this, he aimed to make links between food and the body and health. To Savarin, this all boiled down to the intrinsic quality of the ingredients used and prepared with care. The phrase, through time, transformed into the succinct expression: You are what you eat. Of course, “you are what you eat” doesn’t mean you’ll begin morphing into a hamburger shortly after eating one - rather you are likely to become fit and healthy by eating a nutritious, healthy diet. And that is largely in part because of your gut health.
The term ‘gut’ can be used to refer to the entire group of organs of the gastrointestinal tract, but in this article, we will be focusing on the small and large intestines.
The gut ‘s primary function is digestion and absorption – the process of breaking down our food and extracting and absorbing its intrinsic nutrients and minerals for the body to utilise in aim of achieving and maintaining optimal health and functioning. The main site for these actions is the stomach and small intestine.
Excretion of waste is also an important function of the gut, and primarily takes place in the large intestine. Here, water is absorbed from the remaining indigestible food matter, creating stool to be excreted from the body as waste.
There is however, man other vitally important roles the gut performs that influence our health (both physical and non physical), which we may not be aware of. These include:
- The creation of neurotransmitters - The gut produces and secretes many important chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. This includes what many folk call our “happy” chemical – serotonin, of which 90% can be found in the gut. Other major nauro transmitters produced in the gut (by gut microbes – more on that soon) include norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine and gamma-amino butyrate (GABA).
- Immune defence - Between 70 to 80 percent of our immune tissues and cells are housed within our gut. These cells help identify and eliminate dangerous pathogens that, when not dealt with, cause us illness. This again, is heavily influenced by our gut bacteria.
- Produce essential vitamins - The gut has the ability to synthesise important vitamins that are vital to our health. These include vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, folic acid and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
- Produce short-chain fatty acids (SCAAs) that fuel our enteroctyes (colonic intestinal cells) Bacteria in the colon (large intestine) produce short chain fatty acids through the fermentation of insoluble fibre. These short chain fatty acids (especially butyrate) act as fuel for our colonic enterocytes (intestinal cells).
- Influence our cognitive function, mood and behaviour via the gut/brain axis The gut brain axis refers to the communication between our enteric (gut) nervous system and our central (brain) nervous system. Communication is established both ways – from brain to gut, and from gut to brain. This can influence the production and secretion of various hormones and neurotransmitters that, once released, can affect our mood, emotion and cognitive function in many ways. It is why we often refer to our “gut feeling” about something.
- Influence heart disease - Recent studies have shown how our gut bacteria can influence the forming of atherosclerotic plaques – the build up of oxidised cholesterol that adhere to our arterial walls and lead to heart disease and even heart attacks.
- Reduce inflammation - A healthy gut microbiome greatly influences our levels of inflammation, and helps us maintain an optimal level. Certain bacteria in our gut have the ability to modulate and influence systemic inflammation, whilst limiting the production of pro-inflammatory endotoxins from bad bacteria. A healthy gut also keeps undigested proteins, pathogens and toxins from entering our bloodstream and causing an inflammation inducing immune response.
As mentioned, many of these functions are enabled when our gut exhibits a favourable microbiome – the microbial environment that populates our intestinal walls. Inhabitants of this microbiome include bacteria, fungi and other microbes. When we strike a balance between beneficial microbes, our gut function is well regulated, and we can experience the aforementioned benefits afforded by the gut. When our microbial population is however unbalanced or disrupted, we experience what is broadly referred to as dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis may manifest in a myriad of unfavourable ways, not only restricted to gastrointestinal phenomena such as irritable bowel syndrome and irritable bowel disease. An unhealthy gut has far reaching consequences, from physical ill health, parasitic infection to emotional and mental distress and cognitive impairment.
Correcting the balance of the gut microbiome is an essential component of achieving our overall health and well being and is not simply accomplished through taking a probiotic supplement. There are many facets – both environmental and physical which influence our gut health and microbial population. These include:
- Immune function - Getting on top of our immune system can greatly influence our gut health (and vice versa). As a starting point – we can remove immune inducing foods such as wheat (and other gluten containing foods) and dairy to bolster and strengthen our body’s immune system.
-Emotional health - As mentioned, the gut-brain axis is a two way street. Our emotional health can greatly affect our gut health, and vice versa. Employing simple mindfulness and meditative techniques can grant us the space we need to view our emotions without becoming attached and identified with them.
- Stress - Keeping our stress response in check is vital to keeping our gut healthy. Stress can influence the movement and contractions of our gastrointestinal tract. Furthermore, it can exacerbate symptoms of inflammation while increasing susceptibility for infection. There are myriad ways to tackle stress, including herbal treatment, supplementation that aim at keeping the stress response in check whilst supporting the adrenals.
-Diet - This is perhaps the biggest influence on our gut health. Poor diets characterised by large intakes of foods high in refined sugars and carbohydrates seek to through our microbiome out of whack and feed the “bad guys”. There is a lot more to say on this subject, which will be touched on in a later article.
- Environmental factors - Foods that are heavily refined and pesticide-treated have the ability to knock out some of our healthy gut flora. Likewise, antibiotic fed meat has the ability to reduce some of our beneficial bacterial colony.
- Exercise - Exercise has been shown to greatly modify the gut microbiota, exerting extremely positive effects. This is true for both endurance and resistance training. Interestingly, the reverse is also true – ceasing exercise can see the emergence of an unfavourable microbiome.
- Weight - There is evidence to suggest that the microbiota can influence our rates of digestion, fat storage and levels of satiety. Overweight individuals are also more likely to experience poor gut health symptoms. Our gut microbiota greatly influences our mood and cognition. Microbiome health may be tested via functional stool tests that reveal the specific gut population found in an individual. Basically, they reveal the population of the good guys and the bad guys – and show specifically which ones are throwing things out of balance. This is important, as there are specific routes of healing to take when addressing specific gut issues. Leaky gut may require strengthening through glutamine and collagen, whilst parasitic infection may require individual herbal medicines to target the bugs.
By far the most important and foundational factor contributing to our gut microbiome health is our diet. Simply put, the more nutrient dense, healthy food we ingest, the better environment our gut microbiome becomes. To refer back to the title of our article: You are what you eat.
To boost your gut health, or to work with a gut issue you may be dealing with, book a session today as part of my Integral Transformation program!