Can a bad mood, headaches, muscle pain and fatigue be connected to digestion? Could a child’s poor concentration at school be linked to a gut issue? Can a mystery rash be traced back to poor gut health? Yes, yes, and yes! In this month’s edition of “Ask the Doctor” we get to the guts of the issue, looking at how digestion can affect both adults and children, and how we can improve our gut health with Dr Charu Narayanan from Complete Healthcare International (CHI).
Our old friend Hippocrates said that “all diseases begin in the gut”, and many modern health practitioners agree. It’s a concept that conventional medicine is still grappling with but has been embraced for thousands of years by other disciplines such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.
What kinds of health issues and diseases have been linked to poor gut health?
A surprisingly wide range of symptoms, such as:
- Fatigue, headaches, foggy head
- Joint pains, arthritis, unexplained rashes
- Bloating, acid reflux, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, nausea
- Weight issues including obesity
- Repeated yeast infections
- Lowered immunity
- Allergies, asthma.
Why is the gut so important?
What we eat is important but it’s what we assimilate that really matters – the gut performs this function. So, what happens in this very long tract?
- Digestion and assimilation: This is a complex process involving chemical reactions and good bacteria. It starts with chewing food properly before it enters the stomach; the blender where acid acts upon the food and passes it on so that enzymes can work on it in the intestines. The liver and pancreas also contribute bile and enzymes. So, our absorption of nutrients can be affected by not be chewing our food properly, having an imbalance of acid in our stomach, or having poor intestinal enzyme levels.
- Hosting bacteria: The gut houses different kinds of bacteria which live symbiotically within it. There is evidence of this being established very early in life – in fact, the process of natural birth exposes the baby to maternal flora, so the baby’s gut bacteria will reflect the mum’s.
The beneficial bacteria in our stomach are active little creatures who produce vitamins and nourish the cells lining the intestine. They also form a barrier to protect the gut lining from toxins or bad bacteria. Interestingly, a lot of serotonin – your ‘feel good’ brain chemical – is also produced in the gut, so it’s basically your second brain!
Unfortunately, there are always the ‘bad guys’ who look for opportunities to take over the gut with harmful bacteria, yeast and parasites. When these steal the show, the effects of vitamin deficiency, low enzyme levels and poor immunity can kick in. It’s a vicious cycle that allows the bad bacteria to thrive until something is done to break the cycle. The bowel lining becomes inflamed, allowing harmful substances to enter the blood stream with unpleasant consequences in different organs, including the brain.
Keeping the immune system in order
The immune system in the gut starts from the tonsils and includes the appendix and other lymphatic tissues. If inflammation is present they’ll be over- or under-stimulated, leading to a variety of immune diseases or allergies, and symptoms such as joint pains and rashes.
Some of the factors that can affect gut health are:
- Poor chewing
- A bad attack of gastroenteritis
- Chronic stress
- Poor diets high in sugar or processed food, or low in fresh vegetables and fruit. Even overcooked food can cause problems!
- Antibiotics or painkillers used on a regular basis
- Antacids and other medicines to reduce stomach acid
- Bad bacteria and an overgrowth of yeast
- Food additives and environmental toxins.
What about children and gut health?
On top of the symptoms already mentioned, children may experience behavioural problems, depression, mood swings, or a lack of focus and attention. Nutrient and sugar imbalances may contribute to this – the body needs the essential building blocks such as magnesium, B vitamins, calcium and zinc to thrive.
What can be done to improve things?
Restoring the natural balance is the best way forward. Here are a few ways to make it happen with your medical practitioner’s help:
- A doctor’s examination and blood tests may reveal deficiencies such as iron and vitamin B12. Serious conditions such as coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis may need to be ruled out first.
- Cut back on offending agents such as long term use of antacids.
- Good bacteria love a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruit, while bad bacteria and yeast thrive on sugar, so back away from the sweet treats! If there are known food allergies (e.g. gluten, dairy), eliminate them until the bowel is healed.
- Have any parasites or disease-causing bacteria treated.
- Correct low or high acidity and enzymes to support digestion until the natural balance is achieved.
- Probiotics can repopulate the bowel and help heal this very important organ that is the seat of good health.
Dr Charu Narayanan has practised as a paediatrician and GP across India, the UK and Singapore. She holds an interest in nutritional medicine and is training with the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. This enables her to have a holistic perspective on diseases and approach them from a diet and lifestyle perspective.
This post is sponsored by Complete Healthcare International.
Illustration: Aliff Tee for HoneyKids Asia