The benefits of a wholefood diet and probiotics for gut health

From the moment we place food into our mouth, our digestive system works to provide our body with the nutrients necessary for life. Firstly, our teeth break the food into easier to swallow particles, saliva works to begin the breakdown of starchy foods, such as bread, pasta and rice; and food is swallowed.

Once swallowed, our food travels down the oesophagus into the stomach. The stomach churns and mixes our foods with acids and enzymes that help to break down breads, cereals and grains; as well as commencing the breakdown of fats and proteins (such as those found in dairy and meats).

Foods are then propelled into the small intestine, where bile stored in the gall bladder is released to help the body to break down fats. At the same time, extra enzymes are secreted that help the body break proteins down into their building blocks, small particles known as amino acids.

Finally, following digestion by enzymes and acids, vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients are absorbed by the body and transported via the blood stream, to their target organs or tissues. A good example of this is the movement of calcium, once digested and absorbed into the blood stream, to the bones.

As this occurs, any food that cannot be broken down and absorbed, or is if no use to the body, traves into the bowel to be fermented and excreted. At this stage, any water remaining in the food is absorbed, so as to maintain hydration and the proper digestion of fibre.

Now you see that if a problem were to arise in any portion of the digestive system, be it the stomach, intestines or bowel, then some nutrients may not be properly digested, absorbed, or used by the body. It is important at this time to note that some of the foods you eat can limit the function of the digestive system, such as alcohol (affecting the liver); caffeine (affecting how some vitamins are absorbed and used by the body, especially B vitamins, calcium and iron), and high sugar, low fibre foods such as soft drinks (which not only increase the risk of diabetes, but also osteoporosis).

Similarly, issues such as irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or other digestive disorders, can affect the health of the gut, and therefore the way your body absorbs and uses some vitamins, minerals or nutrients. One of the most notable of these disorders present in modern life is a disorder called ‘leaky gut syndrome’. Not as gruesome as it sounds, a leaky gut is caused by the lining of our digestive tract becoming irritated and damaged through inflammation.

What is ‘leaky gut syndrome’ and how is it caused?

Whereas a healthy gut allows the movement of broken down and digested food matter through the walls of the gut and into your bloodstream, a leaky gut is different. A leaky gut allows larger, undigested food matter through the walls of the digestive system, which on its way causes inflammation and leads to the poor absorption of nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, along with vitamins and minerals. When a nutrient is improperly absorbed (or in some cases of leaky gut, not absorbed at all, due to its state of partial digestion), the gut goes into crisis.

The inflammation that causes leaky gut can result from a number of conditions - the consumption of allergenic and abrasive foods (especially in the case of food intolerances, such as when an individual with lactose intolerance consumes dairy), an unhealthy lifestyle (fast foods, smoking and alcohol all have damaging effects on the digestive system) and some medications.

Build a healthy gut

The best way to support the ongoing health of your gut is to ensure you:
•    Choose fermented foods for easy digestion and high nutrient content;
•    Steer clear of ‘intolerant’ foods, such as wheat, dairy (cow), soy;
•    Eat a healthy, varied diet, high in easy to digest plant nutrients.
•    Choose a good quality probiotic food or supplement.

The role of probiotics in gut health

Also known as ‘beneficial bacteria’, probiotics are bacteria that support the health of the body, rather than causing disease (bacteria that causes illness in the body are known as ‘pathogenic’ or ‘bad’ bacteria).

The way probiotics work in the gut, is to provide an environment that is conducive to the absorption of food (by maintaining a healthy pH), preventing the growth and development of bad bacteria in the gut (by crowding out damaging bacteria), and by working with the body to help in either the production or absorption of a number of vitamins (including Vitamin B12 and Folate).

It stands to reason then, that without adequate probiotic bacteria in the gut, side effects include the breakdown of elimination processes (usually leading to either constipation or diarrhoea), some vitamin deficiencies, and the ongoing effects of either of these conditions (some of which affect other areas of the body). Without appropriate probiotic strains in the gut, for example, Vitamin B12, Folate, and Iron cannot be absorbed by the body. This may mean, in some instances, and the nervous system is not able to perform at its peak (in fact, B12 deficiencies can often lead to a poor memory, loss of cognitive functioning and poor nerve function).

Billions of bacteria

The strength of a probiotic supplement is defined by two clear factors:

1. What is the total billions count (i.e. is there a total of 10 billion, 25 billion or 50 billion colony forming units in the product); and

2. How many differing strains are present in the product?  (as the more diverse the strains found in the product are, the more benefits experienced).

To support the health of your total digestive system it is important to choose a good quality, well formulated probiotic with multiple strains of bacteria, and a strong colony forming unit count.

Written by Amber Foley - BNat

Amber is a degree qualified naturopath with 10 years experience working with clients, as a lecturer, writer and naturopathic trainer. Her professional aim is to educate and empower people to understand the benefits of natural health through wholefood nutrition and herbal medicines, with clients and the general public.

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