father and son harvesting strawberries in greenhouse

Keep your gut healthy

Have you ever had a gut feeling about something, experienced butterflies in your tummy or suddenly felt vague, spaced out, irritated, anxious or angry for no apparent reason? Has this happened shortly after you’ve eaten?

Dr Robyn Cosford, fellow of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine and researcher and conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle, explains this is because the brain and the gut have a special connection. The gut, she says, is often referred to as the “second brain”.

According to Cosford, “The body’s second largest nervous system and over 60 per cent of the immune system are centred in the digestive system. It shares neuro-transmitters with the brain and is where much of the body’s feel-good hormone serotonin is produced.” This profound gut-immune-brain connection is prompting bio-medics around the globe to look at gut health for answers in the exponential rise in feel-bad neurological and psychological disorders.

Director of the Mindd Foundation (Mindd stands for metabolic, immunologic, neurologic, digestive disorders, which often affect the mind) Leslie Embertis says mental illness and childhood neurological disorders are at an all-time high. “One in four people suffer from a mental illness. There has been a 1500 per cent rise in cases of autism worldwide and a 500 per cent rise in ADHD.”

The gut is often referred to as the “second brain”.

She adds, “The common denominator among these mind-related disorders including ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), schizophrenia, bipolar, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), anxiety, depression and learning problems is gut dysbiosis, or abnormal gut flora.”

Your gut is home to 10 times more bacterial cells than all those in your body. If you have a predominance of healthy gut bacteria, or beneficial flora, they produce nutrients to keep your metabolism healthy. The good bacteria also protect the gut wall, neutralise toxins, chelate heavy metals and modulate the immune system. If you have too many of the wrong bacteria, the opportunistic type, and not enough of the good bacteria, your immune system is weakened and you lose essential nutrients and the protection of the gut wall.

Additionally, those pathogenic bacteria make their own toxins that can damage the gut wall and result in a “leaky gut”. If your gut wall is leaky, these toxins can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain where they cause inflammation or block metabolic pathways. Research shows this can contribute to psychological and neurological problems.

Cosford says, “When the gut/brain is malnourished, the metabolic pathways for our neurotransmitters (our feel-good hormone serotonin, for example) may not be functioning correctly, which means the neurotransmitters aren’t being made properly and may be imbalanced. This can create big shifts in brain function, causing confusion, forgetfulness, rages, panic, paranoia, learning difficulties and even psychoses.”

Then there is PANDAS, which stands for paediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcus. The streptococcus bacterium is a common cause of infections and it can easily overgrow in the gut. For about 25 per cent of children who have OCD or Tourette syndrome, its sudden onset is exacerbated or trigged by strep throat, in which the body’s own immune cells attack a part of the brain, the basal ganglia, rather than the strep (streptococcus).

Cosford says, “The relationship between this bacteria and OCD has been accepted in the wider medical community, as a lot of research has been done on it. PANDAS is also implicated in ADHD and autism, but there’s still a lack of acceptance with these and other neurological disorders as the research is still in early days. But the correlation is there.”

A modern problem

Cosford attributes poor gut health to the industrialisation of our food and medical practices. She says, “The modern-day diet of highly refined foods, sugars and processed carbohydrates feeds the bad bacteria. Chemical additives in food also alter bacterial function. We have abandoned simple, traditional, nourishing diets based on vegetables, proteins, lacto-fermented foods and easily digested foods such as soups and stews — foods we have evolved eating and that promote good bacteria and aid digestion.”

She adds, “The overuse of antibiotics, both prescribed by doctors and in our food, damage the good bacteria and allow an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria. Environmental pollutants, chemicals and toxins in our food and air and heavy metals are also causing disordered patterns of gut bacteria.”

“These babies are shown to have a different gut bacteria that we think may be correlated to later illness.”

Cosford says one’s bacteria pattern is determined at birth. “When we are born by vaginal delivery, we get the bacterial pattern of our mother. Hopefully, she has the right bacteria and then we start off with the right pattern. But the pattern change is getting worse with each generation.”

Increasingly, maternal gut health is compromised by the Western diet or the mother is given antibiotics and other drugs when pregnant and in labour, which alters her bacterial pattern and therefore that of the baby. A baby born by Caesarean section doesn’t get its mother’s gut bacteria at all. Cosford says, “These babies are shown to have a different gut bacteria that we think may be correlated to later illness.”

According to Cosford, breastfeeding for the first six months is the most important opportunity we have to populate the entire surface of the baby’s gut with a healthy mix of bacteria to lay the basis of the child’s future health. Formula-fed babies have higher rates of ear infections, allergies and asthma and related gut issues. Cosford says, “The birth control pill and prolonged levels of stress can also adversely affect gut health.” However, she says, “It’s important that mothers don’t feel guilty. If they didn’t breastfeed, they can start to look at their child’s diet and introduce probiotic-rich foods to help promote gut health.”

Ben’s story

Lisa Brighton*, nurse, diet educator and mother of two, had a long history of candida, a fungus that thrives in a compromised gut. She says, “Candida not only produces neuro-toxins in the gut, but it runs its own brewery in your digestive system. It manufactures alcohol, which is why I’d often feel tired and foggy in the head.” When her son Ben was two, she realised there was something very different about him. “He wouldn’t respond to being talked to, had little speech and wouldn’t interact with other kids or even relatives.” After doing her research, Lisa realised Ben had autism.

The conventional doctors told Lisa there was nothing they could do other than some occupational therapy or speech therapy and when Ben was older and behaviour was becoming an issue, she could use drugs to control it. Lisa says, “So I did more of my own research and stumbled across the gluten- and dairy-free website that talked about autism and food intolerance. His typical diet had been full of carbohydrates, lots of bread, milk and cheese. He went dairy- and gluten-free the very next day. I also took out corn and soy from his diet as they can have similar effects on the gut.

“Within three days, he was a different child. It was like he woke up. There was eye contact. He gave us cuddles. He’d had words in the past but had lost them, and within two weeks of the diet he started to get words again. My husband and I opened a bottle of Champagne and said, ‘We have got our son back.’”

This was just the beginning. Lisa took Ben to see a biomedical doctor. Ben had malabsorption in the gut and a stool sample showed he had no good bugs in his tummy. His vitamins and minerals were not being absorbed. “We put him on digestive enzymes and nutrient supplements and probiotics (beneficial bacteria). Every time we would introduce a new supplement, there would be a jump in language, cognition, imaginative play and socialisation. One of the biggest changes occurred when we did some chelation to remove the heavy metals from his system. We have done other therapy in conjunction with the biomedical side, which has also helped to grow pathways in the brain.

“He’s four now and we can no longer say he is autistic. He has his quirks and is probably on the spectrum somewhere, but he is now talking well, playing with peers and improving every day. The diet shift has also been really beneficial for my other child, who I thought was perfectly normal. When we removed dairy and gluten from his diet, his separation anxiety and fear of dogs and spiders went and when I took colours, flavours and preservatives, especially sulphite preservatives, out of his diet, his night terrors and growing pains stopped.”

The gut and behaviour

Kathryn Ritchie, trained speech pathologist, now business strategy consultant and analyst, says both her daughters’ auditory processing problems became apparent when they were around eight and 10. She says, “They were having great difficulties concentrating and keeping up with their schoolwork. They became very frustrated and increasingly anxious. They had both had numerous courses of antibiotics in the past and both had gut problems. The doctor diagnosed both of them with having a passive form of ADHD and prescribed Ritalin, which they both took for about a month.

“Both had a negative reaction and, in the case of my eldest daughter, it was an extremely adverse reaction. She became paranoid. It totally over-stimulated her mentally and physically. She would have harmed herself had she been older. I took them both straight off the medication and the symptoms disappeared.”

Kathryn pulled them both out of school and home-schooled them for a year while pursuing a biomedical approach. She says, “I took gluten, dairy and refined sugars out of their diets and avoided all chemicals, refined foods, preservatives and additives. The supplementation of magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6, essential fatty acids and probiotics made a huge difference, as did detoxifying their bodies.”

She adds, “Their improvement has been supported by specialist tutors, chiropractors, behavioural optometry and speech pathology, but getting their digestive health in order first was crucial. They have improved in leaps and bounds and have been integrated back into school. They are now happy not to eat certain foods because they don’t make them feel good.”

GAPS in knowledge

Neurologist, nutritionist and author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, says dairy and gluten are very problematic for those with impaired gut health. “Gluten is a protein present in grains, mainly wheat, rye, oats and barley. Casein is a milk protein present in cow, goat and all other milk products. In the bodies of GAPS people, these proteins do not get digested properly and turn into substances with similar chemical structures to opiates, like morphine and heroin. These opiates from grains and milk get through the blood-brain barrier and block certain areas of the brain, just like morphine and heroin do.”

This happens, says Campbell-McBride, because GAPS (gut and psychology syndrome) patients do not have the digestive enzymes to break down the proteins. Cosford says, “It makes sense that many people suffering from mind-related disorders, like schizophrenia, for example, also have gluten intolerance.”

She adds, “It’s important to realise that dietary changes can help most patients, but each is an individual with unique symptoms and will therefore require an individualised treatment.” She says, “Simply removing gluten and casein without giving attention to overall nutrient balance can make things worse. If they’re on medication, people should work with a biomedical doctor and their doctor or therapist before going off it. Medication and/or therapy may need to be used in conjunction with dietary changes, at least to begin with.”

Embertis says almost every GAPS patient has other health problems: asthma, allergies, bowel problems. “It’s a whole, multi-system breakdown that goes back to cell health. It’s too many toxins and not enough nutrients.” She adds, “We need to reverse the trend of deteriorating gut health by promoting foods our digestive tract evolved to handle, encouraging medical practices that maintain the beneficial bacteria in the gut and supporting lifestyle choices that lead to a relaxed state and healthy gut — and by doing so, reducing the need for drugs, including antibiotics and psycho-stimulants.”

*Some names have been changed.

Carla Oates

Carla Oates

Carla Oates is the CEO of The Beauty Chef, a natural beauty expert and the author of Feeding Your Skin and The Beauty Chef Cookbook.

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