Let’s face it – we’ve seriously messed our collective gut health up over the last 50 years – excessive use of antibiotics & other medications, chemicals in our food, overconsumption of refined & junky ‘food’, lack of exposure to environmental microbes, high stress levels, huge rates of caesarean births and not enough breastfeeding…no wonder we’re all such a mess!! So whilst the damage is already done, there are a few things we can do to avoid making things worse – & maybe even improve the situation! If you’re trying to get your dysfunctional & unhappy gut back to some kind of balance – here are 7 things NOT to do (& what to do instead) for good gut health.
Eat Lots Of Sugar & Pseudo Sugar:
Consume lollies, desserts, soft drinks, juices & sweet treats regularly? These are the favourite foods of some of the ‘baddies’ that live in our guts. These microbes love sugars & need them to survive. When you eat too much, they grow like crazy & actually compete with & kill off our helpful microbes that keep us feeling happy & healthy. They also communicate with our brain & demand that we seek out more of this type of food (they need it to survive remember) – one reason why sugar cravings can be so darn hard to ignore!! And – just a heads up, you can’t replace sugar with artificial sweeteners & expect to have good gut health (or lose any weight), these are some of the worst things you can put in your gut, responsible for loads of digestive discomfort, bloating & gas. They’re also mega addictive & will still screw with your blood sugar & make you fat – there’s no place for them in a healthy diet, sorry all you Pepsi Max & Diet Coke addicts!
The good news is that you can take back some control once you’re aware what’s going on. You’ll need mental strength & determination to give up your sweets cold turkey, but it is the best way I believe, as it takes the least time to really feel free (amazing feeling, so worth it). At the same time, make an effort to increase your fibre (get it from veggies, legumes if tolerated, brown rice etc – not so much fruit while you’re quitting as these are still quite sugary, just use lower sugar fruits like blueberries & raspberries). You can reintroduce small quantities of fruits & even quality dark chocolate (low sugar) once you’ve got things under control & are more aware of how sugars affect your gut, your mood & your cravings. Avoid all sweeteners, refined, natural & artificial – you’re retraining your tastebuds, your gut & your blood sugar metabolism. Make sure you include loads of healthy fats & regular protein as these will help you feel full & satisfied. You’ll still be craving sugar, expect it to be really tough – but fat, fibre & protein are your friends! PondWater, our super greens powder (or any quality product with a good dose of aloe vera) can be a useful helper here to improve your insulin sensitivity & also to help soothe & nourish your inflamed gut. Google ‘aloe vera / diabetes’ & you’ll find some pretty awesome results from aloe given to folks with varying degrees of insulin resistance.
Be A Carbaholic Gluten Glutton:
Eat lots of bread, pasta, cakes, cereals, pastries, crumbed foods etc.? These types of carbs are really just sugar arranged differently. They feed your bad bugs & get converted into blood glucose extremely quickly in your system, so will contribute to insulin resistance & abdominal fat storage, your sweet cravings & your gut symptoms. Also, these foods all contain gluten if made from wheat, rye or barley and gluten is one of the most problematic foods for our gut-lining and maintaining good gut health. We have tiny holes that let nutrients into our bloodstream from our gut, but when we eat gluten constantly it makes these holes bigger (leaky gut) so they start to let all kinds of bigger bits into our bloodstream, things that aren’t supposed to end up in there & these can cause our immune system to become excessively reactive. You may not think gluten affects you but if you suffer from any of the following & would prefer not to, it’s definitely worth looking into: bloating, fluid retention, abdominal pain, reflux, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, weight gain / loss, fatigue, anaemia, rashes, joint pain, brain fog, anxiety, depression, behavioural disturbances, headaches, autoimmune problems…you can even have coeliac disease & be completely asymptomatic as well – I believe it should be something everyone is routinely checked for.
Just try 6 weeks with no gluten in your diet. You will generally lose a few kgs of fat & fluid as a bonus, & you’ll also be forced to find healthier (less refined carb) solutions to meals & snacks. Ie instead of a sandwich or wrap for lunch you’ll just have the salad & protein (meat / fish / legumes / nuts / seeds). Instead of cereal for breakfast (who still eats that stuff anyway?) you can use a nutritious soaked seed blend or vegan bircher muesli with yoghurt (Blend11 or NeoBlend are good options – sorry, shameless plug), or have a smoothie with plenty of good fats, protein & fibre (throw some seed blend in there). DO NOT just go looking for gluten-free versions of your bread, pasta, cakes, cereal, pastries & crumbed foods. Many of these can be very unhealthy, full of additives & even higher in refined carbs than their gluten-containing versions! Ask advice for some good replacements in your local health food store (there are some great gluten-free products & then there are some really, really ordinary ones)! I speak to sooo many people each week who just feel better when they avoid gluten, you never know if you’re one of them unless you give it a good trial. I used to think the whole gluten intolerance thing was a load of crap too, but it’s not.
Be A Stress Head:
Surround yourself with mess & chaos, take on more than you can handle, say yes to everything, overthink, take on responsibility for other people’s issues, worry about everything, drink copious amounts of coffee to cope with your workload, sleep minimally & never take a break??! If this describes you & you’re not enjoying good gut health THAT IS ONLY STAGE ONE, YOU’RE HEADED FOR MUCH WORSE! If you’re constantly stressed, your digestion won’t happen properly, & your gut will give you trouble – which will contribute to your anxiety & stress levels, it’s a vicious cycle that will lead you to an eventual train wreck!
If you’re not coping, SEEK HELP. Change things. You have choices, you can always change your circumstances, your mindset & your actions. When we’re stressed out, our digestive system shuts down. It’s not ideal to be eating or defecating during fight or flight moments, so our hormones divert circulation & energy away from the gut & towards muscles used to fight or flee. Counselling, meditation, yoga, massage, exercise, talking things through with friends (or even strangers), scheduling regular short ’me time’ & longer periods off, away from the things that are constantly causing you mental angst – whether those things are your job, your kids, your partner, your relatives, your home environment. Do the things that you enjoy & that take your focus away from your stressed-out headspace. For some people that may be a sport, it could be art, gardening, walking in nature, playing or listening to music, whatever floats your boat (sailing is also a good one). You can eat all the quinoa & kale you like but if you’re a mess upstairs, you’ll be a mess downstairs too.
Keep Milking It:
Eat cereal & milk for breakfast, cheese & crackers for morning tea, creamy pasta for lunch, a yoghurt smoothie for afternoon tea & ice-cream after your dinner?Helloo – dairy overload! Calves need cows milk to survive & thrive, we actually don’t (despite what the dairy industry tells us, sorry dairy farmers). Not everyone feels crappy eating dairy – but A LOT of people do. It is one of the most common disruptors to good gut health (right up there with gluten & sugar – these are the first 3 to quit / minimise if your gut is out of whack). Some people find they’re ok with some dairy products but not with others – i.e. A2 dairy can be less reactive, as can goats or sheeps milk products, & yoghurt & butter are generally better tolerated than milk, cheese & ice-cream. Cheeses can also vary a lot, depending on the casein content, the production method & the microbes they contain.
If you never have, try avoiding all dairy products for a minimum of 3 weeks & see if you notice an improvement in your gut symptoms. This is an especially good idea if you have previously suffered from eczema or asthma or have them running in your family, also hayfever, recurring ear infections, sinus problems & excessive mucus production can be a giveaway. There are so many great dairy-free options readily available these days – coconut yoghurt, all kinds of nut milks, spreads, cheeses & ice-creams. Just remember you can overdo these & I would avoid the soy options (soy is another of our top gut enemies!). Also, be aware of quality – many dairy replacement products will contain a whole list of crap that you don’t wanna ingest either – look for simple & natural ingredient labels & observe how you feel when you eat them, just because they are dairy-free does not mean they’ll be good for you. If you’ve never tried it, & your gut is giving you grief – do the dairy-free experiment. You may notice nothing much, or it could be life-changing in terms of developing good gut health. If you are reacting, you may be able to reintroduce some types of dairy or use it minimally after some gut rehabilitation – but you may feel so much better you just prefer to go without.
Be A Party Animal:
Drink several beers each evening & then several more on the weekends? They don’t call it a ‘beer gut’ for nothing – think about it. Even keen beer drinkers will admit to it making them feel bloated & uncomfortable, but – like any pleasurable addiction – the discomfort has to get pretty severe before it becomes worth avoiding the source of pleasure. And it’s not just beer – any excessive amount of alcohol will damage your gut. I’ve actually spoken to quite a few people over the years who’ve developed a food intolerance right after a ‘huge weekend’ (likely cause: microbial devastation & gut barrier damage leading to leaky gut & consequent immune hyper-reactivity). And whilst you’re invincible when you’re young, trust me – there are many people in their 30’s, 40’s & 50’s suffering with some of the worst gut conditions who would love to be able to press rewind & take better care of themselves and drink less in their younger party years.
Sorry to be boring, but moderation / minimisation is the go here. Some current research says that we can probably enjoy a daily small glass of quality red wine (emphasise glass, not bottle) & we’ll not be damaging our gut (there’s actually some polyphenol benefits for our microbes). And you might be less stressed too. If your gut already says no to alcohol, keep avoiding it, & don’t start drinking red wine now just for the polyphenols. If you do drink, keep it minimal to maintain good gut health. If you accidentally slip up – take some probiotics, turmeric, aloe vera, slippery elm powder, stay off the gluten / dairy / sugar etc & be sure to catch up on any missed sleep. Teach yourself other ways to destress, socialise & have fun – don’t revolve your weekly fun times around alcohol.
Just Keep On Shovelling It In:
Eat really early, eat really late, eat large meals, eat snacks in between meals, eat desserts, have a midnight snack, drink more ‘food’ in liquid form…just keep pouring food down your throat constantly? OK so here’s a big clue – the word ‘breakfast’. We are supposed to have a fasting period, then we break that with some food the next day (the idea is to give your gut a good rest & some time to recuperate from the days work, clean up any mess & be ready to start all over again the next day). Consider that we used to go to sleep at dark or soon after & rise at dawn or soon after…that should leave a pretty good time for sleeping & no food (24hr fast food joints & service stations were not an option). Many people just get up early for work everyday, eat food without exercising first & then continue eating at short intervals throughout the day, until their late night sweet treat with a cuppa at 9 or 10pm. If you’re waking at 5 & eating breakfast, then going to bed at 10pm after eating something late – that leaves approx 9hrs downtime for your gut. Many experts are now saying that we do much better with a longer fasting period (13-16hrs), & less continual grazing for good gut health.
Many find their gut (& the rest of their body) feels much happier when they adopt an ‘intermittent fasting’ approach – you can still eat plenty, you just have a smaller window of the day when you eat, & a longer fasting period to allow your gut & liver to really have a proper rest. This can also be a great approach if you need to lose weight or improve your insulin sensitivity. Try it by eating your dinner a bit earlier (& no snacks afterwards – unsweetened herbal tea ok), then getting up in the morning (& doing some exercise ideally), waiting until you’re actually really hungry until you first eat – i.e. try dinner at 6.30pm, then don’t eat until after 9am the next day, or even see if you feel fine until a bit later. This will be easier if you are having plenty of good fats, fibre & protein & keeping your sugars to an absolute minimum (sugar makes you feel hungry all the time).
Take Antibiotics Every Time You Get Sick:
Go to your Dr demanding antibiotics at the first sign of every rash, sore throat, cough or sniffle, so the family won’t need to take too long off work / school / daycare recovering? Believe it or not, this still happens all too often in Australia – GPs feel pressured / trapped into prescribing antibiotics when they won’t be necessary or even beneficial and are not conducive with good gut health. Uneducated patients still request them frequently (worried parents are often guilty here) & they don’t realise that opting for a course of antibiotics will actually make them or their child MUCH more likely to catch the next infection going around – their immune system will be severely compromised as well as their gut health. There are many adults whose gut health is still recovering from the antibiotics of their youth. Australian kids are prescribed more antibiotics than most of the world: Parents be warned!
Focus on prevention & you should very rarely need antibiotics (there are some exceptions to this rule, but this is true for most of us in reasonable health). The best course of action for most childhood (& adulthood) infections is to support the patient (at home, for as long as necessary) while it runs its course, whilst being in regular contact with your health professional whenever concerned. Just make sure your health professional is not a trigger-happy antibiotic prescriber (thankfully these are becoming less common now)!
So…I’m sure we’re all guilty of at least one of these gut sins – I totally am. There are definitely a few more things I haven’t listed too (like not eating enough fibre of course, but I kinda mention that a lot normally!). I’d love to hear what you find is your worst gut enemy too!?