This blog post is a summary and an extension of Amanda Hamilton‘s workshop titled ‘The Importance of Optimum Gut Health’ which I attended at this year’s VegFest in London, at the Vegan Health Summit. I have found her talk to be a real eye-opener because until that day, I hadn’t really thought much about my gut in the context of my own health and fitness – however, after listening to Amanda, it seems that gut health is something that we all should concern ourselves with, regardless of whether we have existing digestive issues or not!
Amanda is resident nutritionist on BBC Radio 2’s Steve Wright show and a regular on BBC and Sky News. Her career to date has also included four books, the latest of which ‘The G-Plan Diet’ became a number one Amazon best-seller. She has also run several wellness retreats featuring juice detoxing, intermittent fasting, yoga, fitness, and gut health.
So what’s all the fuss about the gut?
The microbiome has become one of 2017’s hottest health topics, and not without good reason, according to a recent article in the Guardian. ‘The gut microbiome is a vast ecosystem of organisms such as bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses and protozoans that live in our digestive pipes. It is increasingly treated by scientists as an organ in its own right. (…) Research suggests that the gut microbiome might potentially be as complex and influential as our genes when it comes to our health and happiness. As well as being implicated in mental health issues, it’s also thought the gut microbiome may influence our athleticism, weight, immune function, inflammation, allergies, metabolism and appetite.’ Certain health conditions such as poor skin, lethargy, Alzheimer’s are linked strongly to an unbalanced gut.
According to Amanda, the good news is that by re-balancing and re-nourishing the gut, we can enjoy a wide range of health and wellbeing benefits, such as:-
- Improved skin
- Reduced symptoms of eczema, asthma, hayfever
- Improved immunity
- Better mood
- Weight loss
- Reduced cravings for sugar
- Less digestive discomfort and so on.
The first interesting fact that I have learnt from Amanda is that the circumstances surrounding our birth and the first two to three years of our lives is when the gut microbiome is established. Obviously, during those early years, we are very much dependent on our parents. For example, babies may be at a disadvantage if they are born prematurely, by C-section or are not fed on breast milk – breastfeeding can provide most of the important bacteria babies need. However, the good news is that there are lots of things we can do later in our lives to improve our gut health – more on that in a bit, let’s look at the ‘bad boys’ first.
What can harm our gut microbiome?
Amanda suggests that we avoid or minimise the following:-
- Antibiotics (these can upset the balance of gut bacteria as they kill the good and the bad strains)
- Frequent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (these can damage the gut lining)
- Excessive alcohol or binge drinking
- Low-fibre, refined and highly processed food based diets
- Not chewing your food well – food that is not broken down properly can cause more issues for the gut.
- Overeating can overwhelm the digestive system – think about how you feel after a big meal in TGI Fridays!
What is good for our gut microbiome?
- Pets! I was really pleased to hear from Amanda that a bit of muck and dirt and having pets around is much better than over sanitising our lives. Now I have one more reason to love the cuddles I get from my pussycats, Holly and Lydia.
- Lots of plants in our diet – vegans are already 90% on the road towards better gut health!
- Good hydration.
- Foods that are a good for fertiliser for good bacteria (prebiotics) – such as leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas (!)
- Probiotic foods – kefir, kimchee, yoghurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, certain supplements. Sadly, these are not very common in the Western European diet!
- Exercise – it can be very effective at raising levels of butyrate, the bacteria that helps protect against colon cancer. Exercise might also help you feel less bloated.
What steps can we take if we want to improve our gut health?
We can make imporvements in three phases – Amanda’s G-Plan Diet book and her 21 day online coaching programme ‘Gut Plan Clinic’ explain this in more detail, but here are the key things from her workshop:-
PHASE 1 – Digestive rest
There are many ways to do this, the most common forms are fasting and juice detoxing. This phase also involves eliminating trigger foods, such as gluten, dairy and caffeine. It usually takes about a week for the body to do a natural clean-up.
Fasting-based protocols are the cornerstone of Amanda’s nutrition approach. The most commonly used fasting methods that she advocates are the 5:2 diet where you eat just 500-600 calories two days of the week, or the 16:8 fast when you are food-free for 16 hours day and eat within an 8-hour window. The magic happens when you restrict calories for relatively short bursts of time at the same time as optimising nutrition – it is key to have the right balance of nutrients to trigger a natural process where your body breaks down and gets rid of the bad stuff.
The benefits of fasting include for example:
- Fasting helps to de-stress the body. When you fast, you give your body a break and a chance to catch up on its inner “to-do” list.
- Self-healing mechanisms are buried deep in our DNA and fasting triggers them.
- It decreases a hormone which is associated with ageing and cancer risk.
- Fasting triggers the creation of new stem cells, which repair the body by regenerating tissues, organs and blood and rebooting the immune system.
I think I’m sold on fasting!
PHASE 2 – Re-wilding
In this phase, the focus is on fuelling the body with nutrient-dense food that includes lots of plants and the previously mentioned naturally pro-biotic foods. Try to aim for diversity by eating lots of different things (‘eat the rainbow’) – a more diverse diet means a more diverse microbiome. I really like this approach of ‘abundance, not restriction’. In 9-10 days, the gut will be re-balanced.
PHASE 3 – Rebalancing
In this phase, we can re-introduce certain food groups and ingredients into our diet and observe how we feel. This should be an on-going exercise.
On the whole, I really enjoyed Amanda’s workshop as she explained things in a simple way and gave us lots of practical tips. After attending Amanda’s workshop, I will definitely consider adding more probiotic foods into my diet and look into trying some fasting as well.
What do you do to keep your gut healthy and fit?