Gut health is the damsel in distress of the 21st century. It’s unbalanced, it’s unstable, it’s too acidic, it’s too alkaline, it’s causing you to bloat, it’s causing those headaches.
It is, essentially, the source of all evil—and like most of those, it makes for marketing gold.
But as we sipped on our $7 kombucha (credited for improving digestion, enhancing immune system function and stimulating weight loss etc), and $9 bottle of black water (totally natural, filled with fulvic acid and helps the removal of free radicals from the body), we wondered if the claims had any scientific backing.
So we called up Chris Hughes (B.Sc Nutrition & Dietetics, APD/AN/ASD, generally cool human), an accredited dietician specialising in weight loss and gut health at CQ Nutrition, to tell us whether or not our gut actually needed a knight in shining armour.
Probiotics are bacteria that colonise the bowel. In the large bowel, where most of the research focuses on, there are more bacteria than cells in our body. Some of the discussion in this area is around how we’re a part of our bacteria, instead of it being a part of us (because of how big it is).
There’s upwards of a thousand strains of bacteria in our gut. When we have a probiotic we might be adding one strain to that thousand. So if you’re taking a probiotic, it may be doing you good, but it would depend on if it’s the probiotic strain that you’re deficient in.
Fermented foods generally have one or two strains of probiotics, but they’re adding millions of actual bacteria. In human terms, think of it like adding Australians to the bowel. You add millions of Australians (millions of bacteria), but the bowel but might actually be deficient in Kiwis (a separate strain of probiotics).
On drinkable probiotics
There’s a lack of evidence around taking particular probiotics and getting big benefits.
Probiotics have to pass through the acidic environment of the stomach to make it all the way to the large bowel. Current evidence suggests that it’s more beneficial to have probiotics in food rather than as a liquid or supplement. When you take probiotics in food, it’s bound to proteins and fibre and whatever might be in the food, so it’s more likely to pass through the stomach.
On pH balance
All of the reactions in the body that are enzymatic reactions (they’re based on an enzyme that will perform a particular function), will depend on the pH being within a certain range. For example in the blood, the pH has to be between 7.35 or 7.45, or you’re pretty close to death.
Our bodies control pH quite well. People tend to forget that all the food we put into the body has to go through the stomach which has a pH of 3 or less. It’s passing through an extremely acidic environment, so what we put in in terms of acid doesn’t necessarily affect the pH within the body.
On the removal of free radicals from the body
In terms of getting rid of free radicals—that, to me, doesn’t stack up. We’ve got an immune system that’s second to none, which clears out any toxins from the body.
We’ve got the lymphatic system, liver, lungs, skin and kidneys that filter a whole heap of stuff. The thing that’s creating free radicals within the body is usually someone’s diet or lifestyle, but the body is quite capable of getting rid of that—unless one of the organs isn’t performing.
On mineral content (and do we actually need more?)
Minerals in a drink can certainly enhance nutrient absorption. It’s why sports drinks have been formulated in a particular way, because they’ve got the correct mineral profile to assist absorption. So that stacks up.
The problem is that minerals can aid absorption, but they can also inhibit absorption. Minerals tend to compete with each other—for example, calcium and iron and zinc will compete with each other for absorption, but when you put Vitamin C with iron it enhances absorption.
You’ll get ample minerals from things like root vegetables (because most of your natural minerals will come out of the ground or the sea). When you eat foods which are void of minerals, that’s when you’re going to lack them.
So, should I not bother with my kombucha and black water?
For the most part, people want to be healthy and they want the next healthy thing. In terms of these products, as long as there’s no harm, I have no problem with them if people can handle the price tag.
There’s a lot of exciting research around gut health and what it can do for the body, but the evidence is quite specific at the moment.
In reality, most of what we need is right in front of us in terms of vegetables, fruits, minerals in nuts, seeds and wholegrains.
Another thing you should note is your prebiotics, which is the fibre that keeps all the probiotics or bacteria alive in the bowel. If your diet is light in fibre, all this stuff is useless. It’s like you’ve put a whole lot of workers out in the field but you haven’t given them any water, so they’re not going to work for very long.
How would you recommend managing gut health in terms of diet?
Get your probiotics from food. Sauerkraut, tofu, or Yakult and yoghurts is what I recommend to my clients. Eat less refined food and eat in colour—a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Sugars, saturated fats and highly processed foods have been found to affect the gut layer. The lack of fibre is also a problem, as we know fibre is essential to feeding good bacteria in the gut.
But the very first thing with gut health is stress and sleep. Diet only manages the symptoms, often it’s a stress-related thing because stress will kill off the health of the bowel.
Say you’re a pretty average size—you’ve got about 5 litres of blood in your body. After a meal, 3.5 of that goes to the digestive tract. So it’s a very energy-dependent system, your digestive system, in order to break down and absorb food.
Whenever you’re stressed or anxious, your digestive tract plays second fiddle. Your brain thinks you’re being chased by a lion, so it’s going to divert blood away from the digestive tract and feed your muscles. If you’re under a constant state of stress or anxiety, you’re going to have digestive issues.
A big part of managing that is getting enough sleep. There’s very solid evidence linking poor sleep and IBS.
Any final thoughts?
The human body is the most amazing organism, whoever designed it and whatever you believe in, I don’t know—but it’s phenomenal in how it functions. It’s very good at looking after itself and keeping things in check.
The body is designed to be very adaptable, we don’t need, necessarily, these new products that have discovered something that the human body has apparently not had access to for millions of years.
Want to try something different (and gut-friendly)? Check out our guide to Ketogenic living.
Image credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund