We chat with Aussie nutritionist Elyse Comerford of Well Belly on the importance of a healthy gut and how it works in the body.
Elyse is a Byron Bay-based integrative nutritionist and certified GAPS (Gut & Psychology/Physiology Syndrome) Practitioner, Holistic Health Coach, Exercise Scientist, Keynote Speaker and Mentor. She is the founder of wellbellyhealth.com.au
Over the past few years she has been in private practice, helping hundreds of families overcome a whole host of health issues through the implementation of nourishing and healing dietary principles, reducing toxic stress, and the GAPS protocol.
“My approach is based on taking the normal “guilt, blame, shame and deprivation” approach and completely turning it on its head, focussing instead on healing, nourishing, and listening to the body”, Elyse explains.
As a teenager Elyse suffered with acne, persistent thrush, cysts and abscesses on her breasts and ovaries, constant bloating, anaemia, depression, sugar addiction, constipation, diarrhoea, and food intolerances that were getting progressively worse. She had begun thinking these issues were normal, and something she would have to live with. It was an empowering moment for Elyse, when she learnt the connection the gut has with all of these issues, and how she could transform her health by first transforming her gut and microbiome.
What is the gut, how does it work and what is its importance to the body?
“We now know the gut is not merely a factory that digests the food we put into our bodies; it is what some scientists call ‘the second brain.’ It profoundly impacts the way we think, feel, behave and thrive in our lives. Talking about healing the gut can be quite an abstract notion, so it is great to get a good understanding of what is going on in the workings of your gut.
When we talk about the gut, we are referring to the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), a hollow, muscular tube that starts at the mouth and continues through the pharynx and oesophagus to the stomach, on to the small intestine, then large intestine, rectum and anus. Everything you eat travels along this path, has chemicals added and nutrients taken away, until it passes out the other side looking a whole lot different to how it went in.
The muscular wall of our GI tract acts like a barrier between the outside world and the internal workings of our body. This is how vital nutrients enter our body and become the building blocks and nourishment our body needs to function optimally. It is also the barrier to keep pathogens and toxins that could potentially cause us harm out of our bloodstream”.
What is the importance of gut health?
“Absorption of nutrients does not rely just on what we are putting in our mouths. Sure we need to be eating healthy nutrient rich foods, but just because we are eating them does not mean we are absorbing them. The health of our gut is the deciding factor when it comes to nutrient absorption, if the right bacteria (microbiome) is not there to break down the food into nutrients that can be used by the body, then we are not getting everything we need from our food.
The gut also houses the vast majority of our immune system, so a healthy gut barrier is vital for a well-functioning immune system. We do know that an unhealthy gut can lead to inflammation, and inflammation can lead to a whole host of health issues, so looking after your gut means building a foundation for the rest of your health”.
What are the leading problems today that can lead to an unhealthy gut?
“There are various ways our gut can become unhealthy, and it is easy to become exposed to these in modern life. Stress has a huge impact on the health of the gut, and in fact the health of every system in our body, so reducing stress is non-negotiable if you want to thrive.”
What are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut, the signs that may lead you to believe something is wrong with the gut?
“It is rare to find someone who does not need to work on the health of their gut in some way or another, and the health of the gut relates to so many health issues. I truly believe that working on the gut is foundational regardless of what is going on with your health. Some of the main red flags to look for are low energy, brain fog, digestive symptoms, food intolerances, autoimmune conditions, learning difficulties, low immunity, regular infections, skin conditions, hormone imbalances, mental health issues and basically feeling as though you are not thriving.
As you can see it is quite broad, because gut health relates to the health of every other system of our body. That is not to say that the gut is always the cause and the solution, it is just always a part of the picture”.
How can we then treat those symptoms to improve gut health and heal it when already unhealthy?
“Working on the gut isn’t so much about treating symptoms directly, but building a foundation where some symptoms will resolve because of that.
How we work on the gut really differs from person to person as it will depend what is going on, and treating symptoms is something we will do in order to help someone feel better whilst we are addressing the root cause.
Many practitioners focus mainly on symptoms, and this can be why people find themselves working with practitioners for years trying to find a resolution.
Although they may feel better in some way, they are not seeing a vast improvement. Some of the basic things you can do to start addressing things at a foundational level is to one- reduce stress. Stress has been scientifically proven to be detrimental to our health, to be a factor in inflammation which leads to disease.
This is the most chronic issue I see in my clinic. The other is to eat more whole foods, foods where you know how they were sourced, and have required very minimal processing to become the food you see in front of you. For example, store bought white bread which is highly processed compared to artisan sourdough which has minimal ingredients and processing”.
How can we protect our gut from viral and everyday attacks which can lead to other health concerns?
“Reducing stress and including whole foods as above, are two really important foundational factors here. Some other things you can also focus on are healing and repairing the gut lining and working on the health of your microbiome (our army of gut bacteria).
To heal and repair the gut lining we need to use things like meat stocks, or if you are time poor you can use gelatine to provide the amino acids that repair the gut lining. To work on the microbiome, it is helpful to add things like fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimch, kefir, kombucha), prebiotic foods like fruit, veggies, lentils, and a broad-spectrum probiotic”.
What sorts of health concerns have now been medically proven to be linked to bad gut health?
Research is exploding in the area of gut health, and many health issues are directly or indirectly related to the health of the gut. We are at a point of understanding that good gut health is a vital factor in human health. This review article on gut health outlines a range of health issues and their connection to the gut, including obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gout, depression, arthritis, asthma, allergies, eczema and longevity.