A Practical Guide To Gut Health: Signs & Symptoms Of An Unhealthy Gut

Part One: How to identify the problem.

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Image: Lee Holmes via Steve Brown Photography

You don’t have to poll your friends to know that gut issues are becoming an epidemic. The fact that cafés have brought out anti-inflammatory menus and supermarkets now stock a wide range of tasty gluten-free bread is no coincidence. And while it may appear to be just a trendy diet, if you actually suffer from gut problems you’ll know it’s far from sexy.

Behind the quinoa porridge and turmeric smoothies is a life spent holding in farts, mapping out bathrooms and being asked when you’re expecting. Living with gut issues is exhausting, and it’s becoming too common.

Lee Holmes knows all about the crippling effects of poor gut health. Being diagnosed with a non-specific autoimmune disease and fibromyalgia eight years ago, she spent months lying in hospital being fed an endless concoction of drugs that left her feeling worse.

“I lost more than 15 kilograms; hives and bruises covered my body from head to toe; and I suffered brain fog, hair loss, and extreme fatigue. There were many days when I simply couldn’t raise the energy to get out of bed,” she writes in her book, Heal Your Gut.

After making a conscious decision to look into her condition herself, Holmes was able to recognise the significant role played by her digestive system. Here, she began her natural journey of recovery through repairing her gut.

While gut issues are different for everyone, the path to healing can be a fairly similar one. With so many suffering from this condition, we’ve partnered with Lee Holmes as well as the co-founder of the SIBO Center for Digestive Health in Portland, Oregon, Dr Steven Sandberg-Lewis to bring you this practical guide to healing your gut. Through the experience of Lee Holmes and the expertise of Dr Sandberg-Lewis, we hope this will help you on your journey to a healthy, happy gut.

If you’ve seen countless doctors and heard numerous opinions and just want to try something for yourself, here it is.

What is the gut exactly?

“When most people think of the gut, they often just think of the stomach, when in fact, your gastrointestinal tract is the nine-meter tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the back passage (anus).
The small intestine alone is about six and a half meters and is where most of the food is broken down and absorbed. It also houses most of your immune system.

Your gut lining is only one cell level thick (compared to your skin, which is seven layers) so if that lining breaks down, your immune system will be exposed to foreign particles from food, bacteria, and other microbes.

When your gut microbiota is out of balance, if you have more pathogenic bacteria, not enough healthy bacteria, or too many normal flora in the wrong location, you get sick.”

What causes gut problems?

“One question many people ask themselves is “Why do I get sick when exposed to certain risks, while others seem to be largely unaffected?” People who suffer from gut issues have different root causes, so it is important to personalise treatment based on the individual.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, research tells us that two of the biggest causes of gut issues are food sensitivities and overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Some of the other potential root causes may be a gut parasite, lack of digestive enzymes or acid, nutrient deficiency (such as zinc and magnesium) or altered motility (food and waste not moving through the gut properly).

Many conventional healthcare practitioners don’t have the practical knowledge in order to deal with functional gastrointestinal disorders, yet in fact, they can be effectively treated with the help of personalised healthcare strategies.”

What are the signs of a gut problem?

If you have gut issues, chances are you—and everyone else in the room—will know about it. Dr Sandberg-Lewis says typical symptoms include gas, pain, cramps, nausea/vomiting bloating, abdominal distention, constipation, diarrhoea (or alternating between the two).

That being said, while localised symptoms in the gut tend to be the biggest telltale sign, gut issues can manifest in other, more discreet ways. According to Bioceuticals Dietitian and Education Manager, Belinda Reynolds, mild fogginess in the head in the hours after eating, skin rashes, feeling sluggish, fatigued and down, joint pain, rosacea, and acne, and worsened period pain can also be offsets of underlying gut problems.

What are some tests to help identify gut issues?

“Given that food sensitivities are one of the most common causes of problems in the gut, it makes sense to start with allergy or intolerance testing.

Immunoglobulin G Blood Test

“An IgG (immunoglobulin G) blood test is a useful tool for detecting the foods causing an antibody reaction in your gut. However, the foods that cause these reactions are often hard to diagnose because of the time between consumption and the delayed physical reaction.

These food sensitivities aren’t a true allergy, like a peanut allergy, but rather a food intolerance. One of the most common intolerances is gluten. Even if your tests for gluten antibodies or coeliac are normal, you can still have a severe reaction. “

Lactulose Breath Test

“To test for an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO—Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), lactulose breath testing is used. Normally, the small intestine has fewer and a less diverse type of flora than the large intestine. SIBO is a significant increase in friendly flora in the small intestine, which produces a higher level of methane or hydrogen. Studies show that more than 50% of irritable bowel syndrome is actually SIBO.”

Stool & Saliva Test

“I would also recommend testing for parasites, opportunistic and pathogenic bacteria with a stool and saliva test. Conventional Ova and Parasite stool tests can often produce false negatives so I recommend a comprehensive stool test that uses additional methods including antibody or toxin levels or polymerase chain reaction.

Absorption tests for faecal fat, elastase or chymotrypsin and inflammation markers such as calprotectin or lactoferrin are also very useful.”

If you’d like to see Dr Sandberg-Lewis in person, he will be speaking in Sydney during April 2017 to help to educate Australian health professionals at the 5th BioCeuticals Research Symposium.

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