“You are not cursed with the microbiome you were born with, you have the ability to change and shape your microbiome and make it your own through the choices you make. The choices you make today can alter your microbiome of tomorrow”
– Dr Will Bulsiewicz, Gastroenterologist. Gut Health Expert.
Ayurveda takes a multi-disciplinary approach to increasing vitality and health, by accessing herbal medicine, diet, yoga, meditation, pranayama and self-care practices. Prevention is key and is based upon healthy lifestyle choices, that are in harmony with the natural cycles of nature.
Looking at digestion from the perspective of Ayurveda, what’s outside is reflected inside. We are increasingly aware of the exposure to chemicals in the environment, plastics in the food we eat, the medicines we take, the air we breathe, the products we put on our skin. This can be seen in the rise of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, mental health diseases such as Alzheimers, anxiety and depression.
It’s not just our environment that is having to process the chemicals and toxins of our modern day living but also our gut.
What is the Microbiome?
We are host to a large collection of microbes that live in and on our body. The colon is where we have the largest and most diverse cultures of micro-organisms, over 38 trillion microbiota, also known as the microbiome. The microbiome includes, microbes, parasites, fungi, bacteria and viruses that create eco-diversity in a healthy gut. They are not there just for nutrient delivery but are the frontline of the immune system’s ability to detox the body.
Whilst the gut provides these microbes with a stable environment, the microbes in turn, have a broad range of functions; they digest complex dietary macronutrients, out of which nutrients and vitamins are produced, and defend against pathogens to maintain our immune system.
What is gut health?
Good digestive function is seen as a good sign of health, yet Western public health research clearly shows that over 90% of adults in the West experience digestive symptoms on a weekly basis.
Symptoms like bloating, indigestion, constipation are common, and whilst these symptoms may not seem “that bad” they are indicative of dysbiosis. This is an imbalance or disturbance in the microbiome.
The way the microbiome has been shown to affect human health is the capacity for the microbiota to produce either beneficial metabolites that protect against disease or harmful metabolites associated with the development of disease. Emerging research data into depleted microbiome composition is showing a link to diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disorder. (ref: Cell.com/”Dietary Fiber to Host Physiology: Short chain Fatty Acids as Key Bacterial Metabolites”).
Dr Zach Bush, a physician specialising in natural medicine, and a thought leader on the microbiome says, “The microbiome has come to be understood as the foundation of human life and health, we cannot exist apart from the biology of the microbiome”.
5 Interesting Facts about the Microbiome
Did you know that:
1. 70% of our immune system and more than 80% of our antibodies are composed and located within the gut lining, also known as “The Barrier System”.
2. The barrier system. This is the gut lining, starting from the sinuses, to the stomach lining, that spans 2 tennis courts. In the nose, this barrier, is the mucosal layer that exists as one of the body’s first lines of defence. An optimally healthy barrier system is able to absorb the good stuff and keep out the bad.
3. Fiber (plant foods) is the preferred food of choice for the millions of microbes living in the gut which has been found to improve gut health. Eating a wide variety of plant foods will increase the diversity of the microbiome.
4) The Gut is also called “the second brain”, an intrinsically connecting system between the brain and the gut, known as the Enteric Nervous System. We experience gut feelings here, as the gut microbiota are known to produce and respond to neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, melatonin – it is a mood modulator. Depletion in these neurons are linked to anxiety and depression.
5) Prebiotics – are food for the microbiome. This is undigested fiber that passes through to the colon which is consumed by the micro-organisms. This supports healthy digestion and assimilation of nutrients, better elimination, immunity, mood and inflammation response.
What does the microbiome need to be healthy?
Ayurveda recognises that our ability to be able to digest and absorb the nutrients in our food is dependent upon the strength of the inner digestive fire, known as Agni. If Agni is weak, then food can sit in the digestive track and putrefy, creating leaky gut syndrome and toxic build-up, known as ama. If it is too strong, then food passes through quickly, undigested and nutrients are not assimilated or absorbed. When digestion is balanced, then we are able to process a variety of different foods without consequences. Prevention is key.
The intestinal flora and microbiome need to be fed by a rich and diverse selection of foods. Primarily fiber (plant foods) has been found to improve gut health by increasing Short Chain Fatty Acids, which are essential metabolites that produce anti-inflammatory microbes. Inflammation has been seen to be at the root cause of any disease or disharmony in the body. So basically all disease starts in the gut.
Ayurveda aims to maintain healthy digestion through balance of the doshas, the 3 constitutions and elements we all have. Vata (Air) dosha controls all movement, Pitta (Fire) is responsible for metabolism and digestion, and Kapha (Earth) governs the structure of the body. Gas, bloating and flatulence shows up as a Vata imbalance.
Heartburn, acid stomach, reflux, are a sign of pitta imbalance. Bloating, fluid retention, weight gain are signs of Kapha imbalance.
Each person is unique in their digestion, so what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Ayurveda takes the view that by working with our digestive system and natural circadian rhythms of the body, we can optimise prime times of digestion.
We are creatures of habit and sometimes we get stuck in a rut with our meal choices and eating patterns. It’s worth reflecting whether you have been having the same thing for breakfast and lunch? Or perhaps there have been some poor choices, such as eating processed foods, drinking ice cold water during/after a meal dampening the digestive fire, or eating heavy meals late at night that tax and make digestion sluggish so the food doesn’t digest properly, or eating sugary snacks between meals, that spike blood sugar levels and disrupt digestion. It is easy to get into unconscious habits, so when we become aware of this, we can start to make more conscious choices.
Ayurveda recommends regular cleansing of the diet in order clear Ama (toxins) and reset digestion, which involves removing foods like sugar, gluten, refined flours and processed foods and eating protein, healthy fats, raw healthy oils, fibre (fruits and vegetables). A classic simple Indian dish known as Kitchari which is usually rice based, is the staple during a light cleanse, that provides the body with its nutritional needs in an easily digestive form. Once digestion is rebalanced, and conscious eating has been established, then following these simple steps below will help to stay on track.
Here are 5 Simple Ways to improve the microbiome
1. On waking, drink a cup of hot water. (You can add lemon, ginger, or apple cidar vinegar) This wakes up and stokes Agni – the digestive fire. Continue to sip hot water throughout the day, to stay hydrated and release toxins.
2. Eat fresh and clean foods, at regular times to maximise on the digestive fire. Allow 3 hours or more between each meal, so digestion has a chance to process the food.
3. Take time to chew slowly and not gulp down the food, so it can be digested properly.
4. Reduce snacking between meals as it over-taxes the digestive organs..
5. Take Triphala Daily. This is a combination of 3 fruits that bring a synergistic effect to the body. It is an exceptional digestive, liver and gut tonic, it’s a prebiotic for the microbiome.
Rich Roll, Endurance Athlete and plant-based nutrition advocate says, “It is not about removing or reducing things from the diet, it is about building more abundance and variety rather than restriction. The power is in the plants” .
10 Signs of a healthy Digestion – balanced Agni
1. Plentiful energy throughout the day
2. Clear glowing skin
3. Mental clarity and sharpness
4. Brightness in the eyes
5. Feeling a sensation of hunger prior to the next meal
6. A daily bowel movement every morning
7. Well formed solid stools
8. The ability to eat most/all foods in moderation without developing symptoms
9. Happiness, calmness and internal peace
10. The collective sense of feeling fit, healthy, vital and happy
Whilst it is important to eat a broad range of healthy foods, there are other ways that have been found to increase the health of this vital system.
Good nourishing sleep, exercise and simply being outside and placing your hands in the dirt!
Wouldn’t it be amazing if today you chose your meals with the intention of supporting the incredible internal ecosystem of microbiota? I believe that the key to improving digestion, is by making small changes to implement every day. Perhaps when reaching for the mid- day tea or coffee, you’ll sip on some hot water instead.