On a tropical island with limited medical facilities, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong.
I was so ill. I couldn’t eat, I lost loads of weight. My stomach hurt, I felt sick all the time. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything much. It went on and on.
Two months later, exhausted, I flew back to the UK and was diagnosed at the Hospital for Tropical Medicine.
I had a rare tropical parasite.
The yucky idea of bugs
The idea of that very nasty bug was revolting. The thought of it made my brain seize up.
We know that we have lots of bugs in our guts. Trillions in fact – we’ve read it on the side of yoghurt pots! (I’m sticking with the word bugs, but there are lots of proper ways of referring to the bugs in your guts, like microbiota, the microbiome or gut microflora.) So they can’t be all bad.
But I had to know how to get rid of this unbelievably nasty bug and the havoc it was creating in my life.
The war of the bugs can scare you to death
Boy, how things can go wrong when the wrong bugs get into your guts. It’s out and out war as to who gets control – the good bugs or the bad bugs. Often it’s a fine line as to which will win.
(Tell me about it! Months of stomach pain and a great deal of lying around on sofas – I could barely walk 100 metres!)
The list of ills that are associated with problems with your gut include:
· cardiovascular disease
· lowered immunity to cold and flu viruses or bacterial illnesses
· autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
· eczema, allergies and asthma
· irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease
· chronic fatigue syndrome
· fungal infections such as candida (one of the bad bugs we also host in our guts)
· susceptibility to parasites.
Just listing them all is enough to scare you into wondering how you can survive!
Suddenly, it’s not surprising that we’re more likely to die at a younger age if we don’t have the right bugs working for us in our guts.
The love affair between our brain and gut
I didn’t realise how much our brains and guts like to cuddle up together.
I suppose I should have: we instinctively know that there is a relationship between our brain and stomach.
We talk about having butterflies in the stomach when we’re nervous.
We have a gut feeling about something, or it takes guts to do something difficult.
The extent of the communication between our brain and our guts is mind-blowing.
What a difference it makes to your health and the length of your life if those bugs are getting on well with your brain!
They work out the best ways for us to make the most of our lives and bodies. They bring us life and health and laughter. They head up the life events management team, setting the scene for the best time of our life.
That’s why scientists now refer to the world inside our guts as our second brain. The secret life of our second brain
From the food our stomach acid hasn’t already zapped into nutrition, our guts produce vitamins, enzymes and essential amino acids, triggering an amazing number of reactions throughout our bodies.
It can mean the difference between having loads of energy or always being tired, being depressed or in a great mood for a party, never ever getting a cold or ending up with a life shortening illness.
So, bugs and our longevity go hand in hand.
Which comes first, longevity or a great gut?
The scientists haven’t really yet got to the bottom of the chicken and egg question as to what comes first, the longevity or the great gut.
We’ve seen that life shortening illnesses have been associated with deficient gut microflora.
There is evidence that some horrible illnesses can be improved by assisting your good bugs to thrive – even Alzheimers can get a little bit better.
Tests on 90 year olds who are still very active and happy have shown that they have the microbiome of a 30-year old. Whereas people who reach that sort of age and aren’t in good shape tend not to have such a good gut flora. It’s a correlation and hasn’t been definitively proved.
So we can draw a common sense view, (even if the science isn’t there to prove it yet), that looking after your guts means that you are more likely to live a long, active life.
So, when the goody and the baddy bugs get into fights, and the relationship between our guts and our brains goes through a rough patch, we need to work on it.
Just like in any marriage, our bugs deserve a bit of TLC, some cherishing and love. We need to protect the good bugs from the bad bugs.
So how do we do that?
Romancing the bugs
There are two basic ways to get our good bugs engaged:
– we try and get a wider range of good bugs into our system, or
– we try and encourage the ones that are already there to multiply and thrive.
“….. maintaining diversity of your gut as you age is a biomarker of healthy aging….” Professor Greg Gloor, PhD, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, London, Ontario
How to diversify: foods that are amazingly good for your guts
People have about 160 species of bugs in the gut microflora. But as there are more than 1000 varieties out there, it’s a case of the more good bugs the merrier.
The more diverse the bug population, the more diverse are our bodily (physiological) reactions – and the better able we are to cope with bad bugs.
One way of getting more varied bugs is to diversify our diet. Apparently if you vary your diet, it only takes a few days for your bug population to change too.
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kefir (which are commonly eaten throughout central Europe), and kim chi (or kim chee), fermented soy products and natto (which are commonly eaten in the Far East), are an amazing way to diversify your microbiome.
How about trying some? Each is an acquired taste so you may have to persevere.
Some say that natto can only be stomached by the Japanese as its taste is so extraordinary.
I’ve never had the chance to try natto, but when I can get kim chi, I really like it. You might be able to find it in a local Korean restaurant or you can make your own if you send off for the culture.
More to Western taste perhaps, you can eat foods known to contain probiotics, that is, doses of bugs.
We now see these in the shops quite commonly. You can buy yoghurt with various strains of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Kefir is becoming more common in Western Europe – it’s even made it onto the Archers (the longest running and beloved UK radio soap opera about farming).
It’s been known for thousands of years that apple cider vinegar is good for you. (Has to be the cloudy, unfiltered, organic stuff to make a difference.) Nowadays, people like Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and Katy Perry drink a spoonful or two in water every day. So you could try it too.
You can also take capsules full of an astonishingly high number and a wide variety of bugs.
How to keep the existing bugs happy
Another way of giving yourself a strong microbiome is to provide a nice environment for the good bugs to multiply inside your guts.
Try eating prebiotics. These are foods which the good bugs like, such as fibre, both of the soluble kind and the insoluble kind.
So, eat lots of vegetables, fruits and grains like oats.
Fruits such as apples provide soluble fibre in the form of pectin.
Personally, I like adding ground linseed, which has a high insoluble fibre content, to a daily dose of yoghurt or kefir.
Making sure you have enough Vitamin D is a good way to help your guts. Not only is it a good idea to take it with Vitamin K2, but if you get the MK-7 variety rather than MK-4, you can get natto without the nasty taste.
Eating lots of omega 3 in the form of oily fish and/or capsules is another great way to keep your bugs happy.
How to avoid the nasty bugs
Sugar has a lot to answer for when it comes to the bugs in your guts.
Sugar is loved by fungi such as candida, which can spread throughout your body and make you feel vile.
Sugar feeds cancerous cells as well as causing imbalances in insulin production which can lead to diabetes.
So cut out the sugar!
Keeping your weight down is
another good way to avoid nasty bugs.
does obesity have terribly bad effects on your system generally, it’s known that most
obese people don’t have the same diversity of microbiome as lighter folk. This means that their immune system cannot cope as well with counteracting the effects of their obesity on their system.
If you restrict the types of food you eat, you are restricting the range of bugs that can contribute to your well-being and health. So again, eating lots of different types of foods, including loads of fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables, helps to keep down the nasty bugs.
Antibiotics: the good news and the bad news
Antibiotics work by killing off bacteria that are causing you to be ill. Their downside is that they kill off the bugs in your guts at the same time.
I was probably susceptible to that parasite because I had recently spent time on an antibiotic drip to save me from cellulitis and blood poisoning from a mosquito bite.
I was really glad to have them especially when my lovely Australian doctor said, in the blunt way that Australians do, that I didn’t have to take them but I was quite likely to die if I didn’t.
But antibiotics were required again, to rid my guts of that ghastly parasite. So, antibiotics are a bit of a mixed blessing – life saving and gut wrecking at the same time.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t follow the advice of your doctor, but don’t take them unless you really need to.
Antibiotics can affect your microbiome for up to a year after you take them. So, it’s a really good idea to do everything you can to get your bugs back up to speed if you do have to take antibiotics.
If you’ve taken them in the last year, you might try boosting your bugs with a diversity of foods and some probiotics and supplements.
It’s marriage, until death do us part
The love affair between our brain and our guts is a marriage made in heaven, to be cherished and loved, in sickness and in health.
Like all good marriages, it lasts until death do us part.
Like all good marriages, it has its ups and downs, but with a little work and the application of a bit of brain power to the way we treat our guts, we can help the marriage to be a long and happy one.
So go romance your guts, let them go forth and multiply – it should make you feel great.
Go stock up on the
probiotics and prebiotics, go wild with the vegetables, the fruit and the fibre.
Rely on your gut feelings and live that longer, healthier, happier life.
Please note: nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. Always consult a professional who can give you advice tailored to your own situation.
Rosemary Bointon: Working out what to do now to live a longer, more active life with adventures and fun
You can find her on https://medium.com/@RosemaryB
on Twitter at @Agingchallenges, and
on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/superagingadventures/