THERESA EDMUNDS, CERTIFIED HEALTH COUNSELOR
In my work as a nutritional counselor for families I find that parents are more open to understanding the importance of a healthy diet than ever before. But one of the frustrations I often hear is that when a child spends time with the grandparents or other relatives (or goes to a friend’s house), dietary guidelines go out the window. One mom told me that when her son returns home she feels her efforts are now one step forward and five steps back!
I’ve put together some key points about how the health of the digestive tract can impact the brain—and hence behavior, learning, and attitude. (In my work I focus on how the gut and underlying deficiencies can affect symptoms of ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, tics, dyspraxia, apraxia, and sensory issues.)
I recommend that parents read through this article and be sure they are familiar with the basics. Then, if they need to explain dietary changes to relatives or friends, it might have more impact. You’ll find most of these are common sense, but it will hopefully serve as a primer to keep the concept fresh for you.
Some useful references are included at the end of the article to understand the role of leaky gut and the types of dietary changes that many find useful.
Basic points for Grandma
1 The role of the gut
Did you know that the “gut” is considered a second brain? It is integral to every system of the body and regulates so many functions of the body that it has been referred to as a second brain. Researchers have even found neurons (cells associated with the brain) in the gut!
The gut is, in essence, the digestive system. Yet it does much more than just digest the foods we eat. The gut helps regulate metabolism and weight, and is responsible for most of our immune system response. It is estimated that 70% of our immune system is controlled in the gut, which communicates with the brain and regulates our sleep and moods.
The problem is that as a society, we have been putting just about anything in our mouth (some of it shouldn’t actually be called food) and expecting our gut to somehow deal with it!
Unfortunately, problems in the gut usually go unnoticed until there are bigger health issues to deal with. It’s an area in our body that most people pay little attention to and tend to take very little care of.
2 Implications of a dysregulated gut
Many of the physical and mental disorders that plague America today start in the digestive system.
Gastrointestinal illnesses are on the rise—acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and diverticulosis, to name a few. Even seemingly unrelated issues such as autism, heart disease, anxiety, and depression have been linked to unhealthy gut function.
Today, a large percentage of the population experiences dysbiosis, meaning an imbalance of bacteria, in the gut. While it is normal to have both “good” and “bad” bacteria, when the amount of harmful bacterial is out of control, the intestines can be damaged. This can lead to a condition known as leaky gut.
One of the roles of the small intestine is to absorb nutrients from our food, but when it is damaged it cannot do this well. Eventually, the damage can cause microscopic perforations in the lining of the small intestine, resulting in leaky gut. With this condition, food particles are permitted to leak into the blood, with the potential to cause all kinds of issues such as food allergies and sensitivities, and skin conditions like eczema. When the food substances cross the blood-brain barrier, anxiety, depression, mood swings and even behavioral problems can occur.
The culprit? Much of the blame is placed on the Standard American Diet (SAD) that has been popular for the past 50-60 years. Sugar and refined carbohydrates, abundant in our diets for the past generation, can feed the bad bacteria and allow it to proliferate. This, coupled with a diet high in processed foods and low in nutrition, has created dysfunction within the gut.
GMO foods, especially grains, have also been fingered as potentially damaging the lining of the intestine.
Beyond foods, the use of antibiotics is well known to play a significant role in the development of a leaky gut because these medications kill not only the bad bacteria but the good as well. While this situation was not well recognized just decades ago, routine medical advice now includes taking probiotics to replenish the good bacteria.
4 What can be done to heal the gut?
The good news is that the body will heal itself, given half a chance. Once the whole family realizes how important the digestive system is to overall well-being, all members may feel motivated to give the good bacteria a fighting chance. After all, it’s on our side! To do this, you first need to stop feeding the bad bacteria. Then you need to give the good bacteria what it needs to flourish. Some of the references below will help give ideas.
Before refrigeration was available, food had to be preserved and people all over the world accomplished this with fermented foods. Examples: sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt, to name a few. These foods not only helped with digestion, they helped keep the entire digestive system healthy. This wisdom was all but lost, yet many today are realizing the benefits of these types of foods. (Maybe Great-Grandma remembers those days. J )
We now also have the advantage of having supplements such as probiotics, enzymes and digestive acids to aid us in the process of cleaning up our gut and regaining our health.
Four resources to help heal the gut
NOTE: Please be aware that if you are not familiar with the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet and choose to go in that direction, you may want to seek out a nutritional counselor who can help you. As a GAPS practitioner, I find that many families are overwhelmed when first learning of the dietary changes recommended.
Gut Psychology Syndrome (Book)
Theresa Edmunds, founder of Natural Concepts Health Counseling, educates, supports and inspires individuals and families to create wellness through nutrition and natural living principles. Theresa is a Certified Health Counselor and received her training through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City. She is certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.