Follow your gut- simple every day things to support your digestive health 

 

The Hows and Whys of digestive wellbeing

In naturopathic medicine there is an old adage “it all comes back to the gut”.  And though it could be considered a bit of a “yeah yeah yeah…” cliche- It reeeeeallllly does. The impact the health of our gut has on the rest of our body, from physical disease to mental health can’t be over stated. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with one of the myriad of digestive disorders (IBS, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), diverticulosis, fructose malabsorption, gluten sensitivity etc…) or a seemingly unconnected illness (autoimmune, inflammatory,depression/anxiety, hormonal imbalance) – the state of affairs in your GIT (gastrointestinal system) could be playing a major role. Even for those of us who may be in general good health, who maybe experience a few seasonal allergies, occasional bloating/fluctuating bowel motions, recurring colds and flus, fatigue/ sluggishness, acne or skin conditions- yup- digestive wellbeing could be at play.

Listen to the symptoms 

When we become accustomed to tuning our attention to our bodies, we get direct messages about how the things we eat or drink effect us. There is either a neutral experience, one of particular balance or nourishment, or immediate imbalance or upset. Of course, while we don’t want to be neurotic or overly sensitive to the play-by-play, listening to our body can tell us what is going on and is crucially important. I don’t believe major illness just happens over night. In fact, a person was probably ignoring and not addressing symptoms- for sometimes years- before the more serious pathology presented itself. If you’re in the fortunate position of being in good health, with no major diagnosis against your name, you are in the perfect position to prevent disease (which we know is worth a pound, right?) through listening to your digestive system, and taking measures to support it’s health and function. If you are the type of person who is experiencing some unpleasant digestive symptoms, whatever they be- it’s time to look a bit closer.

Diet-

“I eat a healthy diet”. I hear this a lot. But what does it MEEEAAAANNNN??? If you’re presenting with persistent digestive symptoms, minor to major, chances are your diet isn’t as healthy as it could be, at least FOR YOU.

Another thing people say, is that they can’t work out what it is they are eating that upsets them. “I don’t seem to react to any one particular thing. I can eat pasta or a salad, the symptoms are the same” This is because, when you have inflammation going on in your gut, it’s the same as if you had a wound on your skin. Say you’ve grazed yourself on the arm, the skin is broken, it’s red and sore. ANYTHING you do is going to cause it to hurt, right? Even just having a shower and getting water on it could irritate it. This is exactly the same in your gut. If you have inflammation internally, everything you eat will irritate it. By eliminating the CAUSE of the inflammation and healing the gut, you will then be able to see a more clear reaction when you consume the offending food. 

Is it allergy? Or intolerance? NEVER in our evolution have we been able to access the same foods day in and day out year after year. There has ALWAYS been seasonal variability and periods of time when a particular food wasn’t around at all, giving our body breaks and time to heal. The modern world which has refrigeration and international movement of out of season foods around the globe has created a situation where we never get a break. And industrial agriculture has also reduced the variety of species we grow. Many people are living on a max of 20-30 foods if they are lucky! And let’s not even START on how highly processed and full of chemicals and preservatives, OR GMO’s sneaking in ever so many more places- it’s no surprise our digestive systems are more and more inflammed and irritable.

So what if you feel like mostly you avoid processed foods and additives and still have symptoms? Most digestive symptoms aren’t caused by a true allergy, but an intolerance. Probably because of a combination diet/lifestyle factors and some of the circumstances listed above. So aside from recommending a reduction in obvious culprits like alcohol, sugar, refined grains, processed food and excessive caffeine- I usually start by looking at what I call- the big 5. The most irritating foods, and ones that are likely to cause intolerance if consumed regularly. That means daily. Wheat, dairy, soy, corn, yeast. By looking over what a person eats in a 3-5 day period, you’ll often find one of these foods is over consumed. Sometimes (often) the offending food is also the person’s absolute favourite, which they don’t think they could ever possibly live without (pasta, cheese, milk, beer, bread are some common examples). It’s mean, but true: the thing you love the most could be the worst thing for you 😦 sorry bout that. This is because if our gut is inflamed and absorbing the larger, undigested molecules of foods we are sensitive to, those larger molecules can trigger the morphine receptors in our brains, and give us a particularly good feeling when we eat those foods (this is especially true of grains and dairy). We become addicted to the feeling and those foods, the very ones that started the process and that may be causing health issues. Totally sucks- I know, but it’s time to say adios amigos if we want to stop the cycle. 

Notice that gluten isn’t in there. Gluten is very often a sensitivity for people, but not always. I find that wheat is more often the culprit and by going off wheat and replacing with other grains or low grain diet (often times gluten free, but not always) many people’s symptoms improve. If they do not improve, well, then we can move on to stage 2, eliminating gluten, looking at carbohydrates/starches which could be feeding bad bugs in the gut, and other potential food allergens. This is where the help of an experienced naturopath or nutritionist comes in handy- when things get confusing and not so straight forward. 

Staying regular having regular (daily) bowel motions is vitally important to digestive health. That means not to many or too little. Every day is ideal. Every second day for some is normal, but any longer than this, and you’ve got old food putrefying in there, feeding harmful bacteria and creating a toxic burden for the liver. Some people go 2-3 times per day, but any more than that and you run the risk of malabsorption. For most people the things required to stay regular are, LOTS of fresh plain water (2 L is ideal), exercise, high fibre diet (fruit and veggies or fibre supplements), and bitter digestive herbs. Many cultures value bitter greens and herbs for their ability to stimulate digestion and they are a feature of aperitifs and many tonics. Bitter is a flavour westerners have shied away from during our love affair with sugar. Time to embrace the dark side… try bitter teas like Dandelion root if you find your bowels are a bit sluggish. It gets bile moving and your bowels will follow. 

IMG_2945Dandelion “coffee” is the roasted root of the Dandelion plant and is a fantastic bitter digestive. It clears stagnant liver energy and can really lift your mood. Consume with abandon. 

Maintenance

So what are the every day things that we can do to give our digestive systems a little extra lovin’, heal and soothe inflammation and maybe prevent some chronic conditions? Things that EVERYONE can and should do to nourish our GITs.

Demulcents- This is the technical term for mucilaginous substances which heal and sooth the digestive tract with their gooey sliminess. Sounds yum, right? Some demulcents are yummier than others, and most you wouldn’t even know were doing such a good job of it- especially if you get crafty at hiding them in food and drinks. Here are some of my favs.

Chia seeds and flaxseeds– These are easy to use every day, and offer so much more than just their gooey goodness. Both are high in omega 3 essential fatty acids, and in the case of chia- a particularly good source of protein and the minerals calcium, magnesium and manganese. The soluble fibres found in both are excellent for keeping the bowels regular and helping to eliminate toxins.

IMG_2938Here are some chia seeds I have soaking for my morning smoothie

Slippery elm-The inner bark of the elm tree, Slippery elm is a demulcent par excellance. Another soluble gentle source of fibre it’s an all around excellent food for the gut. It is used for both constipation and diarrhoea- as it absorbs water, so please please remember, if you don’t have loose stools or diarrhoea- drink a big glass of water after. Hot tip: stir up a teaspoon of it in water and get that stuff down the hatch toute suite. It’s mucilaginous nature will soon become apparent if left in the glass and you may find it reminiscent of the glue you used in preschool. (don’t let me turn you off it- it’s really amazing stuff and a must if you have inflammation or pain in the gut).

Aloe vera- We use the inner gel of the Aloe plant- either in juice or if you have some growing- cut a leaf through the middle and scrape the gel in to you blender when you’re blending your smoothie. Aloe has been used forever as an important internal and external healer of skin and tissues. (The outer leaf has a laxative effect- so again, it’s the just the gel you are after)

IMG_2933This perky specimen grows in my herb garden. I really need to grow more of these beauties so I can have a continuous supply of fresh aloe for morning smoothies and juices.

Kudzu- This is one many people aren’t as familiar with- Kudzu or Kuzu is also known as Japanese arrowroot. It is often used as thickener similar to cornstarch, in macrobiotic cooking. It comes in rough little white rocks which dissolve in warm water. It’s an excellent and nourishing demulcent for the entire gut- and something about it makes you feel relaxed and balanced. I drink it dissolved in bancha twig or green tea. Take ½ – 1 tsp and put it in the bottom of your cup- pour a little bit of boiling water over it, and stir it to a paste with your spoon (similar method to how some people make hot chocolate). Then fill the rest of the cup with water or hot tea. Especially yummy on a cold winters morning. You can find it in most health food stores which carry macrobiotic foods or japanese foods stores.

xkuzu-root-starch-300.jpg,q79f2b8.pagespeed.ic.1TFtM4bZvvThis strange chalky looking substance is Kudzu. 1/2 to 1 tsp dissolved in water 1-2 times per day is a fantastic nourishing tonic. 

Gelatine/bone broth- I have written a whole blog piece on the virtues and wonders of bone broth here. Short story- bone broth is probably one of the most valuable healing tools for the gut- and something severely lacking in our western diets. The healing capacity for gelatine the minerals in bone broth is like no other and should be consumed regularly and with abandon. Always use the bones of pasture raised, free range animals that haven’t been fed antibiotics or growth promoting hormones.

Probiotics The inside of our guts is kind of like a garden. The various bacteria and other organisms that usually live there need to be in the right kind of balance for the environment to stay healthy and for functions of the system to run smoothly. If the garden becomes overrun by weeds (bad bugs)- it makes it hard for the beneficial organisms to thrive. The bad bugs also produce toxins and waste products that are damaging to the gut, and add toxic burden to the liver. They make us bloated and feel yucky, they make us crave things (sugar usually) that feeds them so that the cycle continues. A garden full of weeds is not what we are after.

As a supplement- Whether you have major pathology or some niggling symptoms, a probiotic supplement is a great way to maintain the balance of our digestive system and improve immunity, detoxifying and mental clarity. I actually believe that if you had to chose between a multivitamin and a probiotic, I’d go the probiotic. A healthy gut is better at absorbing nutrients and there fore you’ll be getting more out of your food with a probiotic. It inadvertently does the job of both.

There a many kinds of probiotics on the market, and some strains have been found to be particularly useful in certain conditions (Irritable bowel syndrome, allergy, candida and eczema for example). There are also lots of good all rounders which help stabalize the environment by adding in the biggest players (Acidophilus and bifidus strains), making it easier for the little guys to proliferate. If you’re in general good health, those may be the ones for you.

As foods- Fermented foods are the new black. Everyone wants to eat sauerkraut and drink kombuscha. This is a wonderful hands on way to get a hit of probiotics in you daily life. But let’s also remember other fantastic things about fermented foods. They are pre-digested. You’ve got the bugs to do part of the work for you before you’ve even eaten the food! You’ll have little work to do digesting it now and nutrients are easy to absorb. There are about a million books on the subject- with heaps of recipes and ideas. Some of my favs include:

Wild fermentation-by Sandor Katz

The Body Ecology diet-by Donna Gates

Nourishing Traditions-by Sally Falon

My recommendation is to find 1 or 2 that you enjoy doing and do them regularly… I personnaly love water/milk kefir and sauerkraut- and of course I ferment my dosas.

10639610_777548365640499_4719359839147229758_nTypical Sunday counter top getting ready for the week. Water kefir, Milk kefir, Sourdough and soaking buckwheat and quinoa for my dosas. YUM! 

Stress

Our nervous system has only two states. Parasympathetic and sympathetic. That’s rest and digest OR fight or flight. They are mutually exclusive and you can only be switch on in one state at a time. The fight or flight state is certainly not one we are meant to be living in long term, though we do find that more and more people in the modern world are living in a state of adrenal stress that can shut down digestion, reducing the enzymes needed to properly break down foods, therefore leading to malabsorption, irritation and toxic overload. Stress management is vitally important to good digestion. Things like exercise, meditation, counselling, and taking time out to recoup and nurture ourselves are things we can do. If you know you are under a lot of stress, short or long term, there are many things your naturopath can do to support you, help balance your nervous system and digestion at the same time. Both the nervous and digestive system depend on the other to be in balance so that they themselves can function properly.

There are so many approaches to improving digestive health, it’s almost impossible to cover in one short article. Often it’s as much about what you don’t put in as what you put in. And definitely there is no “one size fits all” approach to dealing with it- which can be frustrating if you’re navigating it on your own. So whether you are suffering a niggling upset or one of a more chronic nature- I hope this short list of practical digestive supports has proved helpful, or at least offered some food for thought– cuz after all, without a healthy functioning healthy digestive system, we really are, in the shit!!!!! (puns are also good for your health) 😉

 

 

 

Fermented flat bread/dosa

If there is one thing I’ve adopted into my regular repertoire over the last couple of years, that has completely changed my life  (indeed, a flat bread CAN change your life) -it’s been this wonderful low carb, high protein, unprocessed gem. Like many of you, I moved away from bread and the dear ol’ sandwich long ago, for a many reasons (the least of which was after eating the darned things every day for 12 years of school, they sort of lost their… charm). I also discovered I had wheat sensitivity and could only really eat spelt/rye bread, and in this regard, preferred the naturally fermented/leavened sourdough variety. While this is still nice for toast, it’s not great as a sandwich. It’s pretty dense and truthfully, I don’t enjoy eating such heavy starch/carb based meals anymore- so, when making a quick lunch at home or for work, I would often use wraps. I tried many store bought varieties. The Mountain bread ones had the least amount of crap in them, and I admit I still buy them from time to time, but let’s face it… has ANYONE successfully been able to eat a wrap with one of those things and not have them fall apart…? The other brands use varieties of humectants (made from glycerine usually), emulsifiers and gluten to give the wrap more elasticity.

They also tend to contain something which I try to avoid- and that is OILS. Oils used in commercially prepared processed foods are going to be of poor quality, there is no doubt. I plan on doing a whole post on oils, and the importance of good quality at all times, but for now, to avoid a major digression, let’s just make a blanket statement- that when we eat processed foods, there is going to be oil present- and that due to the manufacturing methods and processing, these are most often trans fats. Trans fats reek havoc on the cardiovascular system and promote inflammation in the body generally. It’s nearly impossible to eliminate them completely (unless you NEVER eat out at a restaurant or super market ever again) but we need try to limit them, be scrupulous in reading labels and make from scratch as much as we can. Finding new ways to avoid them in our daily routine is a WIN.  Of course that means avoiding ALL fried foods. But they also appear in so-called health foods a well (wraps, cereals, muesli, crackers, biscuits, “milks”ect…) and shouldn’t be underestimated in their impact on our health. The two most commonly used oils are:

  • “Vegetable oil”  This is almost ALWAYS SOY oil, and if there is one thing you can take the bank, it’s that if it’s SOY and it’s NOT organic, it’s genetically modified. So aside from the highly processed, bad-for-you, rancid nature of the fat- it’s a plant that was never found in nature- AVOID IT LIKE THE PLAGUE. I have also heard a theory that because there is so much vegetable oil in SO many foods, people are actually getting quite a high dose of soy. Soy suppresses thyroid function (among other things), and so it may be contributing to chronic low grade hypothyroidism associated with obesity (rampant in the west). Interesting theory.
  • “Canola oil” Sadly, like soy above, it’s one of the major genetically modified crops of the world. If it’s not organic, just assume it’s a franken-food.

As you can see, LOTS of reasons to avoid the oils in processed/manufactured foods.

In my quest to find the perfect, quick, easy, bread-like food for lunch, I tried many things. Some were a great success, but they perhaps took too much time to make, and were messy- like making your own lavash bread. Lavash breads are great, and are used in a different way to this dosa/crepe like bread. I still make them, for particular meals, when I have a plan of action and the time, but on a regular daily basis, I found the work and mess involved not sustainable.

This recipe is great, because you make up the mixture, keep the “batter” in the fridge, and make it up as needed. It takes very little time and there is no rolling out of dough or splashing of flour all over the counter. It’s fermented (I will be singing the virtues of fermented foods in other posts) , and can be made without flour or gluten. It’s also sprouted- a TRUE WHOLE FOODSo let’s get to it!

Raw buckwheat, mung beans and quinoa ready for the soak.

Like all of my recipes, I’ll give you a basic start up example, and then some suggestions on how you may adjust them and make them your own. The list below is my every day basic recipe that I use and love.

Ingredients

1/2 cup raw buckwheat kernels

1/2 cup dry mung beans

1/3 cup quinoa or other grain like seed (amaranth is most common, but there are also some mixes of “aztec” grains you can get that contain a few varieties)

Optional-a fermentation starter (sourdough starter, whey, raw apple cider vinegar, yoghurt ect…)- more on this later…

-So that’s it. You heard me. THAT’S IT! How great is that?! So what’s next:

Preparation

This can take a day or more to prepare, so think ahead. Don’t be daunted by that statement. Once you’ve put in the initial effort- you’ll have the mix for the dosas of a week or more ready to go…

STEP 1- SOAKING- I often soak the seeds (Buckwheat and quinoa are seeds NOT grains. They are also alkalizing-unlike grains, and gluten free!!! WIN!!!) and the mung beans before I go to bed (as you see in the bowl above). Now you can soak them in a bowl, OR a large mason jar. The jar is easier if you want to take the recipe a bit further and sprout the mix in the next step. Cover with a good double the height in water, as they will expand and soak up the water. You may need to add more in the morning if it’s gone dry. In the morning, before I go out, I pour the mix in to a sieve and rinse well, this gets rid of the starchy water the buckwheat makes…it’s quite thick.

STEP 2- SPROUT- So, if you’ve been soaking in a bowl, you’ve rinsed your mix and then you simply put back in the bowl and cover with new fresh water, and go about your day. This mix WILL begin to sprout in the water, though not as much. If you are looking to really increase the vitality and nutrition of the mix, you will have soaked it all in a large mason jar, placed a bit of tulle (I bought some from a craft store and cut it up into squares big enough to cover the mouths of jars) over the top of the jar, and secured around the rim with an elastic band.

So once you’ve rinsed the soaked mix, you put the jar (mouth covered in the tulle) on it’s side in an appropriate sized bowl- and leave it for approx 8 hours. Depending on the temperature, the mix will sprout at different rates. So you see, if you’ve soaked over night, rinsed in the morning and put in the bowl, you can go to work or get on with the day, and leave it to do it’s thing. Works well with the rhythm of the average day.

After rinsing the soaked mix, the jar is placed on it’s side in an appropriate sized bowl. This allows excess water to drain out of the jar and provides the ideal environment for the seeds to begin to sprout. 

STEP 3- BLENDING- So, after approximately 8 hours, you are ready to blend your mix. If you’ve just left it soaking in the water, it will have begun to sprout slightly and you may notice some small points or bumps coming out of the mung beans/buckwheat. If you’ve done the sprout method, you will know you are ready to blend when the mung beans and buckwheat kernels and the rest have those little “tails” growing out of them. I like to give them another good rinse, before pouring the mix in to the blender jug. Now again in this situation, it’s my experience that you need an actual blender for the best outcome. A bar mix and most food processors won’t get the mix smooth enough. The next part is a bit tricky. You basically want ONLY enough water to blend the mix to a smooth, pancake batter type consistency. Thick, but still liquid. So when adding water to the blender jug, start off with a small amount. See how easily it blends. You may find you need to add a bit water until the mix is blended and seems to move smoothly around in the jug. If you’ve added too much water it’s not the end of the world. You can always add flour to the mixture to thicken it at the end, however, it’s not ideal.

The consistency of the blended mix should be similar to pancake batter- smooth, and liquid but thick. Add flour (gluten free or spelt) if you’ve accidentally made your mix too thin. 

STEP 4- FERMENTATION- Now, there are few things we can do at this stage. If you are hungry and want to eat your flat breads NOW or, if you don’t wish to ferment the mix, you can call it a day. You can pour the mix in to a jar and store it in the fridge for use at this point. However, if you’d like to increase the digestibility/available nutrition of the batter, make it “probiotic” (containing beneficial bacteria which help with digestion and immunity) or you enjoy the wonderful sour-ish taste, there is one more step to go. I use a sourdough starter which I was given by a friend. My sourdough starter is fed with spelt flour, so it’s technically NOT gluten free (even though it’s just a small percentage of the overall mix). If you are gluten free, your starter has to be fed on gluten free flour, or use one of the options below. It is possible to make your own starter from scratch or buy it on-line, but that’s again, probably another post all together. If you don’t have your sourdough starter yet, you can also use:

1 tablespoon plain active yoghurt/kefir OR

1 tablespoon whey (the thin liquid from the top of yoghurt) OR

1 tablespoon raw apple cider vinegar (will often say “contains mother” or something similar to let you know it is still “alive”) OR 

1 tablespoon sourdough starter 

Stir it into your batter, and cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place, for about 8-12 hours. If you’ve been working with the rhythm I suggested, it usually means just leaving it again over night. At the end of that 8-12 hours, you can simply pour in to a jar and place in the fridge to be stored until used. I find the blended batter, which has been fermented, lasts just over a week in the fridge. I’ve actually never had a batch go off, I always finish it first.

*** NOTE: Some people encourage natural fermentation by leaving the mix out, covered- but WITHOUT adding a starter. This can work. However, it sometimes results in a mix that just goes off. I tend to avoid that method, because I like using some kind of starter to inoculate my batter with(a specific good bacteria), but I do have friends who enjoy success (most of the time) fermenting without a starter.

Blended and fermented mix is ready to be stored in the fridge. Lasts approximately 1 week. 

STEP 5- COOKING- The reason I don’t make up a whole batch of breads at one go and keep them, say, in a bag the way you would get them if you bought them, is that these tend to dry out quite quickly. They really are best made to order. They don’t take much time  to prepare at all luckily, so that’s not been an issue. In fact, I often get the dosa on cooking whilst I’m chopping up salad or veggies for steaming, and then use the hot pan I’ve cooked the dosa in to either saute some mushrooms, cook eggs or organic chicken ect… to put on my flat bread. The other thing to point out, is that these flat breads are more like a crepe or pancake. They are quite soft and while you can roll things up in them, I do prefer to eat them with a knife and fork. But who am I to stop you gettin’ right in there and living large? Get messy and go crazy!!

I heat the pan, and add about a teaspoon of oil- usually coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil, however ghee is also great to work with. I use a non stick pan that is supposed to be free of the normal chemicals that teflon ect… contains. Cast iron works too, but imagine what pan you’d like to cook pancakes on… they do have a tendency to stick- at least the first one does. Also, the batter contains NO gluten, so it won’t stick together in the same way pancake batter made from wheat will. It is necessary to give it a bit of a hand making the classic round shape.

 I use a spoon to help spread the mix in the hot pan- as it cooks you can spread the mix out further and further until you have the shape you are after- a circle with no holes in it. 

Once the dosa appears to have cooked around the edges, and a few bubbles have begun to appear,  you can try to flip it. If the edges aren’t quite solid enough yet, give it another minute and then turn it over to cook the other side.

Once it’s golden brown on both sides, you have yourself

one off-the-hook, fermented, sprouted, gluten free,  flat bread!

HIGH FIVE!!! 

SERVING SUGGESTIONS- 

-So with this lovely base, I may lay down a layer of: avocado, hummus, chutney/pickle etc…

-I then may put on that, a couple of eggs (however you like em’), some organic chicken or mushrooms sauteed in the hot pan I just used for the dosa

-I usually will have been steaming some vegetables at the same time. Broccoli, beans, snow peas, kale, cauliflower, pumpkin are favourites. On a day when I have more time, I may have roasted some root vegetables, beets, sweet potato, pumpkin, parsnip etc.

-Next I will add some fresh raw vegetables, salad greens- sprouts, grated beets/carrots, or maybe some fermented vegetables- sauerkraut ect…

-I may even just have leftovers from the previous nights dinner and simply eat it as an accompaniment, the way you would bread or crackers.

Basically ANYTHING GOES! Put peanut butter and honey on that sucker and roll it up for a quick snack- whatever works for you, use you imagination.

This is a quick lunch I made my 4 year old daughter- scrambled eggs with kale and goats feta, avocado and snow peas- dosa on the side. 

I’ve experimented using lentils instead of mung beans. I’ve added soaked seeds like sunflower and pepita and added them to the mix. I’ve blended in fresh herbs from the garden, like basil or dill or thyme. I’ve grated carrot in to the batter before cooking. Really, there is no end to the variations… Once you’ve tried it and seen HOW quick and easy this flat bread is, there’s no turning back. You can scratch one more lifeless, nutritionally void, dubious contents, processed carb off your list of daily foods… AMAZING.