A Healthy Gut

Western diet and too much hygiene leading to allergies and inflammatory diseases
The cleansing towels, once universally handed out by airlines, may be a thing of the past, with savvy travellers now carrying antiseptic hand gel, but after taking off on a Malaysia Airlines flight recently, I was handed a drink and peanuts. It's been years since I was offered peanuts, once also part of the in flight service ritual.

Compare that to a flight back to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast and the announcement made after taking off, that passengers would not be able to consume any food items brought with them containing nuts, since a passenger onboard had a peanut allergy. Forget the crunchy peanut butter sandwich I'd made. Even as I took out a muesli bar, a Virgin Blue flight attendant rushed towards me to ask if she could read the list of ingredients. "I'm sorry," she said, "but the bars may contain traces of nuts. If opened, vapours could enter the air conditioning system, and set off the peanut allergy."

For those of us who recall growing up without such a high incidence of inflammatory diseases such as asthma and peanut allergies, you're not alone. In rural or less urbanised countries, such diseases are rare. So what's behind their marked increase in Australia over the past 30 years?

I recently attended an Open Day at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney's Darlinghurst. At a lecture given by Dr Kendle Maslowski, she outlined how she had found that both our diet and intestinal bacteria are linked with our immune system.

Unprocessed dietary fibre, as found in fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, not only keeps us regular, it also plays a vital role in preventing allergies and inflammatory diseases.

The indigestible part of all plant-based foods pushes its way through our digestive tract unchanged, like an internal broom. When it arrives in our colon, bacteria converts it to energy and compounds known as short chain fatty acids. These, says Dr Maslowski, alleviate the symptoms of colitis, an inflammatory gut condition.

Similarly, probiotic food supplements that affect the balance of gut bacteria reduce the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, both inflammatory diseases.

Dr Maslowski believes that changes in diet associated with a Western lifestyle, have contributed to the increasing incidence of inflammatory diseases and allergies.

"Changing diets are changing the kinds of gut bacteria we have, as well as their byproducts, particularly short chain fatty acids. If we have low amounts of dietary fibre, then we're going to have low levels of short chain fatty acids, which are very important in our immune systems."

What Dr Maslowski said next really got me thinking about my reliance on the antiseptic hand gel I always carry with me. Based on her research, too much hygiene can also affect the balance of gut bacteria, reducing our immunity to deal with infectious diseases and making us more prone to inflammatory diseases such as asthma. Some exposure to bacteria is actually good for us and is essential for our immune system. The use of antibiotics is particularly adverse, affecting the balance of gut bacteria.

After the lecture, I talked to one of the Garvan Institute's research scientists who said that for someone who travels regularly overseas, using antiseptic hand gel while in Australia may not be such a good thing. She explained that it might lessen my immunity and make me more prone to contracting diarrhoea when travelling.
So when you next travel, to maintain a healthy gut and avoid diarrhoea, what can you do? Here are my tips for staying healthy.

I ensure my diet includes:

Garlic* (boosts healthy bacteria and assists in the prevention of illness)chilli, (immune system booster)ginger* (relieves nausea, motion sickness and reduces inflammation)yoghurt or a probiotic now also available in tablet form*rice (aids the growth of useful bacteria for normal bowel movements. Prevents stomach ailments)papaya* (anti inflammatory, digestive aid)bananas*(high in fibre, high in pectin that normalises movement through the digestive tract and high in potassium)drink only bottled water or water that has been at a high boil for at least two minutes, avoid ice or food rinsed in tap water and brush your teeth using bottled wateravoid food that has been around for some time at room temperature, especially buffets, or that may come from a contaminated source (avoid shellfish in case of polluted water, and avoid vegetables and fruit that absorb a lot of water)clean cutlery before using and wash your hands

(*also recommended as an Ayurvedic remedy)

If you do succumb to traveller's diarrhoea, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia suggests drinking at least three litres of water per day, preferably with an oral rehydration tablet, and taking rest.

A traditional approach is Ayurveda, the 5,000 year old Indian health regimen that takes a holistic approach to health and healing by drawing on the benefits derived from herbs and plants for medicinal purposes. For stomach pains, a mix of oregano, cumin, salt and lemon mixed in lukewarm water is recommended and pomegranate seeds are also good. For diarrhoea, a liquid diet of purifying agents such as a thin vegetable soup of basil or mint, carrot and potato will provide nourishment and ripe bananas and yoghurt, curd or buttermilk are recommended. Avoid acidic fruits such as apricots, prunes, pears and peaches.

When I get sick, I stick to a diet of water and rehydration tablets for starters, followed by bananas, watery rice and dried cracker biscuits.

Try as we might to avoid it, there are health risks associated with travelling. But with some careful planning you can do a lot to minimise the chances that it will happen to you. And remember that diarrhoea can be triggered just by packing too much in a day or overdoing the amount of food and drink consumed.

Further information:
The Garvan Institute of Medical Research, founded in 1963, is one of Australia's largest medical research institutions. Garvan's main research programs are: Cancer, Diabetes and Obesity, Immunology and Inflammation, Osteoporosis and Bone Biology, and Neuroscience. Tours and seminars are held regularly throughout the year. Go to www.garvan.org.au and click on Get Involved.

For a list of foods containing high levels of fibre, the CSIRO produces a useful fact sheet.

For health information before you travel, consult the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade www.smarttraveller.gov.au