There's increasing support forthe idea that the right food really is the best medicine,but less well understood is the importance of our gastrointestinalhealth. Rosamund Burton explores the gut and how tokeep it healthy.
Hippocrates,the father of modern medicine, is famous for saying,"Let food be your medicine and medicine be yourfood", but perhaps less well known is his otheradvice: "All disease begins in the gut".
As someone who has had gut problems for most of mylife, but only in the last few years begun to understandthe role of the gut in my overall health, I found itan incredible insight to attend the recent Mindd (Metabolic,Immunologic, Neurologic, Digestive Disorders) InternationalForum on Children in Sydney. The event, accredited bythe Royal College of General Practitioners, was organisedby the Mindd Foundation established by Leslie Embersitisin 2005 after her struggle to deal with her own children'sill health.
Run by a team of patients, medical doctors and healthcare professionals, it advocates helping children sufferingfrom these disorders by treating the core cause of illness(rather than the symptoms) and by addressing individualbiochemistry through diet and nutritional medicine.The basic concept underpinning this approach is thatonce you feed the cells and reduce toxic load, organsystems begin to work, oxidative stress and inflammationare reduced and disease mitigates or disappears.
A keynote speaker at the conference, Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride,a UK-based neurologist, nutritionist and author of Gutand Psychology Syndrome, believes that 85 per cent ofimmunity comes from the gut, and that gut problems areresponsible for the current epidemics in children ofautism, ADHD and ADD, asthma, allergies, dyslexia, dyspraxia,learning disorders and social problems. Doctors, shesays, only receive about five hours' education in nutritionduring their seven year long training, and unless theyhave a child or loved one, or they themselves are lookingfor answers they cannot find from the medical science,they do not start looking at the role of food and nutritionin a person's health.
"I'm a typical case," she admits, "becauseif my older son was not diagnosed autistic I probablywould have been a happy arrogant doctor right now doingthe same thing they all do."
Her son was three and a half when he was diagnosedas severely autistic. Campbell-McBride describes howshe and her husband spent hours researching and readingeverything they could about the baffling neurologicalcondition, which ranges so greatly in severity expertsnow refer to conditions of "the autism spectrum".They found the ADA Program, which is a very specificallydesigned educational program for autistic children,and put their son on that immediately, and also lookedinto diet and supplementation. A year and a half later,he was able to go to a mainstream school and a few yearsafter that, says Campbell-McBride, was completely recovered.Today, aged 14, he is leading a normal life. Accordingto recently released figures from the Australian AdvisoryBoard on Autism Spectrum Disorders, one in every 120Australian children suffers from autism, while the rateof ADHD in our nation's children is seven per cent.The huge growth of cases of these disorders globallyhas led doctors to describe the situation as being ofepidemic proportions.
In the face of such a disturbing trend, people whoattended the conference it is phenomenally encouragingto hear that 50 per cent of the autistic children betweenthe ages of three and five whose parents have broughtto her Cambridge clinic and followed her guidelineshave recovered completely. In all cases, says Campbell-McBride,there has been noticeable improvement. She also treatschildren with childhood epilepsy and has had successfulresults with coeliac disease. Her adult patients includeindividuals with chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis,rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease.
So what is the common problem underlying this hostof disorders from autism to asthma to multiple sclerosis?Dr Campbell McBride calls it "Gut and PsychologySyndrome" and the cause, she suggests, is severedigestive disorder. The problem can start with somethingcalled gut dysbiosis in the mother. Apparently, 60 percent of women having children today have abnormal gutflora. This is caused by overuse of antibiotics, thecontraceptive pill and too many refined carbohydratesin the diet. It means these women have insufficientbeneficial microbes and an abundance of pathogenic microbesin their gut, and these microbes often get passed onto their baby.
When the gut flora is out of balance, large proteins,such as casein in milk and gluten in wheat, are difficultto break down, and these substances get absorbed asa chemical structure which causes significant behaviouraland attention issues.
Dr Campbell-McBride recommends the Specific CarbohydrateDiet for a period of two years. All grains, starchyvegetables, processed foods, sugar and milk (unlessfermented) are off the menu.
"You don't have to follow it for life," shestresses about the diet. "I require that peopledo it for two years minimum because that is a safe periodof time for things to settle and be permanent."
The diet was devised by an American paediatrician,Dr Sidney Haas, in the first half of the 20th century.Dr Haas spent many years researching the effects ofdiet on coeliac disease and other digestive disorders.He treated over 600 patients with excellent results- after a year on the diet they completely recoveredand had not relapsed.
The diet includes plenty of homemade fermented foods,such as sauerkraut, yoghurt and fermented fish and vegetablesto restore the good gut flora, meat (including organmeats), and nuts, and also freshly made fruit and vegetablejuices first thing in the morning to help detoxify thebody. She recommends that supplementation be kept toa minimum, but suggests a probiotic, essential fattyacids, cod liver oil for vitamin A, digestive enzymesand a multi vitamin.
Another advocate of fermented foods is Sally Fallon,an American nutrition journalist, author of NourishingTraditions and founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation.Weston Price was an American dentist who, in the 1930s,travelled around the world studying the effects of traditionaldiets on the mental and physical health of differentethnic groups. He was able to assess the state of aperson's health by their teeth and their face bones.He discovered that not only did the Western diet causetooth decay, but also led to more poorly formed teethand even a change in the bones of the face. Having spenttime with African tribes, a remote community in Switzerlandand Australian Aboriginals, he concluded that, whendiets remained traditional, virtually every individualhad genuine physical perfection, a cheery nature andan almost complete absence of disease.
His key finding was these traditional diets containedfour times the calcium of the modern diet and 10 timesthe amount of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. These wereprovided by a diet of fish and shellfish, birds andmeat, including organ meats, and fat. Eggs and raw milk,not the homogenised and pasteurised variety of our modernWestern diet, were also key elements.
Sally Fallon, who also spoke at the Mindd Conference,became interested in the work of Weston Price becauseof her own health problems since childhood. She describesoften feeling tired and also suffering allergies asa child, which meant, she says, she would start theday sneezing until noon.
"The one that almost did me in was candida,"she recounts. "I finally figured out why I hadcandida - I had learnt to make granola. I made the bestgranola in the planet, and when I got into writing NourishingTraditions and found out how traditional cultures soakedtheir grains, I realised that granola is pretty muchraw, it's just baked a bit. It is the hardest thingto digest that you can imagine, and the candida wasjust doing its job of digesting it for me. As soon asI got off granola, the candida cleared up and it's nevercome back."
Nourishing Traditions is a 600 page cookbook whichincludes a host of recipes for making everything fromfermented dairy products to breads and puddings. Italso includes how to cook kidneys, liver, sweetbreadsand brains (it's not for the faint hearted!), as wellas meat stocks. There is also a selection of lacto-fermentedsoft drinks. As with Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, Fallonstresses the importance of lacto-fermented foods everyday to ensure healthy gut flora. Her husband and fourchildren all follow this approach to eating: "Weenjoy our food and my goal is not to tell you what youcan't do, but to tell you what you can do. You can havefats. You can have grains. You can have milk. You canhave sweet things if they are done in the right way.We try to be inclusive, not exclusive."
Queensland-based nutritionist and author of the bestseller,Changing Habits, Changing Lives, Cyndi O'Meara, believesthat the body has an innate intuitiveness and intelligenceand if you give it the right resources it will lookafter itself. She advocates eating good quality, preferablyorganic food, which is naturally high in vitamins, mineralsand other nutrients.
I considered myself a fairly healthy eater until Iread her book and discovered much of what I had thoughtto be natural food actually was not quite what it seemed.For example, I thought a tin of tomatoes just containedtomatoes, but most tins of tomatoes contain a thickener.Also, O'Meara adds, many tins nowadays have plasticlinings, and plastic is inert and allows chemicals topass in and out of it.
The 47 year old mother of three teenagers has conductedher own extensive research into what is actually goinginto our food and is a great advocate of label reading.But even then, says O'Meara, there are many hidden traps,caused by the "five per cent clause". Thismeans that a food producer may buy an ingredient suchas glucose from another company, and the glucose maycontain the additive sulphur dioxide, but the food producerdoes not have to acknowledge that fact. Current legislationspares food manufacturers the need to declare componentsof ingredients that make up less than five per centof a product. As a result, there are many products onthe market containing additives that are not declaredon the label. For instance, when a product such as fruitjuice is marketed with "no added sugar", itmay actually be four or 4.5 per cent sugar, but thatdoes not have to be declared on the label.
Cyndi O'Meara's advice in her impressively groundedbook really stands up to scrutiny - she herself hasnever had an antibiotic, painkiller or even a Panadol,and neither have any of her children. Her father wasa pharmacist who believed people were becoming too dependenton medication and decided to bring his children up freeof medication.
He was he who taught her the difference between whatO'Meara calls "mechanistic" and "vitalistic".It's "mechanistic" when you have a sore kneeand to fix it you are given an anti-inflammatory. Butit is "vitalistic" to look at the whole body,your lifestyle, what's stressing you and whether youare getting enough sleep. After studying science andnutrition both in America and Australia, O'Meara createda philosophy of food and vitalism. Most diets or eatingregimes out there on the market, she says, are abouthow many calories you can have, how many grams of fat,how much protein or carbohydrate.
"I don't address how much. I look at the qualityof the food. I believe that if we eat good quality foodthen that quantity will look after itself."
Rather than counting calories, she suggests countingchemicals. One of the ways the body rids itself of toxinsis through mucus, so a cold, strangely enough, givesthe body a chance to eliminate those toxins. But ifthe body does not have the opportunity to eliminatethe toxins, they are then stored in the fat cells. AndO'Meara adds her voice to the growing awareness thatit isn't just the toxins in our food, but also the chemicalsin moisturisers and cosmetics we put on our skin, andother pollutants we are exposed to on a daily basisthat add to our growing toxic load. But as soon as aperson eats pure healthy foods again, she suggests,the body just sheds fat and, with it, that burden oftoxicity.
Much of the food we eat today, she believes, is "mechanistic".While manufacturers are looking at the components ofthe food and making sure everything meets the standardsstipulated by a scientific model, the increasing gulfbetween natural and artificial may actually be creatingthe obesity epidemic we are currently experiencing,together with related problems such as diabetes. I thinkthat many people, myself included at times, feel wehave little control over our health, both physical andemotional, and the ailments we suffer.
But maybe it is as straightforward as Hippocrates suggested2500 years ago and in eating food that truly nourishesour body and soul, we can transform our lives as wellas those of our children.