I have read a lot about the gut and how the digestive system works but there is one question that I ask everyone I meet: ‘Do you know how important our digestive system actually is?’ To understand the answer, we need to start from the beginning.
We start life as three tubes of equal importance when we are embryos in our mother’s womb: one tube becomes our nervous system, our brain, spinal cord etc. that makes us tick. Another tube becomes our respiratory system, our heart and lungs, building out our cardiovascular system. The third tube becomes our digestive system, without which we wouldn’t exist. This includes our mouth, stomach, small and large intestines… stuff we don’t really like to talk about!
This digestive system or gastrointestinal tract is attached to the umbilical cord through which we are fed and is the system which enables us to grow and operate using food and other inputs from which we get macronutrients and micronutrients. It then continues to ‘feed’ nutrients to the other two systems throughout our lives, making our heart, lungs and brain operate. These organs operate fantastically well if we feed them good quality fuel, but less than optimal if we give them rubbish, particularly if this goes on consistently over a longer period of time.
It makes sense therefore to eat the right stuff to fuel our day to day activity, plus to keep our insides including brain, heart and lungs in tip-top condition. To do this we first need to make sure the digestive system itself functions well and optimises the nutrition our body gets from our food. We can eat the best, high quality nutritious food but if there is something wrong with our gut, the rest of the body wont get it converted into the nutrients that we need. To function well it needs to be in tip-top condition at all times.
The start of my auto-immune nightmare
Given that I had the advantage of a mother who was a health food nut from the earliest time I remember. I really should not have gotten ill with a condition that starts from having a badly functioning digestive system. But auto-immune conditions are now being linked to a poor diet and something called “leaky gut syndrome”. I had my first bout of my immune system attacking my eyes back in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, the doctors did not recognise the condition in time and I lost the central vision in my right eye.
Eventually, they spotted the reason but not until my vision had got down to a single line on a computer screen. I remember sitting in one of those optician’s chairs at Moorfields Hospital, thinking that this was going to make me blind in a matter of days. So the well-regarded consultant Professor Bird, head of Uveitis at Moorfields prescribed 1g of steroids intravenously and he saved my sight by catching and treating the inflammation in my left eye before it developed enough to cause scarring.
They then sent me home after watching me for a couple of hours and for a couple of days I went a bit mad! What the doctors hadn’t told me was that the standard dose was 10-15mgs of steriods and 60mgs was top wack in terms of a daily dose. Over this amount there was a distinct possibility of steroid madness setting in. Well, after punching and kicking 3 holes in the walls at home, my GP told my then wife what the cause may be, but I could see out of my left eye in a few days time which was all that really mattered.
For between 3-4 years I kept on taking the steroids because every time they tried to wean me off them the condition came back. However, I became a bit older and wiser and managed to get my lifestyle a bit more settled and eventually it went away. However, about 10 years later it came with a vengeance when my personal circumstances changed and my life was less stable. I was working longer and drinking more than before and was going through another relationship break-up. But this time it was clearly after my good eye and it meant business.
However, my mother got on the case pretty quickly and from research dome in the Unites States and via a new movement called Functional Medicine, I leaned that the whole auto-immune epidemic across the Western world was most likely a result of poor diets, stress and the working of the Gut-Brain Axis. I was eating pretty healthily, so I thought, but over time and quite a lot of looking in the mirror, I realised I was kidding myself. I might have been choosing healthier options like wholemeal bread or brown rice and I might have been keeping fit doing triathlons and distance swimming events but there was a whole lot of bad stuff going into my digestive system.
But what is the digestive system made up of? How does it work? And how can it go out of kilter? Let me explain a few facts about the digestive system or the gastrointestinal tract, a.k.a. the gut.
What is it?
It starts at your mouth, food goes down your throat into your stomach where it churns into chyme (a thick milky substance), from there into the small intestine (where lots of nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream) and then the into large intestine (where liquid and more nutrients are absorbed).
What timeline does it take?
It is a process that we are partly all aware of and partly not at all. So let me break it down. There are some bits that we all know about: the process starts with seeing and smelling food. This kicks off the salivation process, releasing enzymes that are getting your body ready to receive food. When you then put the food into your mouth and you chew it up into small balls of food, you’re mixing it with saliva and those ready made enzymes.
Then you swallow and the body automatically takes over, pushing the food automatically into the stomach where the very important process of breaking it down in the milky chyme via stomach acids takes place. If you are not producing enough stomach acids then the process won’t end well and if your produce too much then you will know about it due to heartburn. I drink hot water and fresh lemon juice every morning to get my stomach pH levels ready for food.
The chyme is then released into the small intestine gradually by the pyloric sphincter, where a lot of the heavy lifting goes on. It takes the stomach an hour of churning to start the release and within 4 hours most of the food has gone into the small intestine. The surface of the intestines is vast (about size of a football field) because of the folds, micro 3D surfaces and the tiny antennae, called villi and microvilli that absorb nutrients. The chyme as it arrives is bathed in bicarbonate, enzymes and bile salts so that it can be broken down even further. The vitamins, minerals, amino acids and sugars are from here taken into the bloodstream to be used all over the body, This takes another 3 to 5 hours.
Once into the large intestine or colon, the liquid is removed making the waste more solid. However, there is another process going on whereby the various bacteria in the gut breaks down the waste further into other nutrients. This is why it is so important to have the right sorts of bacteria in your gut microflora. If you have bad bacteria, the process will not go at all smoothly, resulting in either a very quick, liquid-like exit (diarrhoea or similar) or the waste can’t get out quick enough resulting in constipation. Either way, waste can be travelling through the colon for an average 33 hours for men and 47 hours for women. This is due to the predominantly poor diets we have, whereas the optimal time is 24 hours or just over.
The average transit time from mouth to toilet for food is 48 hours in men and 52 hours in women, so it is unlikely that the food you have eaten tonight is causing the bloating or the gas production. It is a very common misunderstanding when trying to work out what food agrees or disagrees with you, that we all shorten the time it takes to go through our body functions. Also trying to recognise that you stomach is not in your abdomen but up between your rib-cage. So bloating generally is in your gut not your stomach although we do sometimes tend to call the whole thing “our tummy”. However, it is best to recognise where you are having discomfort because then you can work out what part of the process may not be working.
A healthy gastrointestinal tract should have 1,000 or more different strains of bacteria all working in harmony, but rarely is this the case. There is often a war going on between good and bad bacteria and often we don’t really look like we are on the side of the good guys. Even though being actively supportive of our guts will not only be great for our bodies and major organs, there is a whole host of research that has shown that the harmonious coexistence of bacteria is also good for our mental health.
It is therefore hardly surprising therefore that with high percentages of poor quality food, high dosages of processed sugar and constant levels of stress in everyday life, our various health services are suffering increasing strain both in terms of disease and in terms of mental health.
My auto-immune condition is a case in point. Over 70% of your immune system is found around your gut. Makes sense since the particles found in the gut and the juices and bodily fluids secreted there can be highly toxic to the rest of the body. Anything that gets through needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. Where though we are damaging the gut liming or membranes through the poor diet we eat, we can be actually causing the leaky gut through which such particles can seep through. If it happens once, the alarm system goes off and the immune system will attack the intruder. If it constantly goes off the immune system will be on over drive until it gets to the stage where it too is constantly overreacting. This can result in normal parts of the body looking like an intruder. In my case my retinas at the back of my eyes.
But why me? What caused all of this?
In my 20s and 30s my life included drinking quite a lot associated with the rugby scene and heaped on top of this was a stressful job that also encouraged drinking quite a lot. Then there was the smoking… You might not expect a sportsman smoking, but the best cigarette of the week was always after the game on a Saturday afternoon, think Ed Moses. Heaped on top of this, I decided to go into endurance sports so triathlon and channel swimming, stressing the body further. This included a blubber diet that required I put on 2 stone in a month, just so I could cope with the temperature of the English channel (10°C in April and 16°C in September).
The ‘blubber diet’ included McDonald’s milkshakes, cakes, biscuits, pasta, beer and chocolate. You name it, I ate it. I ignored everything I had been brought up with, because I figured that it was fine to eat that way since I was fit and still ate lots of good stuff too. Since I was training hard, I could eat for England. As long as I was eating good stuff at the same time like wholemeal bread, brown rice, muesli, brown pasta, plenty of fish and vegetables, it believe that it shouldn’t matter that I was putting on weight. I just didn’t think it could be doing me so much harm.
I was also seeing my GP about my insides that were badly misbehaving… basically IBS for weeks on end. That was until my mum pointed me in the direction of functional medicine in the US. She got me reading about leaky gut syndrome and suddenly it all made sense*, to coin a word!
Immediately I worked out a new diet with my mum, came off the booze and began putting green vegetables into my body en masse and avoided gluten and dairy. The results were immediate. The next time Moorfields started weaning me off the drugs, they just kept reducing the dosage. No holes in the retina, no rush back to A&E for urgent prescriptions, it never came back. That was 5 years ago.
The birth of sense*
It was this ordeal that led me to develop, together with nutritionist Dimitra Sentelidou, the sense* range of supplements. Our slogan is ‘smart nutrition for modern living’ because our products are designed to help your body cope with the stresses of daily life.
One of our ranges is sense* for gut health, which helps to support your digestive system. For example, the formula contains chloride to support digestion through the proper production of stomach acid. Ingredients such as vitamin A and B2 help to keep the gut lining healthy, which is important since nutrients are absorbed through the gut lining to be distributed to the rest of the body. Calcium is an important co-factor for many digestive enzymes, so the sense* for gut health formula provides calcium in the highly bioavailable form calcium citrate to support the function of digestive enzymes.
To help support the growth of good gut bacteria, the sense* for gut health formula provides prebiotic ingredients such as inulin fibre. Therefore, the formula is great when taken together with probiotic products, as the prebiotic ingredients found in sense* for gut health act to feed and nurture the good bacteria found in the probiotics.