Bloating, indigestion, food intolerances – it seems the humble gut seems is in the spotlight at the moment, and for all the wrong reasons. Meet gut health expert, Lee Holmes.
Studies are now linking an unhealthy gut to serious medical concerns such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, thyroid problems and diabetes, as well as hormone production and behavioural problems. Plus, we are just starting to discover the myriad ways in which gut health impacts mood and depression. Fix your gut, research suggests, and you will fix your life.
After experiencing her own health crisis, Lee Holmes began a journey to discover how to heal her gut. With an Advanced Certificate in Nutrition, and as a wholefoods chef, yoga teacher and author of three best-selling cookbooks, Homes has spent years trying to find the most gentle and simple way to rebuild gut health, and what she discovered is not only a whole food program, but also a complete lifestyle overhaul. Here, she talks about her new book ‘Heal Your Gut’, meditation and bringing her Indian heritage into her English love of food.
Why focus on gut health? Your gut sends more messages to your brain, via the vagus nerve, than your brain sends to your gut – so fundamentally, it is in control of your emotions. It’s interesting because this is my fourth print book, but in a way it’s actually the prequel to my other books. This is the book I should have written first! Because it’s going back to the fundamentals, because the gut really is the epicentre of your health – and it’s where my own journey with health really started. And so what I’ve done is I’ve gone back to the beginning and developed a program that specifically looks at the gut, which is outlined in this book.
Why is gut health so important? There are a lot of new studies coming out about how our gut is connected to so many other parts of our health and life, particularly the link between the brain and the gut. Scientists have discovered that 70-80 percent of mood-balancing serotonin is actually manufactured in your gut. Even more interestingly, your gut sends more messages to your brain, via the vagus nerve, than your brain sends to your gut. So the gut is fundamentally in control of your emotions. We often say we get a ‘gut feeling’ – now we know where that comes from!
How does the gut get sick? Think of your gut as a garden that only thrives when the soil is healthy. Healthy soil requires healthy foods and nutrients that will allow the ‘good guys’ to flourish. The good bacteria is stripped away – which can be due to anything from antibiotics and a bad diet, to smoking or stress. It’s really about getting the balance between all the different types of bacteria in your gut. If you eat a lot of processed foods and live a high-stress lifestyle, that destroys the good gut bacteria and creates the bad, so you feel more tired, you lose energy, put on weight, and get sick. So many diseases are linked to an unhealthy gut: the immune system is directly linked to your gut health, and 80 percent of immune tissue is actually located in your digestive system.
Do you feel that this is something everybody should focus on? Yes. Because of the way our diet is these days, with an over-abundance of processed foods, as well as soil degradation and chemicals and antibiotics used in food production, I think it’s helpful for anyone to bring their gut health into balance. The problem is, you can get overwhelmed by considering all of this, and that’s why I want this to be a very simple approach – really yummy, easy-to-digest recipes using ingredients you can buy from local markets. A lot of people can’t afford expensive organic ingredients all the time, so I’ve done this in a very affordable way.
Where did this journey begin for you? One day I woke up and I was so tired I couldn’t get out of bed. My hair started falling out in big clumps and I lost a lot of weight really quickly – in a month, I lost about 15 kg, and dropped to 40 kg. And I’m usually a healthy size 12! I couldn’t understand what was going on. Eventually, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and I was put on antibiotics and steroids – things which actually stripped my gut of the good bacteria I needed. I wasn’t feeling any better, so I decided, with my doctor’s help, to wean myself off drugs, change my diet and start to really feel my gut – and that’s when I finally started to heal.
But it was a really long journey. I’m not saying it’s an overnight thing, it’s been years of trial and error, especially as when I started to do this six or seven years ago, there wasn’t a lot of information around about gut health. I slowly took out certain ingredients, like sugar and gluten, and then I decided to give my gut a break so it could heal completely, and ate only easily digestible foods like soup, broth, mashed food, and smoothies. And after that break, my gut lining started to renew itself. So the good news is, the gut does renew itself. The cells renew themselves. After I gave my gut the break to do that, it actually absorbed nutrients from food again. I found I had so much more energy! And I could slowly start to eat better and reintroduce ‘normal’ foods. However, after a while, the pain and symptoms started to come back, and that’s when I realised that I should do the gut healing program a couple of days every week, which really helped me reset my gut.
What about the effects of lifestyle, meditation and stress? Step one is give your digestive system a rest. Step two is cleanse your body. Step three is to put the good bacteria back in again, through eating probiotic rich foods and taking a probiotic. And step four is to detox your life. When I first started doing this, I had a very stressful job, and I was a single mum. But since I brought in ways to reduce that stress, I hardly get sick at all. The gut needs balance.
What’s next? I have this beautiful book coming out, and I am taking the online program to America. Then in January I have a kids book coming out, and then an Ayurvedic book. I went to India for nearly two months and studied Ayurvedic medicine and cooking, and how we can eat and heal and lose weight by eating according to our unique constitution and along the lines of our doshas. After that, I’ll have a book on healthy fasting recipes – ones you do two days a week to give your tummy a rest. I want to reach as many people as possible, because I think this work will benefit so many people, especially with the American diet. And I want to keep learning and studying and inspiring people with new recipes – and take every day as it comes!
Isn’t it exciting that ancient philosophies, such as Ayurveda, are becoming mainstream? It excites me so much! I’m bi-cultural – my father is Indian and my mother is English – so I love to combine Western and Eastern traditions when it comes to medicine. I don’t think it should be one or the other – I think our future is in combining them both.
Foods that harm, foods that heal
The aim is to give your digestive tract a well-needed rest from hard-to-digest foods and foods that cause inflammation and irritation. For me, those foods included:
* any sweetener, sugar or fruit that contains fructose, including honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, refined and unrefined sugar and all fruits except lemons and limes.
* starchy vegetables, including beetroot, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and yams.
* dairy and milk products in all forms, including goat’s and sheep’s milk products.
* nuts and seeds, but nut milks are OK if they don’t give you any symptoms. You can warm nut milk up to create beautiful healing and nourishing warm drinks.
* all grains, including rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, wheat, couscous, amaranth, kamut, spelt, rye and barley. Once your gut is healed you can reintroduce grains that have been prepared through soaking, sprouting, and fermenting, as these methods break down anti-nutrients like phytic acid, so the grains become more digestible.
* hard-to-digest beans and lentils, which only put strain on your digestive system.
* caffeinated drinks, including coffee and chocolate-based drinks.
* bad fats. The most damaging fats and oils for the body are man-made hydrogenated fats (e.g. trans fats) and polyunsaturated fats and vegetable oils. The hydrogenation process results in an extremely toxic product that the body finds difficult to process.
* if your gut problems stem from candida, it’s best to avoid fermented foods and foods derived from fungus, such as soy sauce, tempeh, miso, cheese, mushrooms, alcohol, vinegar, and fermented vegetables. You can reintroduce fermented foods after four weeks, or when your gut is ready.
Good foods include:
* non-starchy vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, green beans, fennel, cauliflower, radishes, cucumber, eggplant, avocados, zucchini, and button squash.
* leafy green vegetables. They’re low in sugar, highly detoxifying, nutrient-dense, and energy-boosting, so pack rocket, spinach and kale into your juices and smoothies.
* avocados, lemons and limes and the occasional serving of berries.
* anti-inflammatory, detoxifying and immune-boosting herbs and spices, such as basil, parsley, coriander, dill, mint, garlic, ginger, rosemary and thyme. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory that will help your gut to heal.
* Celtic or Himalayan salt (but not iodised salt). You can add dulse flakes (a seaweed) to your salt for iodine and other essential trace minerals.
* additive-free coconut milk, coconut water and cold-pressed coconut oil products, which are satiating, soothing for the digestive tract and will promote the growth of healthy gut flora.
* caffeine-free herbal teas. Peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, lavender, rooibos, and dandelion root are wonderful detoxifying options.
* bone broths, another highly important aspect of a gut-healing diet. Homemade chicken, beef, lamb or fish bone broths are extremely mineral-rich; they’re also high in naturally occurring gelatine, which is an incredibly powerful healer of the digestive lining.
* as many good fats as possible, to heal your gut and help deliver and draw out nutrients from your food, as well as remove from your body toxins and heavy metals like aluminium.
* flaxseed and fish oils, which are highly anti-inflammatory and will really help to settle down your gut.
*extra virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and ghee and butter if you can tolerate them. Good fats act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.