Twenty-three-year-old Annie Ali remembers the time when she was in hospital every other week.
It started with slight abdominal pain, the kind she could easily ignore, and did for a few weeks. That quickly escalated to searing pains, accompanied by lethargy, heartburn, then nausea and a complete loss of appetite. ‘Food just wouldn’t stay in my stomach,’ she says. ‘I was tired all the time. I dropped kilos massively — which was not a surprise as at one point I didn’t eat for an entire four days.’
Annie would feel better after glucose drips and medication, but then a few days after going back to eating, she’d be back in hospital, exhibiting the very same symptoms again. ‘When I wasn’t cured even with all that medication, I thought I had some kind of a terminal illness,’ she says. ‘Which was why I was quite surprised when I consulted a new doctor and was told: I needed to heal my gut. Not what I’d expected.’
It’s an idea that’s been gaining ground over the past few years — of the gut being the body’s command centre, the foundation of all well-being, the most vital disease-fighting system. Increasing research has linked it with diabetes, the immune system, mental health, including dementia and Alzheimer’s, skin conditions and even cancer. Yet its importance isn’t played up very often in health articles — it’s certainly not a wellness trend that’s been blowing up the internet. And we don’t spend a lot of our time thinking about all the forces that work together in our gut. And this is reflected in statistics such as the one that in the US alone, 70 million people experience some type of digestive disorder at any given point.
Keeping your gut healthy is hardly modern awareness. Dr Harald Stossier, founder of Austria-based Vivamayr, the Centre for Modern Mayr Medicine, says the wisdom in fact harks back to ancient Greece. ‘We can either stay healthy or make ourselves ill by what we eat on a daily basis. Nutrients influence all areas of our health. And every cell of the body lives from what the digestive system supplies. The result of its work is therefore decisive for the health and performance of the individual cell and the entire organism.’
Dr Harald knows the signs well when things don’t work smoothly in the gut. Irregular bowel movements. Diarrhoea. Constipation. Flatulence. Pain and nausea. But it doesn’t stop there — even skin, hair, eyes, and ultimately all organ systems are affected, he says. ‘The skin’s surface and colour for example gives precise information about the state of health of the small intestine and the liver,’ says Dr Harald. ‘A chronic digestive damage can also be diagnosed from an incorrect posture, as the shape of the abdomen is being determined by posture.’
Which means Dr Harald is a proponent of gut cleanse — as both prevention and cure, helping to re-activate a self-healing system. Good digestion = better life is his motto.
And it’s not just Western medicine that propagates the need to keep your gut happy. Dr VL Shyam, a Dubai-based Ayurveda practitioner and a member of Friday’s panel of experts, says according to Ayurveda, most diseases originate from an unhealthy gut. ‘The gut is called the second brain; it can take several independent decisions without consulting the brain. There are three main functions of gut — digestion, absorption and excretion. Without the efficient functioning of these three vital processes, there is no life at all.’
Along with the symptoms mentioned by Dr Harald, Dr Shyam lists fatigue, a feeling of heavyness, lack of appetite and a reduced taste for food as common symptoms of an unhealthy gut as per Ayurveda. ‘The body has its own mechanism for cleaning the gut on consuming harmful food; it reacts in the form of diarrhoea or vomiting,’ he says.
Then there’s the Xenobiotics — everything that can’t be digested or metabolised in the body. Like artificial colours, detergents, the dishwash you use — they accumulate in the body, and for its removal we need external help.
So now that you know you are truly what you eat, what can you do about it? A detox is the first thing that comes to mind to jump-start the gut again. You know the type — a celeb-endorsed, usually expensive regimen, and often times a lot more snake oil than science.
Periodic cleanses are all the rage, especially in the month of January, when the word ‘detox’ becomes a big buzzword. Overindulging in one too many treats, parties after parties that give rise to the Santa belly, and all the excesses of a holiday lead to an annual panic cleanse precisely this month.
But medical professionals are quick to stress gut cleansing needs to go beyond an occasional cleanse — one you undertake only after a weekend brunching, or a raucous night out. The faster good gut habits become a long-term, sustainable lifestyle change, the happier your gut. ‘Gut cleansing is something that happens every single day,’ says Dr Harald. ‘If you chew your food properly you produce saliva, which has not only the function of starting chemical digestion, but also of cleansing the mouth. The same will happen in every different part of the intestine, so slowly you cleanse your intestine after meals and at the end of the day or the next morning when you go to the toilet and eliminate those substances.’
Training your intestine is a thing. Eat slowly. Chew well, to metabolise the food. ‘We also know that we have a rhythm in our digestive tract that means we have a lot of capacity and excellent capacity in the morning and at lunchtime but less in the evening,’ he says. ‘So have a light meal in the evening and enjoy your dinner as early as possible. Stay away from all things raw in the evening and drink between meals so not to dilute your saliva when you need it in concentrated form.’
Dr Shyam says eating according to appetite and never suppressing your appetite are key. He also subscribes by a half-quarter-quarter approach: Fill your stomach up to half with solid food, fill quarter with liquids and leave the quarter empty to aid the digestion. Also: ‘Chew well while eating. Sit, relax and eat. Don’t mix multiple food items. Sleep on time. Exercise regularly. Ensure morning evacuation of bowels — as per our biological clock; bowel movements are arrested by around 10pm and it reopens by 7am, which means morning evacuation is a sign of good health. Eat light dinners. Don’t resort to the habit of laxatives.’
Annie followed similar advice — and set off on a clean-eating journey that’s seen her not go back to hospital in over four months. ‘At first I completely stopped eating out, especially meat that has a high chance of being undercooked, and most processed foods. After I felt my gut had healed a bit, I started eating out just once a week, and completely stopped having buffets. I also make the effort to cook at home, have more fibre and chug water through the day. . This has become my new normal, and it feels great.’
A gut reset
So you’ve decided to change your lifestyle, eat the right foods, train your intestine, drink more water, have more fibre… but it’s all long term, and you can’t wait to get started. What can you do to reverse the effects of the Christmas and New Year binge?
Dr Shyam recommends a ‘half day or full day fast — up to capacity, something where you won’t drop down!’ And drinking warm water continuously, boiled with ginger or cumin seeds or coriander seeds — both help increase digestive fire and metabolic process.
But the real way is to dig deeper, Dr Shyam says, and to understand the body type of a person: according to Ayurveda, that’s vata, pitta and kapha. ‘A vata person will always have constipation, the pitta will be diarrhoea prone, and kapha will have solid, oily bowels. As for appetite — vata is varying, high or low. Pitta has a very strong appetite, if they skip a meal they get irritable and the shakes. And the kapha has steady medium appetite.’
‘So Ayurvedic panchakarma treatments are also based on gut: Purgation (induce controlled diarrhoea with medicines) balances pitta. Emesis (induced vomiting with medicines) balances kapha. Enema (administration of medicines through anal canal) balances vata. But it all needs to be done under medical supervision.’
Dr Shyam says mild laxatives like Thriphala (powders of three fruits) can be used without habituation — it works safely taken as a bowel corrector. ‘An enema is recommended in the rainy season (to eliminate imbalanced vata); emesis is recommended in the spring (to eliminate the imbalanced kapha); purgation is recommended in the autumn (to eliminate the imbalanced pitta).’
But don’t launch into a cleanse headfirst one day: to prepare for a cleanse, Ayurveda recommends oleation — the internal use of ghee/oil and oil therapies for five to seven days prior to a gut cleanse. It’s a practise that’s gained massive popularity over the past few years (not least because Kourtney Kardashian revealed she starts her day by drinking some ghee).
And always consult a doctor before a cleanse. ‘Ayurveda says a gut cleanse is like bending a dry stick — it will break. The same way, doing a gut cleanse on a dry body — without oil and heat therapies prior — will break your body.’
Water, fibre, oils and bitters
Here’s a four-fold approach. Dr Harald says he can’t stress the importance of water enough for a cleanse. Not having enough liquids will cause difficulty in having a regular bowel movement to cleanse the intestine. Those who are constipated don’t cleanse well. Therefore it’s important to have enough liquids to transport the ingredients of the intestine.
Then comes the fibre. ‘If people are not able to go to the toilet regularly and not cleansing the intestine, the toxins are re-absorbed. So we need a lot of fibre in the food to produce enough volume to be able to eliminate.
‘On the other side we also have the fatty acids (cold pressed vegetables oils), which are helpful for the bowel movements. And of course enough minerals are necessary, especially magnesium, a very helpful support for the intestinal activity.’
Lastly, think bitter food like ruccola, radicchio, artichokes. They can be hard to swallow, but bitter substances actually help in a gut cleanse. Bitter herbal extracts can help too (herbal teas, liver teas, liver tea, ventulin, milkthistle, walnut, ect.). ‘Bitter substances activate the bowel movement and also support the liver in their function and indirectly that helps also to activate the bowel movement,’ says Dr Harald.
One for the kids
It’s not just for the adults: a gut cleanse can help set up your children for a lifetime of good health. So do kids require a regular boost to their gut health?
‘Yes and no,’ says Dr Harald. ‘Normally kids react very quickly and effectively on different therapeutic procedures. But also in children we see constipation, and very often the first step is to change the eating habits and also the selection of food — most industrial prepared food is high in calories but low in fibre. Also drinking enough liquids. On the other side if there is a disease that we know can be treated or influenced effectively by fasting, there’s of course the possibility for children, too, to do a fast as a medical strategy.’
The Ayurvedic alternative for children? Raisins, jaggery, milk and fruits can be used for a gut cleanse, says Dr Shyam. ‘A child’s gut is very sensitive so special care should be taken — but simple mechanisms like fasting, a fluid diet and plenty of warm water work as home remedies for a gut cleanse. For constipation, a common remedy is to soak black raisins in water, squeeze it out, add a bit of jaggery and get your kids to drink that water.’
Sleep and regenerate, tech-free
Of course, doing a cleanse while wreaking havoc on other aspects of your life can get unpleasant real quick. Living unhealthily can catch up on your gut health very fast. ‘The most important strategy if you do a cleansing, fasting and detoxification is that this is a period where you should rest and simplify your entire lifestyle,’ says Dr Harald. ‘It means to eat less yes, but also to rest the whole body, to have enough time to regenerate in-between, to reduce activities, to have more time to sleep and also to create a better rhythm during the day. Of course the most important is a very restful sleep because during that time normally the body eliminates the toxins we produce during the day. In that period of time also try to stay off electronical devices like computer, mobiles, wlan etc. to help the body to rest also from that technical influence.’