Health Articles

Antioxidants and Free Radicals

Everyone knows that oxygen is essential for all life - the body uses it as it breaks down food and creates energy for cells.   But did you know that, as well as being an absolute necessity for good health, its use in the body can also result in the production of certain unwanted by-products called oxidants.

These particles are free radicals - unstable molecules that can damage DNA and cell structure.  They cause harm because they are constantly trying to stabilise by attempting to 'steal' electrons from nearby molecules.  This, in turn, damages those molecules and makes them unstable too, causing them to also seek out other electrons.  And so, a vicious circle is created.

Free radicals and oxidants:  

Free radicals are produced as a result of both internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) factors.    Endogenous free radicals are produced as a result of normal biological processes, like aerobic respiration, metabolism and inflammation. 

In contrast, exogenous free radicals are produced as a result of environmental factors.  For example, pollution, sunlight, stress, UV rays, poor diet, alcohol intake, smoking, strenuous exercise and X-rays.    Unfortunately, in this modern age of pollutants and toxins, both in the environment and in our food chain, levels of free radicals in our bodies are higher than ever before.

It is impossible to avoid damage from free radicals, and the body's own defences against it are not fool-proof.  When our levels of free radicals exceed the protective capabilities of those defences, what is referred to as "oxidative stress" occurs. 

This means that the system is no longer able to readily detoxify or to repair the resulting damage.  As time goes on, cell parts damaged by oxidation accumulate, contributing to toxic load, ageing, a strained immune system and illness.  We can see this for ourselves because age spots are purely oxidative damage – we are literally rusting from the inside out!  The more age spots you have, the more oxidative damage you are likely to have.

Our natural defences:  

The human body is pretty amazing and, for the most part, its complex processes run smoothly.  However, like everything else, it eventually comes under strain and can even break down, especially as we age, and physical ailments can start to crop up.  The key is to provide our bodies with as much nutritional support as we can, so that it can fuel its own natural defences.

The body's primary defence against free radical damage is antioxidants - substances that help counteract the damaging effects of oxidation in tissue. 

Antioxidants:  

Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, polyphenols and other phyto-chemicals), as well as enzymes (proteins in the body that assist in chemical reactions). 

While it is not entirely clear how antioxidants work, their most important characteristic in terms of supporting the body against free radicals is that they are stable with or without the extra electron, so they can help to stop the chain reaction referred to above. 

Antioxidant foods: 

Antioxidants are present in many natural, whole foods (such as fruit and vegetables).  In many cases, it is possible to identify antioxidant-rich sources through their distinctively bright colours.  For instance, the deep red of cherries; the deep purple of beetroot; the bright orange of carrots; the yellow of turmeric; and the blue-purple of blueberries, blackberries and grapes.  

Vitamin C and vitamin E are two of the most potent antioxidants found in nature, present in high levels in foods such as parsley, rosehips, elderberries, blackcurrants, citrus fruits, broccoli, nuts and whole grains (oatmeal, rye, barley).  Foods that have exceptionally high levels of antioxidants are often referred to as "superfoods" or "superfruits", for that reason.  For example, green tea, acai berries and wheatgrass.

Supporting your antioxidant levels: 

 Our bodies produce metabolic enzymes that are extremely effective antioxidants.  However the body's ability to produce these enzymes drops significantly in our late twenties. 

Similarly, if your lifestyle is conducive to high levels of free radical production, it is a good idea to support your antioxidant levels through external (dietary) sources.

Eating a balanced diet, rich in a variety of seasonal (preferably organic) fruits, vegetables, green leafy plants and whole grains, is one of the best ways to support your body's antioxidant levels. 

However, if you feel that you need additional support, a more concentrated intake, or a more convenient and reliable source, food-based antioxidant supplements can be the perfect solution as long as they are from a natural and not synthetic source.

Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) berries have become incredibly popular in the form of dietary supplements over the past few years, both in capsule and powder form. 

This is in no small part due to the significant media attention they have received, since being more widely recognised in the Western world as a "superfruit".  In other words, a fruit with an exceptionally high nutrient-to-calorie ratio compared to other fruits of a similar kind.  For example, in terms of antioxidants, essential fatty acids, vitamins or mineral content.

Although having only just recently entered the wider public consciousness in the West, South Americans native to the Amazon have been enjoying the nutritional benefits of these tasty berries for many years.  In fact, they are considered to be an essential food source for three traditional Caboclo populations in the Brazilian Amazon, because they make up a major component of their diet - up to 42% of their total food intake by weight! A fact which reflects their incredibly high nutrient content.

Found only in swampy areas of the Amazon rainforest (Central and South America), acai berries are pretty exotic - which explains why they haven't ever popped up on the shelves of our supermarkets! They are small and round (approximately 25mm in size) and grow on large palm trees called açaí palms, which can reach over 80 feet in height.  The berries grow in bunches (similar to bananas) and an average açaí palm tree can yield between 3 to 8 bunches of berries.

Once ripe, acai berries bear a strong resemblance to grapes and blueberries, except that they are not quite as pulpy.  They contain a large, inedible seed, which constitutes as much as 90% of the entire fruit!

Although hard to find in their natural whole food form, everyone can now access the nutritional benefits of these berries on a daily basis through the convenience of health supplements, which will often incorporate both acai berry powder and concentrated extract.  Dried acai berries can also now be found in healthfood shops.  But why might you want to incorporate acai berry nutrients into your daily diet? 

  • Immune system support:   A big clue to their high nutrient content is given away by the deep blue/purple colour of acai berries.  Like most other brightly coloured natural foods, they contain healthy pigments, which support immunity, health and vitality.  For example, flavonoids and potent antioxidants (such as anthocyanins).  They are also a rich source of Omega 6 and Omega 9 fatty acids (good fats). 
  • Heart health support:   As well as containing high levels of anthocyanins, research has also shown that acai berries are rich in phytosterols which may provide cardio-protective support for our cells. 
  • Energy support:   Acai berries contain high levels of plant protein.  Combined with their high levels of antioxidants and other nutrients, they can offer ideal support for high energy levels, stamina and general vitality.
  • Weight management support: When trying to shape up, you are obviously looking to decrease your intake of high-calorie unhealthy foods, in favour of nutrient-packed foods that are naturally low in calories.  Not only will this encourage a healthy weight, it will also help to ensure that your general health remains strong during any periods of slimming and reduced food choice.  In this way, acai berries can provide ideal weight management support. 

So now you know why acai berries have been causing a stir in the natural health world - and these are just some of their nutritional benefits.  Plus, if you favour an organic lifestyle or are trying to detox, it is worth bearing in mind that acai berries are wild harvested, as opposed to farmed.  This means that they aren’t exposed to harmful pesticides and fertilisers. They offer great all-round healthy living support - why not try them for yourself!

It seems to be more and more common to hear that someone has a dairy allergy, lactose intolerance or has simply chosen to cut dairy out of their diet. Why is this?

While milk has traditionally been a mainstay of the British diet (with the UK consuming as much as 40% of the EU's dairy products), there has been a growing awareness of some of the potential health problems associated with a high dairy intake, including allergy and intolerance. As a result, many people are now choosing to go dairy-free.

Allergy and Intolerance: 

A dairy allergy involves the body going into shock (or having an anaphylactic reaction) after ingesting dairy and is the response of the immune system to the proteins found in dairy products - casein and whey are the two main components. Casein is the curd that forms when milk is left to sour, while the watery part that is left after the curd is removed is the whey.

In contrast to a true dairy allergy (where there is an immune system response whenever exposed to cow’s milk proteins), people with lactose intolerance can’t tolerate the sugar in milk (called lactose), because they don’t have the corresponding digestive enzyme, lactase, to cope with lactose sugar.

Milk allergy or intolerance is very common, amongst both children and adults. Our bodies actually produce an antibody against milk, which certainly suggests it isn't an ideal food. These facts alone would seem to indicate that the body has not evolved to cope with high dairy intake and, therefore, it should not form a large part of the diet.

For example, up to 70% of adults lose the ability to digest lactose (dairy sugar) once they've been weaned. In fact, most mammals lose the ability to digest lactose once they are old enough to find their own source of nourishment away from their mother.

In other words, we were never meant to continue consuming milk and dairy products beyond infancy. After weaning, or the transition from being breast-fed to consuming other types of food, the ability to produce lactase naturally diminishes as it is no longer needed.

The symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, stomach pain, wind and diarrhoea, while an allergy to dairy produce usually results in a blocked nose, excessive mucous production, respiratory complaints (such as asthma) and gastrointestinal problems.

These are inflammatory reactions produced by the body when it doesn't like what you are eating. Such reactions are most likely to occur in people who consume large quantities of dairy on a regular basis.

What about babies? 

A common misconception is that a breastfeeding mother needs to drink milk to make milk - this, of course, is not the case.  The widespread move away from breastfeeding led to the substitution of human milk with cow's milk. The trouble with this, however, is that cow's milk is designed for calves! It is very different from human milk in a number of respects, including its protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and essential fatty acid content.  In fact, early feeding of babies on cow's milk is now known to increase the likelihood of developing a dairy allergy (which affects 1 in 10 babies).  Common symptoms include diarrhoea, persistent colic, eczema, vomiting, asthma, sleeplessness, catarrh and urticaria.

What about calcium? 

When people hear the phrase "going dairy-free", many immediately make the jump to calcium deficiency. The truth is, despite what has been drummed into us for years, milk is not a very good source of minerals.

Manganese, chromium, selenium and magnesium are all found in higher quantities in plant-based sources (fruit and vegetables). Yes, dairy is high in calcium, but the lack of sufficient magnesium is key.  Magnesium works alongside calcium, for proper absorption and utilisation by the body. The ideal calcium to magnesium ratio is 2:1 - you need twice as much calcium as magnesium. Milk's ratio is 10:1, while cheese has a ratio of 28:1.  Dairy is also an ‘acidic’ food (see below) and our body will remove calcium from the bones to buffer this acidity, leading to weak bones and osteoporosis.

What does this mean in practice? Relying on dairy products for calcium is likely to lead to a magnesium deficiency and imbalance. Countries with the lowest rates of dairy and calcium consumption (like those in Africa and Asia) have the lowest rates of osteoporosis!

A diet rich in leafy green vegetables, seeds and nuts are a far better source of these two minerals (and many others), in line with our needs and in balanced proportions. Yet more evidence that milk is intended for young calves; not adult humans.

Acidity and health conditions: 

The consumption of dairy products is strongly linked to a number of health conditions, ranging from cardiovascular disease and digestive disorders (such as coeliac disease and Crohn's), to arthritis, diabetes and asthma.  There are a number of potential reasons for this, some of which are considered below.

Acidity: 

For healthy blood and the efficient delivery of balanced nutrients to the cells of the body, the pH should be neutral or slightly alkaline. It is not a coincidence that sick people tend to be in the acidic range. Diet has a significant effect on the body's acidity, through the consumption of either acid- or alkali-forming foods (ie foods that, when digested, produce an end-product that is either alkaline or acid). Dairy is at the top of the acid-forming list, along with meat and sugar. A high level of alkali-forming foods (such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds) are required to neutralise any harmful acids caused by such acid-forming foods.

Poor calcium to magnesium ratio: 

Most people assume that dairy is linked to heart disease because of the high fat content. In fact, more pertinent could be the poor calcium to magnesium ratio already mentioned above. More than any mineral, magnesium helps to protect against heart disease.

Hormones: 

For the purposes of producing modern milk, cows are now selectively reared to produce milk during pregnancy. This milk is therefore particularly rich in oestrogen, as well as Insulin Growth Factor (IGF), high levels of which have been linked to disease.

Bovine serum albumin: 

There is growing evidence to link child-onset diabetes to an allergy to bovine serum albumin (BSA) in dairy products. This type of diabetes starts with the immune system destroying the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. It has been theorised that diabetes-susceptible babies introduced to BSA earlier than around 4 months (before the gut wall has matured and become less permeable), are therefore more likely to develop an allergic response. The highest incidence of insulin-dependent diabetes is found in Finland - the country with the highest milk-production consumption.

Poor nutrient content: 

Nutritionally speaking, dairy is bad news in a number of respects. For example, almost half of the calories in whole milk come from saturated fat, and nearly all of its carbohydrates come from sugar (all in the form of lactose, which many people can’t properly digest). Plus, dairy has no dietary fibre or iron.

So, why not might consider going dairy-free for a while to see if doing so significantly improves your health or quality of life!

Most people, especially women, recognise that uncomfortable feeling when their stomach suddenly swells up like a balloon, often accompanied by stomach pain and flatulence.  This may be triggered by, for example, eating the wrong kinds of food, stress or a number of other factors.

Stomach bloating is actually a very common condition which affects around 1 in 5 people on a regular basis.  For many sufferers, this is just an accepted part of everyday life because they are either too embarrassed to seek help or because they have had no luck in terms of a specific diagnosis of the root cause.  Some others, who have suffered for a number of years, may simply start to believe that it is 'normal'.  It is not.

Bloating can be very unpleasant, as well as unsightly.  Listen to your body - everyone experiences a bit of bloating from time to time, but if you are feeling bloated on a regular basis (and perhaps suffering with excessive wind, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhoea) your body is trying to tell you something. There is no need to simply accept bloating as an unwanted part of your life.  Get to the bottom of what is causing it and then take action! 

Some common causes of bloating: 

The first step in stopping bloating is identifying what causes it in your specific case - everyone is different. The actual swelling of the belly associated with bloating is most often caused by gas in the bowel.  However, when we talk about the cause of bloating, we are talking about what triggers this reaction.

Some common triggers include:

  • high-fat, high-sugar diets (including high levels of refined carbohydrates and/or processed foods)
  • excessive intake of inflammatory (acid-forming) foods or drinks, such as alcohol, caffeine, red meat or dairy
  • food allergy or intolerance
  • an imbalance of the good bacteria and harmful micro-organisms in your gut (including parasites, yeast, fungi and bad bacteria)
  • digestive disorders, including chronic constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and leaky gut
  • a high toxic load (particularly in the digestive tract). 

Many of these triggers are also connected or inter-dependent.  For example, if your gut is inflamed or your bowels are sluggish, it can create the perfect environment for bacterial overgrowth (or dysbiosis).  Similarly, food allergies or intolerances can contribute to gut permeability.  

Poor diet:  Considering that the digestive tract is the system through which we access nutrients and eliminate waste and toxins from the foods we eat, it is hardly surprising that diet plays a key role in the health of the digestive system and, in particular, the bowels.  For example, a high intake of sugar can place a great deal of stress on the body and increase gut toxicity, by feeding bad bacteria and yeast.  This can in turn increase the amount of fermentation in the gut which can lead directly to bloating.

In fact, abdominal bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, gas (both burping and flatulence) and IBS are all symptoms of a digestive system and liver overloaded with toxins.

Poor digestion:   The average person consumes more than 25 tonnes of food over their lifetime!  To avoid creating internal toxins which can lead to symptoms like bloating, digestion must be efficient.  In real terms, this equates to 1 - 3 bowel movements per day, depending on the amount of food eaten.

All too often, people eat too quickly because they are in a rush or feeling stressed - this is a bad start for the complex process of digestion.   Digestive enzymes, required for the complete breakdown of food, are released at different stages of the digestive process.  If food is not chewed thoroughly, the enzymes do not get a proper chance to act.  Similarly, stress inhibits all enzyme secretion. 

Hydrochloric acid also plays a key role in the digestion of protein in the stomach.  Many people with poor diets and/or digestion suffer with indigestion (heartburn) on a regular basis.  As such, they start to routinely take antacids and other stomach acid blockers so these people are unlikely to be digesting protein properly and may therefore experience abdominal bloating, reflux and burping.  It is also worth noting that, as we age, our levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes decline.

Food allergy / intolerance:  If digestion is poor, or there is an imbalance in gut flora, or there are nutritional deficiencies or gut inflammation, what is known as 'leaky gut syndrome' can develop.  This means that the intestinal lining becomes more permeable than it should be, allowing toxins and partially digested food molecules to enter the bloodstream.  This can place the immune system under immense strain and, over time, can contribute to the development of food intolerances and/or allergies that can produce wide-ranging symptoms.  These commonly include bloating, abdominal pains, water retention, IBS, weight gain, cravings and fatigue.  In the majority of cases (upwards of 95% of cases), food allergies and intolerances develop over time, so that a food that you once tolerated well now makes you unwell. 

Any foods that you are allergic or intolerant to essentially act like poisons in your body.  Continuing to include them in your diet can create inflammation, further weakening your immune system.  If you continue to eat these foods, your body will try to dilute them to minimise their harmful effects.  This can, in turn, congest the lymphatic system, leaving you feeling puffy and bloated.

Imbalance of gut flora:  It's estimated that there are more than 500 different species of bacteria present in the human gut in concentrations of between 100 billion to 1 trillion microbes per gram.  This amounts to around 95% of the total number of cells in the human body.  These naturally-occurring friendly bacteria in the stomach and intestines can quite easily be disrupted, resulting in an imbalance between the beneficial bacteria on the one hand, and harmful micro-organisms on the other (dysbiosis). 

Such an imbalance of gut flora makes the body more vulnerable to the overgrowth of yeast (such as candida albicans), fungi, parasites and harmful bacteria.  The toxins produced by these micro-organisms, along with poorly digested food, a high-sugar diet and medication (like antibiotics) can all alter the intestinal pH, destroy good bacteria and then lead to bloating. 

Digestive disorders:   As mentioned above, as well as poor digestion, actual digestive disorders can play a significant role in recurrent bloating.  These include:

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome:   IBS involves the colon being held in spasm.  The four main symptoms are bloating, stomach pain, excessive wind and altered bowel habits (diarrhoea may alternate with constipation and the condition is often accompanied with the sensation that the bowel is incompletely emptied).  Discomfort is usually relieved on passing stool or wind.  IBS is often linked to emotional factors (such as stress) rather than allergies/intolerances (although it is thought that cow's milk and antigens in beef can precipitate the condition), with around one-third of cases being linked to diet.  Women are more susceptible than men. 
  • Bowel disease:  Bloating is one of the symptoms of an inflamed bowel, which can be caused by a wide range of conditions, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as severe food sensitivity (as seen with coeliac disease, for example - an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten intake).
  • Chronic constipation: Constipation can have a number of underlying causes, but if food is only partially digested (for instance because of a lack of digestive enzymes) and that food reaches the colon, it can putrefy and ferment.  The problem is compounded if there is a lack of fibre and water in the diet.  The longer food sits in the bowel, the longer gas-forming bacteria have to work, leading to bloating. 

Stop bloating!  

So, if you suspect that any of the above could be contributing factors to your bloating, how can you beat the bloat?  Well, a diet packed with natural whole foods (such as raw fruit and vegetables, rich in enzymes), quality dietary fibre, fermented foods (rich in probiotics), foods low in additives, preservatives, salt and sugar, and with plenty of pure water, is a great start!

Combine this type of well-balanced diet with regular exercise and you have one of the best ways to keep your digestive system healthy, regular and efficient, and therefore to beat the bloat. 

You can also help to ensure healthy bowel function by:

  • eating slowly and chewing well (to avoid fermentation, gas formation and therefore bloating)
  • eating only when calm and relaxed (to encourage the secretion of digestive enzymes)
  • supplementing your diet, as required, with high-strength, multi-strain probiotics, digestive enzymes and dietary fibre.

If you suspect that years of poor diet have resulted in a sluggish bowel or 'hidden' constipation (where, despite daily bowel motions, waste-matter actually sits in the colon for several days before elimination), a colon cleanse or full body detox may also be of benefit.

All the long-established dietary and nutritional therapies used down the ages recognise the benefit of regularly cleansing the system, starting with the colon.  This can help to rid your body of accumulated toxins and therefore reduce the likelihood of bloating.

A person’s blood sugar level is basically the amount of glucose present in their blood at any given time.  You might be wondering why anyone would need to know this?   Well, keeping your blood sugar balanced is one of the most important factors in maintaining good health - in particular, even energy levels and a healthy weight. 

How glucose works in the body:   Glucose is a simple sugar that is produced by the body from the carbohydrates that we eat.  It’s necessary for a wide range of critical processes - most notably, that the glucose in your bloodstream is available to your cells to make energy.   Glucose is transported from the intestines or liver to cells via the bloodstream, and is made available for cell absorption via insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas). 

Glucose that is not directly used as an energy source, for instance, because blood sugar levels are too high, is either sent to the liver, adipose (fat) tissue and muscle cells (where it is stored as glycogen – our temporary fuel store) or it’s converted into fat – our longterm fuel store.

Stored glycogen can be converted back into glucose and returned to the bloodstream whenever insulin is low or absent. 

Why are balanced blood sugar levels important?  It’s estimated that as many as 3 in every 10 people have an impaired ability to keep their blood sugar levels stable - it may go too high and then drop too low. Normally, the body maintains its blood sugar level at a reference range of between 3.6 and 5.8 mmol/L.  The mean normal blood sugar level is around 4 mmol/L , although it obviously fluctuates throughout the day. 

As you might expect, levels tend to be lowest in the morning, before the first meal of the day, and spike for 1 to 2 hours after meals.  However, when it comes to diabetics, blood sugar fluctuates more widely.  Over the years, a continual imbalance in blood sugar levels can result in weight gain (if not obesity), increasing feelings of lethargy and possibly more serious health conditions.

Low blood sugar:  When blood sugar levels are too low (referred to as hypoglycaemia), a host of symptoms can be experienced.  These include everything from irritability, nervousness and depression, to fatigue, headaches and digestive problems.  In particular, when the level of glucose in your blood drops, you feel hungry.  This is how blood sugar can have a direct impact on appetite and weight gain.

High blood sugar:  Persistently high blood sugar levels are referred to as hyperglycaemia.  This can involve a suppressed appetite in the short term, with more serious health problems in the longer term.

The bottom line - if you are able to control your blood sugar levels and keep them stable, the result is usually an even weight, healthy body and consistently high energy.  Unstable blood sugar levels over a prolonged period can lead to serious health problems or may be indicative of an underlying medical condition, some of which are described below.  Advice should always be sought from a qualified medical practitioner if you have any concerns.

Diabetes:   Diabetes is an extreme form of blood sugar imbalance and, possibly, the most well-known  but certainly the most common.   According to NHS Choices, in England in 2010 there were approximately 3.1 million people aged 16 or over with diabetes (both diagnosed and undiagnosed).  By 2030, this figure is expected to rise to 4.6 million, with 90% of those affected having type 2 diabetes. 

This can be a lifelong condition which is characterised by persistent hyperglycemia.  Early warning signs are similar to those of mild glucose imbalance, but most notable is a sense of raging thirst.

There are two main types of diabetes - type 1 and type 2.  Type 1 usually develops before the age of 40 (often in the teenage years), while type 2 tends to be diagnosed in older people.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn't produce enough insulin to function properly, or the body’s cells don't react to insulin.  This is known as insulin resistance (see below).  Type 2 diabetes is far more common than type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the body doesn't produce any insulin at all.  In the UK, about 90% of all adults with diabetes have type 2. 

For those with diabetes, it is particularly important to keep blood sugar levels within normal ranges to avoid the development of serious health complications.  For instance, kidney disease, nerve disease, eye disease and heart disease. 

Insulin resistance:    Insulin resistance is a condition where the body fails to recognise the consumption of sugars and carbohydrates, which means that it continues to pump out insulin which is not needed.  If this continues for a prolonged period, the pancreas can shut down and cease to produce insulin altogether. 

If care is not taken by those who have this condition to ensure a healthy diet and maintain balanced blood sugar levels, it can eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes. 

Keeping your blood sugar levels stables:  A wide range of factors can affect a person's blood sugar levels.  For example, it can be temporarily elevated as a result of severe stress (such as trauma, surgery or illness), as a result of medication use or through alcohol intake.  However, diet, weight and exercise are key. The most obvious cause of unstable blood sugar levels is eating too much sugar and, arguably, the best way to achieve an optimal balance of blood sugar levels is to control the glycemic load (GL) of your diet. 

This is widely considered to be a more accurate measure than the glycemic index (GI), as the GL score takes into account both the quality and quantity of the carbohydrate.  The GI will only tell you if a food is 'fast' or 'slow' releasing - it won't tell you what the particular carbohydrate will do to your blood sugar or waistline.

That's not to say that the GI isn't helpful - it is worth understanding that fast-releasing foods provide a quick burst of energy, which then rapidly burns out - leading to the peaks and troughs which can be so damaging.  Prime offenders are sugar and sugary foods, sugary soft drinks and fizzy drinks, white bread, white pasta, potatoes and white rice.

However, the GI can give some misleading results.  For example, carrots and chocolates have almost the same GI score, but we all know that carrots are healthier than chocolate.  This is because the GI is not taking into account the quantity of carbohydrate - you would have to eat 7 carrots to get the same amount of carbohydrate and the same effect on your weight.  The GL score addresses this inconsistency and provides a truer picture.

So, it's not just about what you eat, it is also about the quantity you eat, the quality of the food (i.e.  whether natural or processed), how you prepare the food you eat and what you drink.  Interestingly, neither fat or protein have any appreciable effect on blood sugar.  While they can both be converted into fat, this does not happen in the blood.

So, if you are looking for some healthy foods with a good GL score, below are some examples:

  • oats
  • peas
  • beans
  • lentils
  • berries
  • plums
  • apples
  • pears
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • avocados

The fibre content of a food also lowers the GL, so make a conscious effort to include quality sources of dietary fibre in your diet.  When you eat carbohydrate foods with a low GL with quality protein and healthy fats, you help to stabilise your blood sugar level even more.

Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease

What is Crohn's disease?  Named after Dr. Burrill Bernard Crohn, the physician who first described the condition in 1932, Crohn's disease is an inflammatory disorder of the digestive tract - a broad title used to describe any condition which involves the intestines becoming swollen, inflamed and ulcerated. Ulcerative colitis is another example of an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Crohn's, in particular, is an unpleasant and painful condition, which results in inflammation of all the layers of the lining of the bowel. It causes ulcerations (breaks in the lining) of the small and large intestines (most commonly the ileum), but any area of the gastrointestinal tract can be affected, from the mouth to the anus.

It most commonly presents during adolescence and early adulthood, but it has also been known to start in childhood and later in life. Men and women seem to be equally affected, but parents, siblings and children of people with Crohn's disease are 3 - 20 times more likely to develop the disease.

Approximately 150,000 people suffer from either Crohn’s or colitis in the UK. There are more than 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year and research has shown that the number of people with Crohn’s is rising.

While there has been a significant amount of research into the condition, its precise causes remain unknown - although many have been postulated, including viruses, bacteria, the immune system, genetics, diet and lifestyle. For example, it is estimated that smokers are 3 times more likely to develop Crohn's disease than non-smokers.

Common signs of Crohn's disease:  Self-diagnosis can be detrimental to health and so it is always best to seek the advice of a qualified health practitioner if you are concerned, or suspect that you have Crohn's disease. However, below we discuss some of the more common signs and symptoms of the condition.

Abdominal pain and diarrhoea are experienced by almost all sufferers. Having said that, of course not everyone who experiences these symptoms will necessarily have Crohn's - they are associated with many other conditions of varying seriousness and severity, which is why it is important to seek a professional diagnosis.

The reason for the abdominal pain and (sometimes bloody) diarrhoea in the case of confirmed Crohn's is that the swelling and inflammation associated with the disease extends deep into the lining of the bowel and can cause the intestines to empty frequently. Other common symptoms include vomiting, fatigue and weight loss. Although less common, Crohn’s disease has also been known to cause complications outside of the gastrointestinal tract, such as skin irritation, arthritis and inflammation of the eye.

Once a person has the disease, it tends to fluctuate between periods of inactivity (remission) and activity (relapse). Treatment revolves primarily around attempting to manage symptoms, with the aim of promoting longer periods of remission and preventing flare-ups.

Crohn’s disease and diet:  While there is no known cure, Crohn's disease tends to respond very well to positive dietary adjustments and tailored nutritional programmes (including supplementation). This, along with the fact that it is more prevalent in the Western world, would seem to indicate a strong dietary link.

It is also important to note that most people with Crohn's disease are allergic or intolerant to certain foods, most commonly gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, oats and barley) and dairy. So avoiding such allergens, as well as intestinal irritants like extracted bran, can be particularly helpful.

Sufferers also tend to have higher levels of homocysteine - a naturally-occurring amino acid, which is found in the blood and is linked to a range of diseases. If levels are too high, it can have an adverse effect on a critical biological process called methylation.

The brain and body use this process to keep the body's biochemistry in balance. Where this delicate balance is disrupted, the net result can be deterioration of health, including the development, or aggravation, of Inflammatory Bowel diseases such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, as well as other conditions such as arterial damage, anaemia, coeliac disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression and more.

As such, an alkalising diet packed with natural whole foods (such as fruit, vegetables and green leafy plants) are generally considered to be beneficial for Crohn's sufferers. Some of the most important nutrients to look out for and proactively include in the diet where high homocysteine levels are suspected are: folate, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, zinc and trimethylglycine (TMG or betaine).

At the same time, it is a good idea to avoid foods, beverages or daily activities which could be contributing to acidity in the body (and therefore higher homocysteine levels). For instance, saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, dairy, red meat, processed foods, fizzy drinks and other acid-forming foods. In terms of lifestyle factors, exercise regularly if your health allows, stop smoking, avoid toxins wherever possible and try to minimise your stress.

And don't forget to spare a thought for the amount of beneficial bacteria inside your vulnerable and inflamed gut - the levels of these 'good guys' (essential for digestion and immunity) are likely to be very low. It is possible to support a healthy balance of friendly and harmful gut flora by increasing your intake of probiotic foods (such as sauerkraut, tempeh, miso and tofu) or taking a high-strength, multi-strain probiotic supplement.

Other nutrients which may help to calm inflammation and soothe the gut lining include Omega 3 fats, curcumin and the amino acid glutamine.

It is well worth working with a nutritional therapist, digestive health expert or other qualified health practitioner to help devise your ideal diet and supplement programme.

Gluten intolerance or coeliac disease?

These days, it is all too common to hear people saying that they are "intolerant", "sensitive" or “allergic” to certain foods. At the top of the list are dairy, lactose, wheat, yeast, sugar, additives and gluten, but there are many others. The question is, why is this now so prevalent? Is it that there is actually a higher incidence of these conditions, or rather greater awareness leading to better diagnosis?  The answer is a bit of both.

Our love-hate relationship with grains:  Take our relationship with grains for example. Our eating patterns have changed drastically throughout human evolution.  While primates thrive by running on carbohydrates, and have a naturally "sweet tooth", humans have learned to isolate and concentrate the sweetness from food, thereby cheating nature and putting pressure on our bodies.

One of the most common ways that we now eat carbohydrates is through grains and, more particularly, wheat. In fact, it is a staple food in the modern diet. This makes it harder to accept that it might not be good for us.  Previously, it was believed that sensitivities to gluten (a protein composite found in wheat and related cereals, including barley and rye) were relatively rare. However, recent research suggests that:

  • gluten sensitivity affects as many as 1 in 10 people
  • coeliac disease (a more serious digestive disorder and auto-immune disease caused by intolerance to gluten) affects almost 1 in 100 people.

Why is this? Well, for one thing, our ancestors ate almost no gluten at all. The cultivation of grains started only about 10,000 years ago - a relatively short time in evolutionary terms. Even then, such cultivation was not widespread. In fact, gluten grains were only introduced to the American continent a few hundred years ago. The reality is, many of us have simply not yet genetically adapted to be able to tolerate grains.

Another important factor to note is that modern wheat is very different to that grown and consumed by our distant ancestors. For one thing, gluten now makes up as much as 78% of the total protein found in it. It is now well-understood that gliadin, one of the gluten proteins, is not only an intestinal irritant, but also causes allergic reactions.

Spotting a problem:  Aside from the clear role of diet in the modern tendency towards these conditions, it is also true to say that there has been a steady increase in awareness of gluten intolerance and coeliac disease in recent years.  Unfortunately, both conditions can result in ambiguous symptoms which are difficult to diagnose and can be similar to one another, and those suffering with gluten sensitivity often experience no digestive symptoms at all.

Under-diagnosis is therefore a significant problem - research suggests that around 500,000 people have not yet been diagnosed in the UK. A diagnosis can be made at any age, but the most common age range is currently between 40 and 60 years.  Encouragingly, national public awareness campaigns have led to a new focus on education in this area for doctors, nurses, dietitians and natural health practitioners. Similarly, there have been important developments in food labelling standards and the "free from" food industry.

If you suspect that you might be suffering from a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, and/or are experiencing unpleasant symptoms when eating foods that contain gluten, it is important to speak to your doctor. If and when diagnosed, you can then take the appropriate dietary measures - including shaping your gluten-free diet.

More about gluten intolerance:  A gluten intolerance results in gut symptoms similar to those of coeliac disease, but no associated antibodies are produced by the immune system.  As already mentioned above, some people have a sensitivity to gluten but don't experience any symptoms at all. However, many do. These might include feeling tired or depressed. Other common symptoms include:

  • upper respiratory tract problems (such as sinusitis)
  • problems with nutrient absorption (resulting in, for instance, weight loss, anaemia and fatigue)
  • digestive disorders (including diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, Crohn's disease and diverticulitis).

Research is ongoing into gluten sensitivity and new studies suggest that gluten may not be solely responsible for the symptoms produced by the condition. Instead, it seems likely that a group of short-chain carbohydrates (referred to as FODMAPs), are poorly digested and absorbed in the small intestine and could, therefore, also contribute to symptoms. Wheat, barley and rye (all gluten-containing grains) are all high in FODMAPs.

More about coeliac disease:  Coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease, which is caused by the immune system reacting to gluten - it essentially attacks its own tissues through the production of antibodies, whenever exposed to the allergen.  Unlike a gluten sensitivity, coeliac disease is far more likely to result in inflammation to, and long-term damage of, the lining of the small intestine.

The main function of the small intestine is the digestion and absorption of the nutrients in food. If coeliac disease goes undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, the cells lining the small intestine can become increasingly inflamed. They can also become flatter, resulting in a surface area that is significantly reduced. What this can ultimately mean for the individual, is less efficient nutrient absorption and therefore potentially malnutrition, deficiencies, weight loss, fatigue, digestive disorders and a strained immune system.

It is not entirely understood what causes coeliac disease, but it is now widely accepted that there are three key factors that underlie (or at least contribute to) its development:

  • an environmental trigger (i.e. exposure to gluten)
  • a genetic susceptibility
  • an unusually permeable or 'leaky' gut.

In rare cases, stress on the body can also trigger the onset of the condition. For example, following an operation, accident, gut infection or pregnancy.

Just as is the case with gluten sensitivity, the symptoms of coeliac disease vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe. What's more, symptoms are not restricted to the digestive tract - they can present in other parts of the body.  Some of the most common symptoms include: fatigue, anaemia, diarrhoea, abdominal discomfort, weight loss, vomiting and mouth ulcers. Again, some people may show no symptoms at all.

Living with a gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease:   While there is no known "cure" for these conditions, once diagnosed they are relatively easy to address by simply removing all sources of gluten from the diet. This is the primary treatment and is usually very successful.

It is important to note that, where there has been prolonged irritation of the gut and inflammation of the intestinal lining, it can take several months for the improvement of symptoms. The individual will therefore need patience and staying-power.

A gluten-free diet to address sensitivity or coeliac disease is therefore a lifelong commitment. Sticking to it can be difficult, particularly as gluten is present in a wide range of foods that are consumed on an everyday basis (and is also sometimes 'hidden' in ingredients). It therefore takes a bit of research and practice.

"Free from" diets such as these can have a tendency to become heavily restricted. While it is perfectly achievable to have a healthy, well-balanced and varied gluten-free diet, it is important to be proactive in your meal planning to ensure this.

Gluten-free supplements, such as nutrients-fortified gluten-free meal replacements, can offer excellent support on a daily basis. With high quality products, you can rest assured that you are accessing a broad spectrum of nutrients, with certainty that you will not be exposed to gluten.  Do remember, however, that ‘gluten-free’ doesn’t always mean ‘rubbish-free’ and always look at the other ingredients included in the product.

 

Yeast overgrowth - the basics

When people talk about yeast overgrowth in the body, they are referring to harmful yeast organisms. Candidiasis is by far the most common type of yeast infection, and there are more than 20 species of Candida, the most common being Candida albicans (a type of fungus).

We all have small amounts of Candida growing in our digestive tracts and living on our skin. This (along with other harmful gut flora, such as fungi, parasites and bacteria), is usually kept in check by our "friendly" bacteria.  In this way, Candida normally co-exists with many other types of bacteria, in a state of balance in and on our bodies.

When things go wrong:  It is only when our natural defences are out of balance that we become vulnerable to overgrowth - in other words, the levels of harmful gut flora that can make us ill start to exceed the number of beneficial bacteria which help to keep us well.  Illness, poor digestion, a high-sugar diet and medication (such as antibiotics, which destroy both good and bad bacteria), are all examples of factors that can create the perfect environment for dysbiosis - the technical term for too many bad bugs. In fact, yeast overgrowth is a common manifestation of dysbiosis.

When the immune system is under strain, or the liver is functioning poorly, Candida (an opportunistic organism) is able to flourish. If allowed to remain, it can grow in the mucous membrane lining of the small intestine, where it can take root and cause damage.  For instance, Candida can worsen any 'leaks' in an already inflamed gut (such as those seen in cases of leaky gut syndrome). If the yeast is permitted to enter the bloodstream, it can then also travel to various other parts of the body and promote multiple fungal infections.

Some of the more common signs of Candida overgrowth include:

  • fatigue
  • sugar cravings
  • brain fog
  • food allergies/intolerances
  • blurred vision
  • depression
  • digestive problems
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • yeast vaginitis
  • bladder infections
  • menstrual problems
  • constipation or diarrhoea

The end result of a prolonged infection can be an immune system that becomes overwhelmed with toxins and reacts by producing antibodies and inflammatory chemicals.

In these circumstances, it can be useful to review your overall lifestyle, paying particular attention to your diet, toxic load, hormonal balance and digestion - it is estimated that as much as 70% of our immune system resides in the digestive tract.

The role of diet:  The average modern diet and lifestyle are not always conducive to healthy levels of gut flora and efficient digestion, which can in turn make us more prone to yeast overgrowth and a strained immune system.  For example, we are exposed to an ever-increasing amount of toxins and chemicals, not least from the processed foods we eat, as well as the pollution and contaminants in the air we breathe and water we drink.

It is therefore now generally accepted that people suffering from Candida albicans overgrowth can benefit from the following:

  • Eliminating certain foods and drinks from the diet, which 'feed' the Candida and inflame the gut: Some foods provide energy directly to the Candida yeast, while others impact the digestive system, the immune system and reduce the body’s ability to fight infection. If you want to beat Candida overgrowth and avoid it in the future, give your body the best possible chance by avoiding them. Good examples are refined sugar, white flour, alcohol, caffeine, chemical-laden processed foods, foods containing yeasts or fungi (such as mushrooms, cheese and milk) and other acid-forming foods. Wherever reasonably possible, also minimise your use of medication (such as antibiotics).
  • Incorporating more of certain foods into the diet: Just as there are certain foods worth avoiding as part of an anti-Candida diet, there are also certain foods that can support your body's recovery, your immune system and help to restore gut health. Increase your intake of nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables (preferably raw, organic and seasonal). These natural whole foods are packed with dietary fibre, enzymes and other cleansing and protective nutrients (such as antioxidants, amino acids and phyto-chemicals). They are also naturally alkalising - a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut and a strong immune system is thought to be assisted by a diet which maintains the correct acid/alkaline balance.
  • Taking probiotics: As yeast overgrowth is often linked to an imbalance in bowel flora (as mentioned above), there is also a good case for taking probiotics (good bacteria). This can be through fermented foods or probiotic supplements. Some of the best probiotic foods include kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tofu and tempeh. If you choose to take probiotic supplements, it is a good idea to opt for high-strength, multi-strain products, with bacteria that colonise the gut.
  • Boosting the immune system: It is thought that overgrowth of yeast tends mainly to occur in those with weakened immune systems or those whose levels of good bacteria have been diminished as a result of some external factor (for instance through stress, pregnancy and/or the use of antibiotics, birth control pills or steroids).

As mentioned above, failure to promptly address a yeast overgrowth infection can lead to Candida organisms entering the bloodstream and colonising other areas of the body, such as the urinary tract, vagina, nails, mouth and skin. This level of infection can result in a chronic systemic problem, with large numbers of yeast germs further weakening the immune system and perpetuating the problem.

Candida albicans can produce around 75 toxic substances that are poisonous to the body. These toxins can contaminate tissue and weaken everything from the immune system, liver and kidneys, to the lungs, brain and nervous system.

It would therefore logically be beneficial to take proactive steps to boost your immune system during a Candida infection. This might include cleansing and detoxifying your body, increasing your intake of organic whole food nutrients and (as suggested above) ensuring healthy levels of good bacteria in your gut.

Almost everybody experiences constipation at some point in their lives - bowel movements that become less frequent and more difficult to pass.  It is a very common disorder of the digestive tract which can affect anybody, but it is most common amongst women (particularly during pregnancy), the elderly and young children.

Although common, it is important not to ignore constipation. Even if there is no serious underlying cause (which is most often the case), digestive regularity is an essential component of good health - not least because it is the way in which toxins and waste-matter are eliminated from the body, which would otherwise be harmful if allowed to remain.

It is therefore important to understand what is upsetting your natural rhythm and address that promptly, particularly in cases of long-term or 'chronic' constipation.

Am I constipated?   As constipation is usually a symptom of one of any number of other underlying issues or factors, the presentation can vary from person to person - particularly given that bowel movement patterns can themselves range quite significantly between individuals.

However, it is worth noting that a healthy colon will rid the body of waste as often as 2 - 3 times per day, depending on how much has been eaten. So, if you are experiencing a bowel motion less than 5 times per week, it is likely that you are constipated. Of course, you will know your own body and what is 'normal' for you. There is no magic number, but regularity is key.

Unsurprisingly, constipation is not a topic that people are keen to discuss openly, but understanding the potential causes of this unpleasant, frustrating, unhealthy and often uncomfortable condition can help to answer the question "why do I have constipation". If you have any concerns, you should always consult your doctor.

What happens when I am constipated?  The process of digestion is complex, involving a number of different organs, organisms and chemicals in the body, including digestive enzymes, friendly bacteria, stomach acid and bile.

The breakdown of food into its constituent parts (so that we can absorb its nutrients) and the eventual elimination of the remaining fluid, waste and toxins through a healthy colon and rectum, can take anywhere between 18 and 24 hours.  The form of this waste-matter or 'stool' (i.e. whether it's hard or soft), is determined not only by diet, but also by the pace at which stool moves through the colon - a process known as peristalsis.

If the colon absorbs too much water from the waste or the muscle contractions are too slow (a sluggish bowel), stool can get hard and dry. And if it's too difficult to expel, constipation can result.

Whatever the reason for the back-up, if waste remains in the colon for longer than is desirable, it will continue to putrefy and high levels of toxins can be re-absorbed into the bloodstream (referred to as self-poisoning). Where poor diet is a factor in the constipation, there is also likely to be partially digested food, resulting in fermentation and increased levels of harmful bacteria and parasites in the gut too.  So, with this in mind, it is now clear why it is important to address constipation promptly. It is actually one of the chief causes of many diseases, as toxins that are carried in the bloodstream to other parts of the body can not only have a detrimental effect on the immune system, but can also result in weakening of the internal organs and clogging of the entire lymphatic system.

Some common causes of constipation:   As already mentioned, constipation is a common symptom of a wide range of other internal conditions and external factors. However, some of the more common causes include:

  • underlying digestive system disorders (such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Candida albicans, 'leaky gut' syndrome, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease etc)
  • an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in the gut
  • food intolerance or allergy
  • change in routine (such as travel)
  • medication use (particularly antibiotics, which destroy both good and bad bacteria in the gut)
  • lack of exercise
  • dehydration
  • illness
  • stress (which can inhibit the secretion of digestive enzymes)
  • old age (when digestive enzyme reserves can become depleted)
  • and pregnancy.

However, poor diet is by far the most common cause - this is logical when you consider that the digestive tract is where your body receives food, absorbs nutrients and eliminates waste. Most vulnerable are those with diets high in processed foods, saturated fats, sugar, dairy, alcohol and caffeine, but low in natural whole foods (like fruit and vegetables, which are rich in dietary fibre).

In relatively rare cases, constipation can be a symptom of a serious underlying illness. It is therefore important to consult your doctor if you have any concerns or if symptoms persist.

How to help avoid constipation:  Every day you make choices about what to eat, what to drink, how active to be and how to live your life. Prevention is always better than cure, and you can help to ensure healthy bowel function and reduce the toxic load on your body by making these choices smart ones.  Most people suffering with constipation find that by simply altering their lifestyle they can significantly improve their regularity or eliminate the problem completely. Carefully shaping your diet is one of the easiest ways to influence your digestive process:

  • Try to eat food as close to its natural state as possible, rather than foods that have been heavily refined and processed.
  • Organic and seasonal fruit and vegetables are preferable, not least because they are naturally rich in quality dietary fibre, as well as a broad spectrum of other digestion-friendly, cleansing and protective nutrients, including enzymes and amino acids.
  • Try to include more probiotic foods in your diet, to support your levels of friendly bacteria. For instance, fermented foods like kefir, miso, tempeh and sauerkraut.
  • You may also choose to support your diet and digestive health with high-quality supplements, such as plant digestive enzymes, multi-strain probiotics and dietary fibre.

If you regularly suffer with constipation, up your intake of fibre gradually in order to promote softer, bulkier stools. Good sources of soluble fibre (which dissolves in water to form a thick gummy solution that is ideal for binding with toxins in the gut) include: seaweed, oats, rice, fruit pectin, psyllium and legumes. Good sources of insoluble fibre (which adds to the weight, bulk and softness of stools) include whole grains, fruit and vegetables.

Good hydration is an essential part of maintaining a healthy colon and digestive regularity. Most notably, it will help to ensure that the stool is soft and can pass more easily. When upping your fibre intake, be sure to also up your water intake proportionally (otherwise you could just end up making constipation worse). 6 - 8 glasses of filtered water per day should be sufficient.

Also try to stay active. Exercise is an easy way to stimulate peristalsis and get things moving in your gut!

And finally, why not give your system a 'spring clean' every now and again? Almost all natural health therapies used down the ages recognise the value of cleansing the system on a regular basis, starting with the colon - particularly where there is a back-up in the system. Colon cleansing and colonics are great ways to rid the body of any accumulated waste and toxins, which can contribute to constipation and ill-health. Consider trying colon cleansing supplements, home enemas and colonic irrigation.

In this modern age of processed foods and the widespread use of artificial chemicals to enhance everything from taste and appearance to shelf life, you can no longer take it for granted that you know what is in your food just by looking at it. 

Food these days is not simple - do you really know what you are eating?

FOOD ADDITIVES:  A good example of ‘hidden’ ingredients are food additives.  Almost everyone has heard of them, but how many of us actually take the time to find out what they are, which ones appear in our food and how they might affect our health?  Well, the answer to that is actually more and more of us - particularly as the health benefits of natural living (and, more specifically, an organic diet) become better understood. 

As a result, health-conscious individuals who are seeking to minimise their daily exposure to toxins and pollutants take the trouble to educate themselves about the different types of food additives out there (including their supposed risks and benefits).  Over the years, there has been quite a bit of controversy about these chemicals - below are some of the "need to know" basics.  

THE BASICS: As the name implies, food additives are substances that manufacturers add to foods for any number of reasons (usually to increase profits).  For example, to preserve flavour, keep the food fresher for longer and to enhance taste, texture and appearance.

However, not all food additives are bad, despite the negative connotations with the phrase.  Some are actually natural compounds - for example, vinegar used for pickling and salt used to preserve meat.  These additives have been used for centuries and are natural methods.  Similarly, there is a common misconception that processed foods automatically contain food additives, but this is not always the case.  For example, long-life milk is processed, yet it doesn’t actually require added chemicals to prolong its shelf life. 

Unfortunately, the vast majority now used are synthetic or man-made and have, to a large extent, come about as a result of the increasing time constraints of modern living and the changing palates of modern consumers.  For instance, the average person is looking for a snack that is either highly salted or sweetened.  Similarly, in this age of competitive advertising and saturated food markets, the brighter, highly coloured food items are normally the ones that get picked.  Food needs to be fun to eat, nice to look at and tasty.

The nature of the modern diet and lifestyle has resulted in fewer and fewer home-grown and natural whole foods, and an increase in the number and type of processed/refined foods.  In turn, this has led to an increase in the number of additives used in foods - both natural and synthetic.  It is therefore important to inform yourself about them, to help ensure the health and vitality of you and your family. 

If you are unsure whether or not a product contains additives, check the label.  If there are ingredients that sound like a chemistry experiment, they are probably best avoided! It is also important to note that some listed ingredients may contain food additives themselves, without those necessarily being specified.  For example, a product may contain margarine, which in turn contains additives, but only ‘margarine’ will be listed as an ingredient on the label. 

It is good practice to familiarise yourself with some of the more common food additive names, ready to identify them when out and about shopping.  Below we will take a look at some of the most notorious additives - E-numbers.

E-NUMBERS – FRIEND OR FOE?   E-numbers get a lot of media attention but, once again, the reality is a little different to what is often portrayed.  The phrase itself conjures up images of ‘food nasties’ but are they really as bad as we are led to believe? Well firstly, let's look at what they are.

After an additive has been tested and approved for use in foods in Europe, it is given a classification known as an E-number (eg  E100), for the purposes of regulation and to inform consumers.  In other words, it’s simply a systematic way of identifying different food additives.  Countries outside Europe use only the number (no 'E'), whether the additive is approved in Europe or not. 

The important (and perhaps surprising) point to bear in mind, is that even natural additives will be labelled with an ‘E’ prefix - so don't automatically discount a food which otherwise looks healthy.  Knowledge is power, so know your E-numbers!

ARE FOOD ADDITIVES SAFE?   This is a controversial question and one that has not been answered satisfactorily as yet.  However, common sense dictates that filling our bodies with synthetic chemicals cannot be as healthy as eating a diet rich in natural whole foods and may even be detrimental to health, for instance by adding to our toxic load.

But since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a significant increase in the use of food additives of varying levels of safety and for the reasons described above.  This has necessarily led to the introduction of a wide range of laws worldwide, regulating their use.

The long-term effects on the body of regularly consuming a combination of different food additives are, unfortunately, currently unknown - hence the need for regulation.  This is largely due to the fact that most additives are tested in isolation, rather than in combination with other additives – if you buy a processed food it won’t just have one additive in it!  However, what is clear is that some people are sensitive to them and suffer reactions as a result of their consumption.  These reactions include:

  • headaches
  • skin irritations (itching, rashes, hives etc)
  • digestive disorders (including diarrhoea and abdominal pains)
  • respiratory problems (like asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis)
  • allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock
  • behavioural changes (such as mood changes, anxiety and hyperactivity). 

Research undertaken in 2007 by Britain’s Food Standards Agency and later published by the British medical journal, The Lancet, provided evidence that a mix of additives commonly found in children’s foods serves to increase the mean level of hyperactivity.  Similarly, in 2008, AAP Grand Rounds (the American Academy of Pediatrics) published a study that concluded that a low-additive diet is a valid intervention for children with ADHD.

Bearing all this in mind, it is important to remember that all foods are made up of chemicals, many of which are not always ‘safer’ than those found in food additives.  For example, people with food allergies and intolerances are also often sensitive to chemicals found naturally in certain foods, such as dairy, nuts or shellfish.  However, it is always a good rule of thumb to opt for natural ingredients over synthetic ones and to adopt an organic lifestyle wherever possible.

Probiotics Linked to Reduced Risk of Allergies, Psoriasis, Colitis, Periodontal Disease and More
By Dr. Mercola

Most people, including many physicians, do not realise that 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract, making a healthy gut a major focal point if you want to achieve optimal health. The root of many health problems is related to an imbalance of intestinal bacteria, and this foundation of good health is laid even while in utero.

Without a well-functioning gastrointestinal (GI) tract, a new-born baby will be more vulnerable to pathogens, allergens, and a number of immune-related diseases, so getting an infant's gut up and running efficiently is crucial. Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant would be wise to address their own gut health as early as possible to give their child the best start possible in this regard. That said, it’s never too late to address your or your child’s gut, and most people would likely benefit from doing so.

The bacteria located in your GI tract play a crucial role in the development and operation of the mucosal immune system in your digestive tract. They also aid in the production of antibodies to pathogens. Friendly bacteria even train your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens, and to respond appropriately. This important function prevents your immune system from overreacting to non-harmful antigens, which is the genesis of allergies.

But probiotics perform such a wide variety of functions, they’re really critical regardless of what ails you. And because adding probiotics to your diet is so easy, by way of cultured foods and/or supplements, it’s a step I highly encourage you to take.

How To Reduce Your Child’s Risk of Allergies

Babies gets their first “inoculation” of gut flora from their mother's birth canal during childbirth. If the flora is abnormal, the baby’s flora will also be abnormal; whatever organisms live in the mother's vagina end up coating the baby’s body and lining his or her intestinal tract. According to a recent analysis of previous clinical trials, women who take probiotics—i.e. healthy bacteria—during pregnancy reduce their child’s risk of developing allergies. Unfriendly flora can also predispose babies to Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), of which allergies are just one potential outcome. Other health problems associated with GAPS include autism, learning disabilities, and a number of other psychological, neurological, digestive, and immunological, problems.

As reported in a Reuters article: “Since allergies and asthma both spring from hypersensitive immune responses, several trials have set out to assess the effect of probiotic supplements on those conditions...

[The] team analyzed the results of 25 trials of supplements given during pregnancy or within the first year of a child's life. All of the studies compared mothers and babies randomly assigned to take probiotics with those given placebo supplements. Participants were given probiotic doses daily, and in some cases more than daily, for a few months to a year. The trials tracked whether kids went on to test positive for common allergies - such as peanut or pollen allergies...

Babies who were exposed to probiotics in the womb and received supplements after birth had a 12 percent lower risk of allergies in the following months and years than kids in the comparison groups. But allergy risk was not reduced when babies were started on probiotics after birth only.”

How Allergies Are Related to Poor Gut Health

A condition known as “leaky gut” occurs when gaps develop between the cells (enterocytes) that make up the membrane lining your intestinal wall. These tiny gaps allow substances, such as undigested food, bacteria and metabolic wastes that should be confined to your digestive tract to escape into your bloodstream - hence the term leaky gut syndrome.

Leaky gut syndrome can be a contributing factor to allergies, which can help explain why children with healthier gut flora have a reduced risk of developing allergies. Even more significantly, pathogenic microbes in the baby’s digestive tract can damage the integrity of his or her gut wall. This can allow all sorts of toxins and microbes to flood his or her bloodstream, which can then enter his or her brain and disrupt its development.

Breastfeeding helps protect your baby from this abnormal gut flora, which is why breastfeeding is so crucial to your child’s health. No infant formulas can do this.

Leaky gut is also associated with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, as well as celiac disease. Once the integrity of your intestinal lining is compromised, and there is a flow of toxic substances "leaking out" into your bloodstream, your body experiences significant increases in inflammation.

“Healing and sealing” your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms. The key lies in altering your diet to eliminate offending foods, such as grains and processed foods, and introduce healthier ones that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut. To restore gut health, and prevent leaky gut from occurring, eating traditionally fermented foods is essential.

Fermented Foods Can Help a Baby Avoid MAJOR Health Problems

Providing abundant probiotics in the form of fermented foods is one of the most powerful ways to restore a baby’s beneficial gut flora.

Raw organic grass-fed yogurt is well tolerated by most infants and children. It’s best to make your own yogurt at home from raw organic milk, and start with a very tiny amount (I get my raw organic milk from www.gazegillorganics.co.uk in bulk and freeze it). Once yogurt is well tolerated, then start introducing kefir. If you have any problems with dairy, you can substitute vegetables fermented with yogurt culture or kefir culture. Avoid commercial yogurt as these are laden with sugars that feed pathogenic bacteria—the exact opposite of what you’re looking for. If you don’t want to make your own, make sure you get a good plain organic yogurt and add your own fruit.

To learn more about introducing fermented foods to your newborn, I recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's book, 'Gut and Psychology Syndrome', which has a large recipe section for fermenting your own foods at home and using them to benefit all members of your family. If you have a baby with a severe condition, then the addition of a high-quality probiotic supplement might be needed.

There have been more probiotic studies involving adults than those with children, and even fewer with infants. Unfortunately, precious little research has been devoted to the study of probiotics for neonates, especially extremely low birth weight neonates (ELBW), but scientific studies thus far are very promising. One study in particular, published in BMC Medicine in 2011 by the Department of Neonatal Pediatrics in Nepean Hospital along with several other Australian hospitals, brings us closer to important evidence-based guidelines for the use of probiotics with preterm neonates.

That said, probiotics have been shown to provide a number of benefits to infants and children. For example, daily supplements of probiotic foods may reduce a child’s risk of eczema by 58 percent, according to one study. Another study found that a daily dose of Lactobacillus reuteri can help improve colic.

Probiotics Prove Beneficial for Non-Gut Inflammatory Disorders as Well

Other recent studies confirm the importance of your gut health for health problems such as psoriasis and chronic fatigue syndrome. One such study, published in the journal Gut Microbes, is interesting in that it’s the first study showing how a single probiotic strain can influence your systemic immune system. As reported by Medical News Today:

“The mucosal immune system protects the internal mucosal surfaces of the body such as the gastrointestinal, urogenital and respiratory tracts. These internal surfaces act as a barrier to the outside world for the internal tissues of the body, which are then further protected by the systemic immune system. There is some convincing evidence that probiotics, or gut-friendly bacteria, influence the development and maintenance not only of the microbial balance inside the gut and the mucosal immune system but also the systemic immune response.”

The probiotic used in the study is called Bifidobacterium infantis. Three separate randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials were included in the study, which assessed the effects of the probiotic on one gastrointestinal and two non-gastrointestinal inflammatory disorders.

In related news, another double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri Prodentis improved the efficacy of standard treatment for chronic periodontitis (scaling and root planing) by 53 percent. According to the featured article:

"By the end of the 12-week study 53 per cent fewer sites (surfaces on teeth) were in need of surgery in patients with deep dental pockets and supplemented by Lactobacillus reuteri Prodentis , compared to the placebo group... After the intervention period it was also concluded that 67 percent of the patients in the placebo group fell into the high-risk category for disease progression, while the corresponding figure for patients supplemented by Lactobacillus reuteri Prodentis was only 27 percent.

Probiotics have also been found to influence the activity of hundreds of genes, helping them to express in a positive, disease-fighting manner. Researchers have documented beneficial probiotic effects in a wide variety of disorders, including:

Inflammatory bowel disease Irritable bowel disease Constipation and diarrhoea
Colon cancer Eradicate H.pylori infection Vaginal infections
Cirrhosis of the liver Hepatic encephalopathy Eczema
Rheumatoid arthritis Depression and anxiety Weakened immune system

If you have concerns about any of the above, please feel free to contact me at jackie@solarhealth.co.uk or call me, Jackie Reader, on 07899 957888.

Good health begins with balance in the body, particularly in the digestive system. 

Inside our bodies there are twenty times more bacteria than living cells, and maintaining the correct balance of beneficial bacteria versus harmful bacteria is a crucial part of supporting long-term health and vitality.  Having the right kinds of bacteria (so-called "friendly bacteria"), in sufficient quantities, is essential for everything from healthy digestion and nutrient absorption, to immunity and defence against infections.

What can disrupt gut flora?  

The delicate balance of healthy gut flora can be disrupted by a range of circumstances, including excess alcohol, a diet high in sugar, poor digestion, stress, exposure to toxins and environmental pollutants.  For the purposes of this article, we will look in more detail at one of the most common causes of bowel flora imbalance - the long-term or frequent use of antibiotics.

How do antibiotics affect the digestive tract?  

In this modern age, antibiotics are arguably prescribed and used far more than they should be.  As a result, antibiotic resistance - a type of drug resistance where a microorganism is able to survive exposure to an antibiotic - is unfortunately now a fairly common phenomenon. 

What's more, one of the most notable effects of antibiotics is their adverse impact on the digestive system and the balance of gut flora - they indiscriminately destroy both good and bad bacteria in the body.  They  work by either killing bacteria or by preventing bacteria from growing - great in terms of bad bacteria, but bad news in terms of healthful bacteria. 

This is somewhat ironic, when you consider that people are taking antibiotics in the first place because they are ill, but their medicine is destroying one of the body's primary lines of natural defence.

In fact, the most important part of the immune system resides in the gut, where Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (special antibody-producing cells) works hard to prevent unwanted micro-organisms (such as bacteria and viruses) from entering the body.  

Of course, antibiotics have their role to play and can certainly be highly effective in resolving bacterial infections.  However, it is important to use them sensibly, in moderation and to support your levels of beneficial bacteria both during and after a course.

Too many bad bugs!  

If your levels of good bacteria fall, you provide opportunistic 'nasties' (like bacteria, parasites and yeasts) with an excellent environment in which to thrive and spread.  An overgrowth of harmful gut flora (called dysbiosis), for example, increases gut toxicity and can result in a number of unpleasant symptoms and conditions, including:

  • bloating
  • constipation
  • diarrhoea
  • abdominal pains after eating
  • wind
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Leaky Gut Syndrome
  • and Candida overgrowth.

This is one of the reasons why antibiotic programmes often result in thrush (a fungal infection caused by Candida overgrowth). 

How to support the good guys! 

 Research has shown that the damage done to the digestive tract by antibiotics can last far longer than was previously thought. 

Stanford University researchers in America analysed the levels of friendly bacteria in 3 healthy adult women both before and after each of two cycles on the antibiotic Cipro.  Following the first cycle, they found that the drug had altered the population of the subjects’  friendly gut bacteria significantly, perhaps even permanently.  Following the second cycle, six months later, they discovered that the effect was exponentially greater.

As such, antibiotics should never be used as a regular ‘quick fix’ for minor ailments and, wherever possible, long courses should be avoided.  Where a course of antibiotics is unavoidable, you can support your levels of friendly bacteria through diet and probiotic supplements.

For instance, many cultures have observed the health-supporting effects of fermented foods (often referred to as "probiotic foods") and so include them as a regular part of their diet.  These foods include kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tofu and tempeh to name just a few.  Including these foods in your diet on a daily basis is a good way to promote healthy intestinal flora.

However, it is worth noting that most of these foods do not contain strains of bacteria that can actually colonise the digestive tract.  Instead, they do good work for a week or two and then pass through. 

Supplementing with strains of good bacteria which can colonise the digestive tract (such as L.  acidophilus, L.  salivarius, B.  infantis, B.  bifidum, B.  brevis and B.  longum) is arguably a more effective and powerful means of supporting healthy levels of gut flora for the long term.

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DYSBIOSIS – THE BAD BUGS!

What happens when your bad bacteria outnumber your good bacteria? Dysbiosis is the technical name for a microbial imbalance on or inside the body; in other words, an imbalance of good versus bad bacteria.

This condition most commonly affects the digestive tract (and, more particularly, the stomach and intestines), but can also occur on any exposed surface or mucous membrane, such as on the skin or in the vagina, lungs, nose, ears, nails or eyes.

Intestinal dysbiosis  

Poor digestion and/or a toxic gut creates the perfect environment for intestinal dysbiosis, the overgrowth of harmful flora in the gut.

What's more, toxic bowels and inefficient digestion can be worsened by:

  • the absence of friendly bacteria
  • and the presence of harmful bacteria and parasites, which are therefore allowed to flourish.

In this way, a vicious cycle is created: an unhappy digestive system - declining levels of good bacteria - increasing levels of bad bacteria - an even unhappier gut.

Not only does dysbiosis make the body vulnerable to the overgrowth of yeast (such as Candida albicans), fungi, parasites and bad bacteria, these kinds of pathogens also produce and release harmful toxins into the body, which can cause disease and compromise the liver and the immune system.

For example, bacterial enzymes can render human digestive enzymes inactive and convert human bile or components of food into chemicals, which promote the development of diseases. Some by-products of bacterial enzyme activity, like ammonia, can even hinder normal brain activity.

Digestive health and efficiency, together with healthy levels of friendly bacteria in the gut, are therefore the cornerstone of good health. And, with the increased prevalence of so-called "superbugs" and antibiotic resistance, and a growing awareness of the role of intestinal bacteria in malnutrition and diarrhoea, this has never been truer than it is today.

Common causes of dysbiosis  

As already mentioned above, the primary cause of intestinal dysbiosis is the overgrowth of harmful micro-organisms, but this can be caused by any number of factors. For example:

  • poorly digested food (with resulting fermentation and putrefaction in the gut)
  • high levels of stress
  • illness
  • a high-sugar and/or generally poor diet
  • high levels of acidity in the body
  • medication (particularly antibiotics)
  • chemical exposure
  • a high toxic load.

All of these factors can disrupt the delicate balance of flora within the gut by, for example, altering the intestinal pH and destroying friendly bacteria.

Dysbiosis and other health conditions  Nutritional medicine places significant emphasis on the health of the digestive tract (which logically includes its levels of friendly bacteria). This is because it is the system through which we obtain life-giving, protective nutrients, as well as the means by which we eliminate waste and toxins which would be harmful to us if allowed to remain in the body. Elements of the digestive system also form a vital part of the immune system.

As such, an inefficient, inflamed or toxic gut can have serious consequences for our health. For example, dysbiosis has been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), chronic fatigue syndrome, yeast infections and rheumatoid arthritis.

Similarly, if you have poor digestion, your delicate intestinal lining can become irritated and more permeable and what is known as "leaky gut syndrome" can develop. In this case, partially digested food particles can seep through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream, straining the immune system and possibly even contributing to the development of food intolerances and allergies.

Common signs of a gut flora imbalance  

If you suffer with dysbiosis, you will likely experience any or all of the following:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • regular stomach upsets
  • recurring yeast infections
  • poor immunity
  • bloating
  • stomach cramping
  • excessive wind
  • indigestion / reflux
  • constipation
  • diarrhoea. 

A diet and lifestyle to beat the bad bugs  

Given the range of possible internal and external factors linked to the development of dysbiosis (as described above), both long-term diet and lifestyle are important in effectively addressing it.

For example, this might involve:

  • Taking proactive steps to improve your digestion and increase your levels of friendly bacteria: For instance, increasing your intake of high-quality dietary fibre, digestive enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics, as well as staying hydrated. Quality fibre can be obtained from natural, unprocessed whole grains. Digestive enzymes are present in high levels in raw fruit, vegetables and leafy green plants (which also tend to be high in fibre). Friendly bacteria can be accessed through so-called probiotic foods, like tofu, sauerkraut, kefir and others. Food for friendly bacteria (prebiotics) which can support their growth, can be accessed from foods such as garlic, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke and more. Of course, all of these nutrients can also be taken in supplement form, for additional support.
  • Improving your diet: Don't feed what you are trying to kill - bad bugs in the gut love sugar. Similarly, don't add to the woes of your digestive system by eating foods that are only going to further inflame and strain it. For example, dairy, meat and sugar are all highly acid-forming and inflammatory. Stay away from highly refined, processed foods as much as possible. Instead, opt for natural whole foods, which tend to be alkalising and contain many of the cleansing and protective nutrients required to support a happy, healthy gut.
  • Reducing your toxic load: Every day, you make choices (important choices) about what you put into your mouth, but also about what you expose your body to. For example, in terms of pollutants and toxins in your environment. Think carefully about what you are absorbing through your skin, what you are breathing in, what chemicals might be in your food or water. By reducing your toxic load, you will not only support your immune system and liver, you will also help to minimise the risk of a toxic gut.

This, together with the steps mentioned above, will give you the best possible chance of avoiding dysbiosis in the first place or, if that is not possible, of at least starting to address the imbalance.

EATING A BALANCED DIET

A 'balanced diet' is a popular topic in the media, on the government's agenda and amongst the health conscious.  Why? Because, it is an essential part of maintaining immunity, a healthy weight and all other aspects of health and well-being through daily access to the broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients required to properly fuel the body.

However, it's not always clear what a balanced diet means in practice or how best to achieve it.

What is a balanced diet? 

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that a balanced diet means different things to different people. Arguably, there are limitless versions, not least because everyone is different. A common misconception is that there is a perfect 'one size fits all' diet that is right for everyone.

In reality, a person's precise nutritional requirements will depend, for example, on their age, gender, weight, lifestyle, genetics, medical history, lifestyle, state of health, environment and numerous other factors.

An athlete, for instance, with high demands regularly placed on their energy levels and recovery processes will have totally different protein requirements to the average person. Similarly, vegetarians and vegans may find that their version of a balanced diet includes higher levels of complete plant protein and plant-based sources of calcium, iron, iodine and vitamin B12.

Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances can also have a significant impact on what a balanced diet means for you. For example, what might be healthy for one person might make another person unwell. Dairy, gluten, soya and nuts are examples of common allergens connected with both allergies and intolerances. Eliminating these foods from the diet as a result would therefore mean re-shaping your diet to ensure that it remained balanced.

Having said all that, there are of course broad principles that can be followed in order to achieve a more balanced diet. As a rule of thumb, and subject to any specific medical advice to the contrary, you should try to:

  • Include a wide range of nutrient-dense natural whole foods, from all the food groups and in balanced proportions, in your daily diet. This will give you the best chance of accessing all of the nutrients required by the body to function properly and efficiently. For instance, essential fatty acids, complete protein (with all the essential amino acids), digestive enzymes, dietary fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals etc. Variety is key and eating seasonally can help you achieve this aspect of a balanced diet.
  • Reduce your intake of sugar and highly processed, chemical laden foods, which tend to supply 'empty' calories. Fast foods, junk foods, ready-meals and other refined carbohydrates and foods are not only nutrient-poor, they also often include so-called 'anti-nutrients' which actually drain the body.
  • Eat a predominantly alkaline diet. Following the two broad principles above should mean that you achieve this naturally, as whole foods (such as plants, fruit and vegetables) tend to be alkalising. In contrast, synthetic processed foods tend to be acidic in the body, which can strain the immune system and lead to ill-health. However, it is worth noting that dairy, meat and certain grains are also highly acid-forming. It is therefore best to eat these foods in moderation, opting for plant-based sources of protein and calcium wherever possible. By eating a diet rich in alkalising foods, you can afford to enjoy the odd acidic 'treat', as you will have the necessary alkalising mineral salts to neutralise them. It is generally recommended to eat a ratio of 80% alkalising foods to 20% acidic foods.

By eating the type of balanced diet described above, you can help to keep your body's toxic load to a minimum. Of course, in this modern age, we are all exposed to toxins and pollutants on a daily basis. However, by being careful about what type of food and drink you put into your body, you can have a significant impact on your toxin levels. For example, by opting for organic produce wherever possible and avoiding artificial chemicals.

The regular intake of herbicides, pesticides, synthetic food additives, preservatives, colourings and flavourings all contribute to toxin build-up in the body. While the liver and other detoxification organs and systems are able to cope with and neutralise many of these, a build-up over time can lead to a high toxic load which can no longer be efficiently dealt with. This can then, in turn, lead to digestive problems, poor immune system, weight gain and all of the problems that come with it (including increased risk of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure etc).

DIGESTIVE ENZYMES – THE STUFF OF LIFE!

Enzymes are clever little molecules of protein that are made from amino acid chains. They act as catalysts (or triggers) to bring about specific biochemical reactions in the body, which produces over 3,000 kinds.

Every process in the body is driven by enzymes of one kind or another - whether acting alone, in combination or in complex chain reactions. They are therefore vital substances - without them, many biological functions would simply be impossible, or too slow for us to survive. So, they are certainly worth finding out a little more about because they play a central role in helping us to achieve optimal nutrition, health and vitality.

Types of enzymes 

If we are deficient in enzymes, this can have a direct effect on the efficiency of important processes in the body, which can become unbalanced, making us more prone to ill-health.

The structure of enzymes establishes their particular function or use. Enzymes produced by the body can be classified into two types: metabolic enzymes and digestive enzymes.

  • Metabolic enzymes are primarily involved in energy production and cellular activity on every level, but they also have other functions - like helping to detoxify the body.
  • Digestive enzymes also have a number of functions, chief amongst which is assisting in the breakdown of food into its constituent nutrients (as the name suggests), followed by the absorption of these. The body uses different types of digestive enzymes to digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates for example.

Enzymes can also be obtained through dietary sources, i.e. food enzymes present in natural whole foods, such as leafy green plants, fruit and vegetables. These assist the body with the digestion of that particular food. For the purposes of this article, we are particularly interested in the role played by enzymes in digestion.

The process of digestion  

During digestion, food is broken down into a simple form that can be absorbed by the body. The process starts in the mouth with the chewing of food, continues in the stomach and small intestine where it is chemically broken down by the digestive juices and enzymes and finally gets completed in the large intestine. Basically, food is taken in, digested to extract essential nutrients and energy and any remaining waste is finally expelled.

Digestion is arguably one of the most important and complex processes in the body, because it dictates our nutrient absorption, as well as our toxin and waste elimination. It also involves a wide number of organs and nutrients. For instance:

  • Organs and other components: the mouth, teeth, tongue, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, rectum, anus and other organs are all involved in the digestive process.
  • Nutrients and other chemicals: such as saliva, hormone regulators, nerve regulators, gastric juices, friendly bacteria, bile, hydrochloric acid and, of course, digestive enzymes.

The efficiency of the digestive process therefore affects everything from immunity and hormone balance, to metabolism, toxic load, general health and well-being.

A digestive system that is sluggish or functioning less than optimally can lead to a number of unpleasant symptoms and conditions, including constipation, imbalanced bowel flora, irritable bowel, heightened toxic load and even self-poisoning. Healthy digestion is therefore arguably the cornerstone of good health.

A bit more about digestive enzymes  

Enzymes work best at a specific temperature and pH and also have specific sites of action, such as the mouth and stomach.

As mentioned above, these enzymes are used to help break food down into nutrients and waste. The nutrient molecules must be digested into molecules that are small enough to be absorbed through the lining of the small intestine. When we don't produce enough digestive enzymes to complete this process efficiently, or there are insufficient enzymes available from the foods in our diet, this can lead to what is called partial digestion.

Food that is not properly broken down cannot be absorbed. It can therefore sit fermenting in the stomach and small intestine, or putrefying in the colon. This can, in turn, lead to increased activity of harmful bacteria and parasites in the gut, along with poor nutrient absorption, fatigue, digestive upset, flatulence, bloating and more serious health issues (including food intolerances and allergies).

Digestive enzymes and health 

In relation to digestion and nutrition therefore, it is essential to recognise the critical role of enzymes and the importance of having sufficient levels of these. However, according to Dr. Edward Howell, each of us has a finite reservoir of enzyme activity.

What's more, the complex digestive process requires a great deal of enzyme activity to extract nutrients from food and translate these into all the various tasks of the body. Factors such as caffeine and alcohol intake, illness, pregnancy, stress, severe weather and exercise can also all take their toll on our enzyme reserves.

Plus, our bodies produce fewer enzymes as we age. By age 35, the production of enzymes in the stomach, pancreas and small intestines begins to decline. Enzyme production in the body decreases by 30% in most adults over 50.

It therefore follows that it is sensible to put the least possible strain on the digestive system and its enzyme reserves, both by eating a healthy diet and, in particular, including a high number of enzyme-rich foods in it (such as raw foods, sprouted and/or fermented foods).

Unprocessed whole foods contain most of the enzymes required for digesting that particular food, which can then help to relieve some of the strain on the body when having to produce its own enzymes. Many people also consider digestive enzyme supplements, to support their digestion.

In contrast, a diet high in enzyme-poor, highly refined and processed foods can place a significant strain on digestion. The body will try to compensate by producing more of its own digestive enzymes to make up for the lack of external plant enzymes, thereby depleting its own reserves more quickly.

Theoretically, the more we can preserve our reservoir of precious enzymes, the better able our bodies will be to protect themselves against ill-health and maintain a healthy balance between activity, repair, immunity and recovery.