At 23 years old I was diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease called Crohn’s Disease. This was over 20 years ago and doctors then didn’t know what caused it, they just put it down to bad luck!
Fortunately, advances have been made since then and gastroenterologists, the doctors who deal with IBD now recognise that diet and lifestyle play a huge role in the development of the disease. Having researched their findings, here are 5 things I wish I had known that may have prevented me from getting an IBD.
1. Eating 5 a day really is good for you!
A few years ago, scientists discovered we are not alone, that is we are not the only ones who inhabit our bodies, microbes do too! They live on our skin, in our mouths but the majority are in our gut.
These little microbes like to feed on fibre in our gut from the plants that we eat. In turn they produce substances that promote health. The more fibre we eat, the healthier we will be. It’s a case of if we scratch their backs, they will scratch ours!
According to Dr Rob Knight, the creator of the American Gut Project which is the largest study on the microbiome, the single greatest predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in your diet.
From his observations he found for optimum health we need to consume around 30 different types of plants a week. This may sound a lot but if you break this down to 5 different plants a day, or 1-2 different plants at each mealtime it becomes more achievable.
2. Eat real food, not processed.
Processed food is engineered to taste good, but that is often due to the cocktail of chemicals they contain. Whist discussing gut health with host Simon Hill on the Plant Proof podcast, gastroenterologist Dr Alan Desmond refers to two studies that show how additives and emulsifiers work together to penetrate the gut wall and cause inflammation.
The first study looks at maltodextrin, an additive that is added to processed food to add flavour. It shows that maltodextrin helps bad bacteria stick to the gut wall.
The second study shows how emulsifiers such as polysorbate 80 which makes food soft and creamy, helps the bad bacteria get through the gut wall and cause inflammation of the gut.
Conversely, this study also showed that fibre found in plantain and broccoli reduced the transmission of bad bacteria through the gut wall. More reason to avoid processed food and eat more plants!
3. Make it organic or you may be eating weedkiller!
It has become common practice for farmers to use the weedkiller Roundup as a dessicant to dry out conventionally grown wheat to make it easier to harvest. This method is regularly used to harvest other non-organic crops as well.
Once harvested the contaminated wheat is milled and ground into flour to make bread but traces of glyphosate, the active ingredient in weedkiller remain in the flour.
Whilst human studies are hard to find, a recent study on glyphosate exposure on rats concluded that inflammation of the small intestine was induced by glyphosate. Furthermore, it showed that exposure altered the gut microbial composition by reducing the number of good bacteria in the gut allowing the bad bacteria to thrive.
The best way to avoid eating this weedkiller and many other pesticides is to eat organic as much as possible. It may be financially more expensive than conventional food, but you can’t put a price on good health.
4. Stress, how ‘me’ time can help.
The gut is often referred to as the second brain. If we are stressed it can negatively affect the gut. We can often find ourselves in stressful situations and whilst these situations may be out of our control, learning how to manage that stress can be a dealbreaker as to whether we get ill as a result.
In his book The 4 Pillar Plan Dr Rangan Chatterjee describes how a patient of his with Crohn’s disease reduced her symptoms by 50% by taking timeout from her stressful daily routine to have short periods of ‘me’ time.
Today I manage stress by getting up before everyone else in my house to have some ‘me’ time. Taking my dog for a walk and quick yoga sessions on YouTube also help prevent me from feeling ‘stressed out’.
5. Exercise for your body, mind and microbes!
Exercise may act as a preventative measure against Crohn’s disease. A nurses’ health study found that physical activity was inversely associated with the risk of developing Crohn’s disease. That means the more exercise someone does the less likely they are to develop the disease.
It might also have a beneficial effect on your microbiome. It seems your microbes don’t just love it when you eat plants, they love it when you exercise too!
In her book Eat Yourself Healthy, Dr Meghan Rossi discusses how exercise may be linked to an increased diversity of the microbiome independent of diet. She refers to a study that showed the benefit came from sustained exercise over a period of time rather than doing something for a few weeks then giving up.
Establishing an exercise routine you enjoy and sticking to it is key to gut health. If you don’t like running then don’t do it, find something you enjoy. As long as you are moving your body, your microbes will be happy and so will you.
Feeling fortunate that I got an IBD is probably a stretch too far but I do feel it has shaped me into the person I am today, wanting to help others avoid getting this illness or any other disease that is preventable.
If I could give my younger self some advice though, it would be: eat more plants, cut out processed food, eat organic when you can, find ‘me’ time and exercise regularly.
Following these 5 ‘rules’ might have not only prevented me from getting ill; they are really a guide for anyone wanting to live a rewarding, heathy and happy life!
Image 1 Robert Penaloza, image 2 Yuval Yehudar, image 3 Heather Ford, image 4 Kate Trysh, image 5 Victor Garcia, image 6 Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash.