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A healthy gut feeling

"All disease begins in the gut" claimed Hippocrates. Modern medicine is beginning to agree with him. David Hughes reports

Nobody used to talk much about guts, apart from the type needed to storm a beach on D-Day.

We had gut reactions, of course, and gut instincts, which hinted that this obscure part of our body might play a direct role in how we think and feel; but until recently the remarkable scope of gut health on physical and mental wellbeing was unknown.

Now, the market is flooded with books on how to make the most of our gut, and new discoveries are being made on almost a daily basis. "We were amazed to see how many human diseases might be caused or aggravated by an abnormal state of the gut bacteria," report Dr Robert Keih Wallace and Samantha Wallace in their book Gut Crisis (Dharma Publications, £12.99).

Allergies and asthma are particularly strongly linked with deficiencies in gut bacteria, but there is also evidence that the severity of a stroke- the second leading cause of death worldwide- may be linked to the composition of gut bacteria.

"Two groups of mice were studies, each with a different composition of gut bacteria," says Wallace. "A stroke was induced in both groups, and brain damage was measured. In Group One, the brain damage was 60 percent less than in Group Two.

"the gut bacteria in Group One caused an increase in a beneficial type of immune cell, which helped lessen the effects of the stroke.

"the gut bacteria in Group Two caused an increase in a different type of immune cells, which produced a chemical that can cause harmful inflammation after the stroke. Researchers felt that the result of this study could eventually lead to a new procedure for the prevention of strokes in high-risk patients by altering gut bacteria."

There is even some evidence that beneficial bacteria in the gut might help to delay and slow down the onset of cancer cells in the immune system- another study on mice showed that those with specific good bacteria lived four times longer and had less DNA damage and inflammation.

"Gut bacteria have also been found to improve the use of one anti-cancer drug in animals with cancer, making it twice as effective at reducing tumours," adds Wallace.

The gut and the heart

As with the number two cause of death, stroke, so gut health plays a role in he number one killer- heart disease/

Patients with heart disease have a different composition of gut bacteria than those without. And gut bacteria are not known to have an influence on obesity a major risk factor for heart disease. Another risk factor, high blood pressure, is also affected.

A study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found gut bacteria produce substances that influence the kidneys to help lower blood pressure.

Gut bacteria have also been linked to healthy levels of good cholesterol, and it's now thought that altering gut bacteria might be a way of improving blood cholesterol levels.

Even diabetes, another factor in heart health, may be affected by gut bacteria. Some researchers speculate that Type One diabetes may be caused by an abnormal condition in the gut, while for Type Two, researchers have been able to link the inability to maintain normal glucose levels with specific types of bacteria in the gut.

Trials are underway to test the possibility of probiotics, the promotion of "friendly" bacteria in the gut, in improving Type Two diabetes. 

The Gut Brain axis

Just how central the gut is to good health has been illustrated bu the discoveries of a gut-brain axis, a secondary nervous system which enable direct communication and feedback between the gut and the brain, and allows the gut to produce a vast array of chemical messengers which go into the bloodstream, and act on cells in the brain and the body.

The gut actually produces more neurotransmitters than the brain, including the "feel-good" neurotransmitter serotonin. More than 90 percent of the body's serotonin is formed in the gut.

The optimum gut

Everything we do affects the bacteria in the gut- exercise influences them, as does diet and lifestyle. An industry has grown up based on the latest findings of gut health, with numerous approaches to keep ourselves healthy. Dr Robert Keith Wallace and Samantha Wallace summarise some of the main gut champions in their book, Gut Crisis.

They say, "everyone has their own natural inclination. A meat eater who loves to exercise will almost certainly go for a paleo diet. A vegetarian and yoga asana practitioner may prefer an Ayurvedic diet. And these aren't the only possible choices.

"The important thing is to find a doctor or health coach you like and trust. We can't emphasise enough how valuable this is."

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