Gut reaction: Our digestive system is key to health and happiness

Susan Magee of Synergy Holistic
Susan Magee of Synergy Holistic

HELEN MCGURK digests some sound advice from an Ulster expert in intestinal health

How often do you think about your gut? Not that much? Me either, until recently when I had an illuminating digestive health consultation with Susan Magee of Synergy Holistic in Belfast.

As a topic, digestive health, with its focus on the baser bodily functions, doesn’t really make for polite after dinner conversation, but our gastrointestinal tract is not only the body’s most under-appreciated organ, but the brain’s most important adviser.

Susan Magee, who studied Medicine, but veered towards more complimentary and holistic therapies, is an expert when it comes to nutrition and digestive health, and believes we shouldn’t feel embarrassed talking about it.

An informative consultation with her a few weeks ago has made me see how the health of our digestive system has a direct influence on our mental wellbeing and overall health. Indeed, the gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’ - and, it is indeed, much smarter than I had thought.

‘‘Ninety-five per cent of your serotonin, your happy hormone, is manufactured in your large bowel. A lot of people think it is made in the brain,’’ says Susan.

‘‘In the clinic we would commonly find that people with chronic IBS and chronic constipation are on an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant. What we should be looking to see is if there is an upset in the bowel flora (the complex community of microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts). We would look at introducing good bacteria and fibre to make serotonin.’’

Susan references Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who famously said ‘all disease begins in the gut’.

‘‘Yet modern medicine seems to have forgotten about the large bowel,’’ she says.

My own diet isn’t’ atrocious. I haven’t eaten meat for more than 25 years, but do eat fish - the poncey term these days is ‘pescatarian’.

I try to steer clear of junk food, but, of course, I am not a saint and often fall foul of handy dinner options like pizza and pasta; white wine is my Achilles heel.

But as Susan explains what we feed our bodies is fundamental to feeling well and living a healthy life.

‘‘After you are born, everything your body needs comes from your food, so if you don’t put the right food in, the body can’t make all the hormones and all the things that it needs to function.’’

She maintains that a lot of the reason why we have so many digestive health problems, Type 2 diabetes and obesity in the West, is due to our poor, processed, sugar-laden diets.

‘‘Number one, we don’t put in real food anymore - half the diet isn’t real - real food comes up out of the ground, it comes off a tree, it runs around or it swims in the sea.

‘‘Half of what we are eating is processed, or it’s not real. I say to people Cornflakes don’t come from the Cornflake tree, crisps don’t grow from the crisp bush, you don’t dig up chocolate bars from a field - they are not natural.’’

She adds: ‘‘Your digestive system is absolutely brilliant if you give it what it was designed to do, which is to break down real food, but if half of your diet, or even a quarter of your diet is a lot of processed foods, it won’t work properly.’’

During my digestive health consultation, Susan looked at what I eat in a typical day.

Most mornings I would have overnight soaked oats with almond or soya milk, This is a good option, I am told, apart from the soya milk.

‘‘I’m not a big fan of soya milk - most soy is GM modified and has phytoestrogens (which can interfere with the body’s natural hormones),’’ she says.

‘‘Overnight oats are good because they release energy slowly - if you use proper big oats, that’s a proper wholegrain, so you’re getting nice carbs which are going to feed you steadily throughout the morning.’’

Food stuffs to avoid at breakfast, she says, include fruit juice and fruit smoothies, due to their high concentration of fructose (sugar), boxed cereals, including low-fat options (as they are usually high in sugar), and brown bread - ‘‘it’s just white bread with added malt.’’ Another good option is natural yoghurt and granola, without dried fruit (which is, again, high in sugar).

Wholewheat and wholemeal breads are better options than white.

And she believes baked goods made from white flour are the cause of so many of our health problems.

‘‘White flour isn’t natural - the wheat is taken off, it’s bleached and then used to make bread, cakes, buns pasta, pastries. We fill ourselves with it, so we end up getting these digestive health problems, commonly known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome - with alternating constipation and diarrhoea, or you get crampy after you eat certain foods.

‘‘For a lot of people, I would say, what would cure everything, is if they just stopped eating bread and started eating more vegetables.’’

Snacks to avoid or limit include low-fat yoghurts and fruit, because of the sugar content.

This might surprise some readers as we are often told to include more fruit and vegetables in our diet.

‘‘I am not against fruit - but I think we need to watch the amount we eat. A great snack is hummus, as it has all the good oils and fats, and carrot sticks.’’

Obesity and Type II diabetes are now huge health problems in Northern Ireland.

Susan believes larger plates are part of the problem as we are serving ourselves bigger portions on great expanses of china - in the modern kitchen 28cm has become a normal diameter for a dinner plate, which in the 1950s would have been 25cm.

‘‘Because we are eating from big plates about one and a half times more food is going in, that’s why 50 per cent of the population is obese. We have all been brought up with that ‘clear your plate’ mentality - so we’ll eat it, even though we’re full, so all those extra carbs end up around our middles.’’

‘‘In this country half our evening meal is carbs - potatoes, a big plate of pasta, a big bowl of rice, some meat and a little veg. And then, quite often, we’ll eat loads because we have time to eat more - we’ll overeat. The size of your stomach is the size of your fist - that’s the amount that should fill it.’’

I would normally have a sandwich or salad for lunch - the former isn’t a great option, I’m informed, as there can be up to eight teaspoons of sugar in two slices of bread.

Dinner is generally fish or pasta, rarely processed and hardly ever any takeaways.

Susan advises me to try to eliminate what processed foods I do have and replace white pasta with wholegrain pasta, but importantly, she doesn’t approve of faddy low-fat diets.

She says: ‘‘You have to keep good fats, those from nuts and seeds, avocados, fish.’’

I also suffer from bloating on occasion, which Susan thinks may be due to a yeast overgrowth in my gut.

‘‘If you bloat when you eat, the yeast is reacting to something that you are eating so it starts to ferment and it creates the gas,’’ she explains, recommending I take a probiotic.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that have health benefits when consumed, including improving digestive health, reducing depression and promoting heart health. Some evidence even suggests that they may give you better looking skin.

Yoghurt is one of the best sources of probiotics, kefir (you may have seen this is your local supermarket), is a fermented probiotic milk drink, and is also recommended by Susan.

Of course, the key to any good diet is planning.

‘‘Know what you are going to have for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner, because then you won’t put the rubbish in, or you won’t reach for the rubbish.

‘‘When you go into a supermarket it’s usually all the vegetables, and then you walk round the corner and there’s the meat and the fish - that’s all you need to go to, and once a month stock up on your rice and your wholewheat 
pastas or whatever.

‘‘Root vegetables, like sweet potato, carrots, parsnips are all the lovely complex veg with fibre and lots of nutrition. White potatoes are just starch and no fibre if you take the skin off - if you are going to have potatoes have baby boiled and keep the skins on because you get a better ratio of fibre to starch then.’’

Since my consultation with Susan a few weeks ago I have made a few tweaks to my diet. I’m including more green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, have started taking more natural yoghurt, have cut back on ‘normal’ tea in favour of peppermint (which is good for digestion) and have swapped my glass of white wine for red, which has more heart health benefits. I have also cut out white carbs.

I can honestly say I feel so much better. I seem to have more energy, my bloating has diminished, as have a few unwanted pounds.

Pardon the pun, but it takes guts, and willpower, to make changes to your diet - but I found these tweaks were really easy. It’s just common sense really.