Dr. Karen Wolfe is trained as a medical doctor in Australia and has dedicated the last twenty-five years to health promotion and wellness. Dr. Karen is skilled at delivering complex medical, biological and nutritional information in understandable ways.
Throughout this 3 part series, Dr Karen will be providing her expert advice on various topics to do with health and wellbeing as we age.
With a free downloadable eBook available with each episode!
Here to discuss Gut Health and Ageing is Dr Karen, as part of episode 3 of the 3 part series. During episode 1 and episode 2 Dr Karen covered longevity and vitality, as well as, Ageing and Alzheimer’s.
What is “gut health” and why is it important as we get older?
It can be confusing to people, so I created a model. (Shown on the video) Now this is pretty big, I mean this stomach is not to size, but it’s so you can see what we’re talking about here.
There is the oesophagus (sometimes called the food pipe), where the food comes in and then there’s the stomach and the gastroesophageal sphincter. If you have a hiatal hernia this is what they’re talking about here, if you have heartburn it’s also here; all of these things are conversations about gut health.
Then there’s the stomach that breaks down the food, we have digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid to break down the food. And then from the stomach is the small intestine, which is the first part of the intestine where absorption occurs.
If you’ve heard of something called leaky gut it happens right here in the small intestine, where it’s one cell thick and when you have inflammation or leaky gut the cells are separated and things get into our bloodstream that we don’t want and it creates inflammation.
The rest is all the large intestine, which is huge as you can see. Sometimes it can get all twisted inside of us. Then the other end – you know what happens at this end – and what comes out is a good indicator of how healthy your gut is. There’s a chart called the Bristol stool chart that shows seven different kinds of poo that you have and it tells me something about what’s going on. If they’re like rabbits and hard that’s constipation, if it’s loose and diarrhoea that shows me it’s inflammation, the ideal stool is a nice banana size imagine a brown ripe banana kind of soft, squishy, curved and comes out easy; that’s good digestive health.
I love to show this because this is pretty amazing that we have this whole thing inside of us that does amazing work for us and it is linked to every process in our body.
Are there any obvious medical conditions that can stem from poor gut health and eating habits?
It’s basically every condition you can think of and it includes the mind and the body. So anxiety, depression, skin issues. The skin is our largest organ, so eczema and psoriasis are linked to what’s happening in our gut. As well as, arthritis or any kind of joint issues because that’s inflammation.
Most of our immune system is in our gut, so if our gut is not working properly our immune system is not, so that predisposes us to autoimmune conditions and immune deficiency conditions and mental health conditions. It’s shocking when people realize how many mental, emotional and physical conditions are linked to gut health. And shockingly it’s never asked, do you ever hear a dermatologist asking about how your gut health is? Or a psychiatrist, therapist or, endocrinologist, they don’t because we tend to operate in silos and not consider the functioning of the whole body.
That’s why I discussed the Bristol stool chat, because a lot of people have never thought about looking at their stool and what it tells them about the functioning of their gut, and how that might be showing up as symptoms in the body.
Can poor gut health impact your overall longevity?
Yes of course, because longevity is when cells are optimally vibrant, when they’re operating as they need to for a long time in our life and anything that interferes with proper cellular repair and renewal is going to affect longevity.
The gut is right there front and centre that’s responsible for what is happening in our body on a cellular level. People might have heard of these blue zones which are five areas in the world that have the greatest longevity. So it makes sense that you study them and there’s a book called the blue zones there’s a whole organization that is studying these five areas. There’s one in Okinawa, Japan, one in Greece, Sardinia in Italy, Loma Linda in California.
So in summary, what they notice about these (and of course there’s more to be said about this) they consume mainly a plant-based diet and introduce an active lifestyle into their day. It’s not like ‘I’m going to the gym’, they are active throughout the day, activity is embedded in their daily life. Also, they sleep seven hours a night and they have short naps 30 minutes or less. And they have a big social network community.
So, it’s a very interesting thing, if people are interested you can get information about the blue zones anywhere. But it’s the biggest study on longevity and the most popular, most well-known, where it is seen that in these areas people live the longest.
What are some manageable tips to improve my diet?
It’s not one thing, it’s lifestyle. I can certainly talk about the food we eat which is one thing, but let’s talk about knowing that we all have a certain way of eating that works for us. Some basic principles are to eat mostly plants, reducing animal products as much as possible (these are just harder to digest).
Also, reducing sugar which we talked about blood sugar being related to Alzheimer’s. So, making sure that you’re not over eating refined sugars, reducing processed foods and reducing GMO foods (genetically modified foods).
So these are some basic principles, as well as, gluten which is one that is front and centre. Often when I have people with gut issues I suggest removing gluten all together from your diet just for a week to see what happens and how you feel. And I guarantee that they will feel better because gluten has been genetically modified, gluten contains a protein that is found in wheat that’s used as a thickener and it’s found in everything. From tomato sauce, to canned soups, to of course bread, if it doesn’t say ‘gluten-free’ the chances are any canned or processed food has gluten in it. So gluten is a big one, that once reduced can really help with gut health.
At what age should I start paying attention to my diet?
Well of course it’s never too young, in fact what we haven’t talked about is a thing called your microbiome. So we have more microbes living inside our body than we do human cells, and the gut holds a big preponderance of those. So this is all completely against the germ theory, when I went to medical school all germs were bad and we had to use antibiotics, now we’re saying that we have germs that actually do important functions in our body.
It starts at birth when a baby comes down the vaginal canal, it gets a big injection of the microbiome as part of its immune system. So if a baby has a c-section and does not get that, there are ways that we can give that baby microbes to help support and begin the microbial population of that baby. So, from birth this microbiome is so important, the balance of microbiome and the microbiome in the gut needs diversity so when you eat a lot of processed food, refined sugar or a lot of gluten, the bad bugs predominate.
It’s like a whole new organ that we’re talking about and affects every branch of medicine from mental health to gut health, every part of medicine is talking about the role of the microbiome. So when you feed your body good food, you’re feeding the microbes good food, so you’re helping with the diversity.
If you haven’t heard about the microbiome it’s a fabulous and very important topic, and a good reason to include some probiotic foods and fermented foods in your diet. Plants and fibre are also good foods for a good healthy microbiome, so we’re introducing this in every conversation we have around gut health.
If I’m new to this, where should I get started?
It’s such a big area that includes mental and emotional health, I would say the eBook I’m the most proud of is my ‘Gut Matters’ eBook and it’s drkarenwolf.org/gutmatters. It’s 50 pages of beautiful graphics and an explanation of the microbiome and four areas to focus on when you want to clean up your gut.
Covering the removal of things that are in the way of a healthy gut, such as gluten, replacing digestive enzymes and re-inoculating your body i.e. your microbiome and repairing damage. So it’s all laid out in the eBook, I also talk about psych biotics, the specific strains of these microbes we’re using in psychiatry mental health. It’s such a fascinating area that is in its infancy but a lot of functional psychiatrists are actually specifically using certain probiotics for certain mental health conditions.
There’s a lot to learn about that field but what I have discussed is a good beginning and my ‘Gut Matters’ eBook starts to explore the digestion of this topic and taking action, because I always talk about action being a health coach and give you specific ideas on diet and lifestyle.