How is your gut feeling today?

We don’t talk about out gut, digestive system, large intestines – small intestines for that matter – as part of everyday conversation. When we do, it’s because something went wrong: indigestion, “stomach bug” (there is no such thing) and other euphemisms are recruited.

On TV, we are told in many ads, that “the purple pill” cures all, that diarrhea / constipation can be remedied by another pill, that fiber comes in a Metamucil container and once dissolved in water, becomes invisible. Did I mention the special yogurts, that have probiotics in them, and cost of course more?

Once again, the rule applies: do NOT buy/eat/consume anything you see advertised on TV. There is so much wrong with all of the above…

But today’s topic will be about the large intestines, the colon, the GUT:

For many years it was believed that the main function of the large intestine was the resorption of water and salt, and the facilitated disposal of waste materials. That’s exactly what I learned in medical school.

Not so: Far from it.

For starters: 70% of our immune system is located in the digestive tract, which starts at the mouth and ends at the anus.

But imagine this: there is such a complex microbial ecosystem in our large intestines, that it should be considered a separate organ within the body, with a metabolic capacity which exceeds the liver by a factor of 100. The human colon harbors a highly comples microbial ecosystem of about 200g living cells at concentrations of 1012 microorganisms per gram of gut content, the highest recorded for any microbial habitat on earth.

The intestinal microbiome is therefore closely involved in the first-pass metabolsim of dietary compounds. What does this mean? Many of the hugely important nutrients like polyphenols and lignans, that we must obtain from plant food, aren’t even present as such in the plant foods we eat, but are synthesized in our large intestines, thanks to that microbial ecosystem I described above. This has dramatic consequences for our health: lack of plant foods along with the destruction of the vigorous microsystem in the gut will certainly lead to disease.

Take lignans for example: these are chemical compounds found in plants (like flax seed). They play key roles in cell metabolism, acting as antioxidants among many other functions. Many lignans are only present as precursors in certain plants, and are converted as the active metabolite in the large intestines. Low lingnan status has been reported to be related to an elevated risk of breast cancer. It is also well known, that lignan status is reduced by antibacterial medications (antibiotics).

A Finnish research study looked at just that, and found that pre-menopausal women using long-term medication for urinary tract infections showed a possible elevated risk for future breast cancer.

As flax seed goes, it is one of the most important oilseed crops in the world. The seed provides oil rich in omega-3, alpha-linoleic acid, high quality proteins, and “lignans” – actually precursors of lignans. In fact, it has the highest content of “lignans” of all plant food for human consumption. But without the “good” bacteria in our large intestines, we cannot assimilate, metabolize and benefit from any of these nutrients.

Flax seed is inexpensive, it comes in brown and gold colors, and should always be bought as a whole seed. Pre-ground seeds have lost a tremendous amount of their precious nutritional content.

At home, use a simple coffee grinder, that you can purchase for around $17.- at your supermarket or Target store. Grind just enough seeds to last you for a week, and store the ground seeds in an airtight container in the fridge.

1-2 tablespoons of ground seed per day should be added to any of the following:

  • breakfast cereal
  • sprinkle on salad
  • sprinkle on cooked veggies or soup
  • sprinkle on fruit

It has a pleasant nutty taste, and blends right in. The seeds should not be cooked, but eaten raw, after grinding. Adding flax seed meal (finely ground seed) to pancake, muffin or cake batters will always enhance the nutritional content, even if high temperatures will destroy some of its nutritional value.

Take care of your gut. It is one of the most important organs contributing to your health and well being. (There are no unimportant organs).

Don’t take your good gut-feeling for granted!

Bibliography:

  1. Possemiersa S., Bolcaa S., Verstraetea W., Heyerick A.: The Intestinal microbiome: a separate organ inside the body with the metabolic potential to influence the bioactivity of botanicals. Filoterapia, Vol 82, Issue 1, January 2011, p 53-66 Presented at the DSHEA 2012 Symposium Chicago
  2. Knekt P., Adlercreutz H., Rissanen H., Aromaa A., Teppo L.: Does antibacterial treatment for urinary tract infection contribute to the risk of breast cancer? Br J Cancer. 2000 March; 82(5): 1107-1110
  3. Singh K., Mridula D., et al: Flax seed: a potential source of food, feed and fiber. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 51:210-222 (2011)