For decades health practitioners have been recommending gut cleanses to enhance their patient’s health and wellbeing. But this clinical concept has been given a bad rap from cleanses that promise a quick fix but don’t give the body the nutrients they need. My opinion as a qualified, practising nutritionist is that, when done right, a gut cleanse is an essential step towards optimal gut health.
The gut is the basis of our health – it’s the first line of defense against pathogens, it’s where we digest and absorb nutrients and where we house our gut microbes, also known as gut bacteria. Poor gut health is now thought to be strongly linked to a compromised immune system, malnutrition and poor mood regulation, and plays a role in arthritis and obesity, according to a recent review of scientific literature published in the journal BMC Medicine.
A gut cleanse is a necessary step in repairing a poor gut. Why? A good cleanse will replace foods that aggravate and compromise our gastrointestinal health with gut-friendly foods that do three things – ‘heal and seal’ the gastrointestinal tract; provide probiotics for healthy gut bacteria; and provide fibre for bowel health. Think of the gut like a car. A gut cleanse is like a service, and gut-friendly foods and supplements are like premium fuel.
Who needs a gut cleanse?
Gut cleansing isn’t just for those with tummy issues. Here are 7 signs you suffer from poor gut health:
1. You feel moody, anxious or depressed
Our happy hormone, serotonin, contributes to mood, sleep and appetite, and most of it is made in the gut. As our brain can’t store the nutrient (tryptophan) needed to make serotonin, you need a constant supply from the diet via the gut to help. Foods like bananas, chicken, turkey, milk and eggs are all rich in tryptophan.
If the gut is ‘leaky’ or not functioning properly due to a poor diet, you’re less likely absorbing tryptophan and making serotonin, potentially leaving you feeling moody, anxious or depressed.
2. You feel stressed
An unhealthy gut is unable to support you in times of stress due to low numbers of good bacteria. When you’re stressed, levels of the hormone cortisol in the body increase, which can lead to depression and other health conditions over time.
Eating a healthy diet can help increase the number of good bacteria (bifidobacteria), which have been found to reduce cortisol in your system and support the management of stress.
3. You suffer bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, pain or excessive gas
The most common signs of gut dysbiosis or poor gut function are bloating, gas, pain, diarrhoea and constipation.
When the balance of bacteria in the gut is upset – or the health and diversity of the intestinal ecosystem is off – the gut displays symptoms such as bowel irregularity or gas to signal that something is not right. Talk to your doctor if you are worried.
4. You have sugar cravings
Eating a diet high in refined sugar and processed foods can feed the bad bacteria in your gut, boosting their numbers. This imbalance can lead to more sugar cravings as the bad bacteria thrive on sugar to live.
High levels of bad bacteria may see them feeding on your gut wall, causing molecules to ‘leak’ through into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation in the body. Inflammation has been linked to most chronic diseases including cancer.
5. You’re always sick
Frequent illness or infections are signs of compromised gut function.
Having a diverse diet rich in plant foods like vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and legumes can help feed the good bacteria, boosting their populations and boosting your immunity.
6. You have food intolerances
Food intolerances are different to food allergies, which are caused by an immune system reaction.
Food intolerances are not life threatening but can affect the quality of your life in that they cause symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhoea, pain, nausea or even skin problems and headaches. It is thought that the quality and balance of the gut bacteria may have some part to play.
7. Your poo doesn’t look right
A good rule of thumb when it comes to your bowels is that ‘normal’ can look like anything from going to the bathroom three times per day to three times per week. It is different for everyone.
If you are worried or if something has changed, then talk to your health professional.
If you’re experiencing any of these problems…
There are common mechanisms at play with these symptoms – inflammation, poor nutrient absorption and cell dysfunction, all of which are directly influenced by the function and health of your gut.
If you are struggling to lose weight I’d also recommend a cleanse. The latest research suggests that an unbalanced and unhealthy gut microbiome, caused by a poor diet and overuse of antibiotics, produces toxins called lipopolysaccharides (LPS), triggering inflammation and insulin resistance, which then promotes weight gain. We often we focus on kilojoules for weight loss, but the truth is, without a healthy gut, weight loss can be a battle.
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.
What’s involved in a gut cleanse?
A gut cleanse is essentially eating a clean diet of unprocessed, unrefined gut-friendly foods as well as some gut-friendly supplements. For more serious health complaints, commit to a four-to six-week cleanse, for general wellness opt for two weeks. If you currently eating a high-sugar, low-vegetable diet, you may experience fatigue, a change in bowel motions, mental fogginess and skin eruptions. These symptoms tend to subside after three to five days.
How often should you cleanse?
This depends on your symptoms but generally you should commit to a cleanse once or twice a year, under the care of a health professional. Post-antibiotic treatment is a must, as you need to nourish the gut and replace all of the healthy bacteria that’s been wiped out by antibiotics. After holidays is also a good time to cleanse as alcohol and treat foods wreak havoc on gut bacteria and gut lining. Post-cleanse you should continue to include gut-friendly foods and nutrients as a part of your regular diet.
Before your start a gut cleanse
Consult with an accredited health care practitioner. This is especially important for pregnant women and those with serious health conditions. During the cleanse, if you experience any pain or discomfort, stop and seek medical advice. Don’t cut any food group from your diet long-term without specific medical advice.
Most of my top food picks are not part of the regular Australian diet, so head to the shops and buy these items before you begin your cleanse:
- Apple cider vinegar (this stimulates digestion)
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, coconut kefir yogurt, kombucha, kimchi (these foods promote a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut)
- Turmeric powder (this has great anti-inflammatory properties)
- Fresh ginger (to aid in digestion and nausea)
- Psyllium husk (a great source of fibre for bowel function)
- Cabbage, kale, broccoli and other brassica vegetables (these enhance detoxification and are a good source of fibre)
I recommend taking a combination of six different supplements during a gut cleanse. Your health practitioner will confirm which ones are right for you.
- Probiotic powder or capsule – this promotes healthy gut bacteria. Look for one that contains at least 15 million CFU and includes Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains.
- Aloe vera and spirulina green powder – these both promote gut cleansing and repairing.
- Glutamine powder or capsule – this strengthens and supports gut lining.
- Digestive enzymes capsules – these promote optimal food digestion and nutrient absorption.
- Fish oil capsules – these have great anti-inflammatory benefits. Look for 1000mg per capsule.
These supplements support digestion and absorption of nutrients, protect and heal gut lining and repopulate good bacteria for bowel health. If you only took one, I’d suggest a probiotic as our diets often lack probiotic-rich foods. However, you can still do a cleanse without supplements and improve your gut health.
Gut cleanse cheat sheet
Foods to include:
- All fresh seasonal vegetables, especially brassica vegetables
- All fresh seasonal fruit
- All fresh sprouts
- All fresh herbs and spices, especially ginger and tumeric
- Unsweetened almond milk, rice milk or coconut milk
- Fermented foods
- Apple cider vinegar
- Gluten free grains (rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet..)
- Chicken, eggs, fish, turkey (all organic where possible)
- Avocado, extra virgin olive oil, raw nuts and seeds (including psyllium husk), nut butters, coconut oil
- Herbal tea and green tea
Foods to avoid:
- Dairy (natural unflavoured yogurt is ok)
- Gluten (wheat bread, cous cous, pasta, rye, spelt)
- Deli meats, red meat, bacon, sausages
- Processed/ refined foods (breakfast cereal, canned foods, chips, biscuits, pastries, muffins…)
- Sugar, sweets, milk chocolate, jams, fruit spreads
- Hot chips, burgers, fried foods
- Alcohol, coffee, soft drinks
- Margarine, commercial dressings, sauces, artificial colours, flavours, additives, flavour enhancers & hydrogenated fats
Gut cleanse sample meal plan
Talk to your health practitioner for your own plan.
Water: At least 2 litres of spring water and herbal teas throughout the day.
Morning supplements: 1 serve aloe vera + spirulina green powder + 1 serve glutamine powder in 200ml pure water + 2 fish oil capsules + 1 serve digestive enzymes
Breakfast: Quinoa and grated pear porridge cooked with almond milk and 1 tbs flaxseed meal + 100g unsweetened natural yogurt
Snack: Handful raw nuts + green tea
Lunch: Mixed seasonal vegetable salad with a palm serve size of grilled organic / free range chicken seasoned with garlic, tamari soy and turmeric powder. Dressing 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar + 1 tbsp. extra virgin cold pressed olive oil
Snack: Raw vegetables + guacamole (mashed avocado, chopped tomato, lemon juice, garlic, coriander and seasoning)
Dinner: Palm serve size of baked salmon with seasonal baked vegetables with coconut oil + side serve of kimchi
Evening supplements: 1 serve aloe vera + spirulina green powder + 1 serve glutamine powder in 200ml pure water + 2 fish oil capsules + 1 serve probiotics