Rosamund Burton heading
Food as medicine | Nova | July 2007, pp. 26 – 30
There’s increasing support for the idea that the right food really is the best medicine, but less well understood is the importance of our gastrointestinal health. Rosamund Burton explores the gut and how to keep it healthy.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is famous for saying, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”, but perhaps less well known is his other advice: “All disease begins in the gut”.

As someone who has had gut problems for most of my life, but only in the last few years begun to understand the role of the gut in my overall health, I found it an incredible insight to attend the recent Mindd (Metabolic, Immunologic, Neurologic, Digestive Disorders) International Forum on Children in Sydney. The event, accredited by the Royal College of General Practitioners, was organised by the Mindd Foundation established by Leslie Embersitis in 2005 after her struggle to deal with her own children's ill health. Run by a team of patients, medical doctors and health care professionals, it advocates helping children suffering from these disorders by treating the core cause of illness (rather than the symptoms) and by addressing individual biochemistry through diet and nutritional medicine. The basic concept underpinning this approach is that once you feed the cells and reduce toxic load, organ systems begin to work, oxidative stress and inflammation are reduced and disease mitigates or disappears.

A keynote speaker at the conference, Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, a UK-based neurologist, nutritionist and author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome, believes that 85 per cent of immunity comes from the gut, and that gut problems are responsible for the current epidemics in children of autism, ADHD and ADD, asthma, allergies, dyslexia, dyspraxia, learning disorders and social problems.

Doctors, she says, only receive about five hours' education in nutrition during their seven-year-long training, and unless they have a child or loved one, or they themselves are looking for answers they cannot find from medical science, they do not start looking at the role of food and nutrition in a person's health.

“I'm a typical case,” she admits, “because if my older son was not diagnosed autistic I probably would have been a happy arrogant doctor right now doing the same thing they all do”.

Her son was three and a half when he was diagnosed as severely autistic. Campbell-McBride describes how she and her husband spent hours researching and reading everything they could about the baffling neurological condition, which ranges so greatly in severity experts now refer to conditions of “the autism spectrum”. They found the ADA Program, which is a very specifically designed educational program for autistic children, and put their son on that immediately, and also looked into diet and supplementation. A year and a half later, he was able to go to a mainstream school and a few years after that, says Campbell-McBride, was completely recovered. Today, aged 14, he is leading a normal life.

According to recently released figures from the Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders, one in every 120 Australian children suffers from autism, while the rate of ADHD in our nation's children is seven per cent. The huge growth of cases of these disorders globally has led doctors to describe the situation as being of epidemic proportions.

In the face of such a disturbing trend, it was phenomenally encouraging to hear from Dr Campbell-McBride that 50 per cent of the autistic children between the ages of three and five brought to her Cambridge clinic and whose parents have followed her guidelines have recovered completely. In all cases, says Campbell-McBride, there has been noticeable improvement. She also treats children with childhood epilepsy and has had successful results with coeliac disease. Her adult patients include individuals with chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease.

So what is the common problem underlying this host of disorders from autism to asthma to multiple sclerosis? Dr Campbell-McBride calls it “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” and the cause, she suggests, is severe digestive disorder. The problem can start with something called gut dysbiosis in the mother. Apparently, 60 per cent of women having children today have abnormal gut flora. This is caused by overuse of antibiotics, the contraceptive pill and too many refined carbohydrates in the diet. It means these women have insufficient beneficial microbes and an abundance of pathogenic microbes in their gut, and these microbes often get passed on to their baby.

When the gut flora is out of balance, large proteins, such as casein in milk and gluten in wheat, are difficult to break down, and these substances get absorbed as a chemical structure which causes significant behavioural and attention issues. Dr Campbell-McBride recommends the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for a period of two years. All grains, starchy vegetables, processed foods, sugar and milk (unless fermented) are off the menu.

“You don't have to follow it for life,” she stresses about the diet. “I require that people do it for two years minimum because that is a safe period of time for things to settle and be permanent”.

The diet was devised by an American paediatrician, Dr Sidney Haas, in the first half of the 20th century. Dr Haas spent many years researching the effects of diet on coeliac disease and other digestive disorders. He treated over 600 patients with excellent results – after a year on the diet they completely recovered and had not relapsed.

The diet includes plenty of homemade fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, yoghurt and fermented fish and vegetables to restore the good gut flora, meat (including organ meats), and nuts, and also freshly made fruit and vegetable juices first thing in the morning to help detoxify the body.

She recommends that supplementation be kept to a minimum, but suggests a probiotic, essential fatty acids, cod liver oil for vitamin A, digestive enzymes and a multi vitamin.

Another advocate of fermented foods is Sally Fallon, an American nutrition journalist, author of Nourishing Traditions and founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Weston Price was an American dentist who, in the 1930s, travelled around the world studying the effects of traditional diets on the mental and physical health of different ethnic groups. He was able to assess the state of a person's health by their teeth and their face bones. He discovered that not only did the Western diet cause tooth decay, but also led to more poorly formed teeth and even a change in the bones of the face. After studying African tribes, a remote community in Switzerland and Australian Aboriginals, he concluded that, when diets remained traditional, virtually every individual had genuine physical perfection, a cheery nature and an almost complete absence of disease.

His key finding was these traditional diets contained four times the calcium of the modern diet and 10 times the amount of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. These were provided by a diet of fish and shellfish, birds and meat, including organ meats, and fat. Eggs and raw milk, not the homogenised and pasteurised variety of our modern Western diet, were also key elements.

Sally Fallon, who also spoke at the Mindd Conference, became interested in the work of Weston Price because of her own health problems since childhood. She describes often feeling tired and also suffering allergies as a child, which meant, she says, she would start the day sneezing until noon.

“The one that almost did me in was candida,” she recounts. “I finally figured out why I had candida – I had learnt to make granola. I made the best granola on the planet, and when I got into writing Nourishing Traditions and found out how traditional cultures soaked their grains, I realised that granola is pretty much raw, it's just baked a bit. It is the hardest thing to digest that you can imagine, and the candida was just doing its job of digesting it for me. As soon as I got off granola, the candida cleared up and it's never come back”.

Nourishing Traditions is a 600-page cookbook which includes a host of recipes for making everything from fermented dairy products to breads and puddings. It also includes how to cook kidneys, liver, sweetbreads and brains (it's not for the faint hearted!), as well as meat stocks. There is also a selection of lacto-fermented soft drinks. As with Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, Fallon stresses the importance of lacto-fermented foods every day to ensure healthy gut flora.

Her husband and four children all follow this approach to eating: “We enjoy our food and my goal is not to tell you what you can't do, but to tell you what you can do. You can have fats. You can have grains. You can have milk. You can have sweet things if they are done in the right way. We try to be inclusive, not exclusive”.

Queensland-based nutritionist and author of the bestseller, Changing Habits, Changing Lives, Cyndi O'Meara, believes that the body has an innate intuitiveness and intelligence and if you give it the right resources it will look after itself. She advocates eating good quality, preferably organic food, which is naturally high in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

I considered myself a fairly healthy eater until I read her book and discovered much of what I had thought to be natural food actually was not quite what it seemed. For example, I thought a tin of tomatoes just contained tomatoes, but most tins of tomatoes contain a thickener. Also, O'Meara adds, many tins nowadays have plastic linings, and plastic is inert and allows chemicals to pass in and out of it.

The 47-year-old mother of three teenagers has conducted her own extensive research into what is actually going into our food and is a great advocate of label reading. But even then, says O'Meara, there are many hidden traps, caused by the “five per cent clause”. This means that a food producer may buy an ingredient such as glucose from another company, and the glucose may contain the additive sulphur dioxide, but the food producer does not have to acknowledge that fact. Current legislation spares food manufacturers the need to declare components of ingredients that make up less than five per cent of a product. As a result, there are many products on the market containing additives that are not declared on the label. For instance, when a product such as fruit juice is marketed with “no added sugar”, it may actually be four or 4.5 per cent sugar, but that does not have to be declared on the label.

Cyndi O'Meara's advice in her impressively grounded book really stands up to scrutiny – she herself has never had an antibiotic, painkiller or even a Panadol, and neither have any of her children. Her father was a pharmacist who believed people were becoming too dependent on medication and decided to bring his children up free of medication.

It was he who taught her the difference between what O'Meara calls “mechanistic” and “vitalistic”. It's “mechanistic” when you have a sore knee and to fix it you are given an anti-inflammatory. But it is “vitalistic” to look at the whole body, your lifestyle, what's stressing you and whether you are getting enough sleep.

After studying science and nutrition both in America and Australia, O'Meara created a philosophy of food and vitalism. Most diets or eating regimes out there on the market, she says, are about how many calories you can have, how many grams of fat, how much protein or carbohydrate.

“I don't address how much. I look at the quality of the food. I believe that if we eat good quality food then that quantity will look after itself”.

Rather than counting calories, she suggests counting chemicals. One of the ways the body rids itself of toxins is through mucus, so a cold, strangely enough, gives the body a chance to eliminate those toxins. But if the body does not have the opportunity to eliminate the toxins, they are then stored in the fat cells. And O'Meara adds her voice to the growing awareness that it isn't just the toxins in our food, but also the chemicals in moisturisers and cosmetics we put on our skin, and other pollutants we are exposed to on a daily basis that add to our growing toxic load. But as soon as a person eats pure healthy foods again, she suggests, the body just sheds fat and, with it, that burden of toxicity.

Much of the food we eat today, she believes, is “mechanistic”. While manufacturers are looking at the components of the food and making sure everything meets the standards stipulated by a scientific model, the increasing gulf between natural and artificial may actually be creating the obesity epidemic we are currently experiencing, together with related problems such as diabetes.

I think that many people, myself included at times, feel we have little control over our health, both physical and emotional, and the ailments we suffer. But maybe it is as straightforward as Hippocrates suggested 2500 years ago and in eating food that truly nourishes our body and soul, we can transform our lives as well as those of our children.