It is important to know that most illnesses begin in your gut
By Tahira Ismail
The flu made Sarah miserable. Her body ached and her temperature spiked. She could barely stand and felt as if her world was ending. For her, and many others, having your body break down is considered normal. We all get the flu. But then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which heightened her fear of getting sick so much that just the thought of leaving her house made her anxious and nauseous. All this changed, however, when she started making small changes to her diet and lifestyle, such as eating more vegetables, cutting out gluten and practicing self-care. In other words, creating a new baseline for health.
While trying to regain a sense of normalcy, it’s important to realize that Covid-19 is just one of many illnesses present in our environment. Rather than focusing on the old normal of waiting to get sick, it’s imperative to strive for a new normal in which health isn’t an obstacle. Our bodies are built to bounce back quickly and easily. However, accomplishing this requires a change in one’s mindset and habits. Yes, it’s challenging but worth the effort, for an increased energy level and a stronger immune system speak volumes.
Approximately 70-80% of illnesses can be prevented via diet, lifestyle and environmental factors. While diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diseases might be genetic, personal choices can turn certain genes on and off. Maybe you can’t avoid Covid-19 completely, but how quickly you recover may depend on your daily decisions.
Focusing on one’s gut health makes this possible. Most illnesses begin in the gut (the gastrointestinal tract), where approximately 70% of the immune system resides, mainly in the small intestine. An unhealthy gut equals a poor immune system and vice versa. Additionally, approximately 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the intestines. One of serotonin’s most important roles in regulating mood. Unbalanced serotonin levels can lead to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, whereas balanced serotonin levels mean feelings of calm, happiness and better focus.
Obvious ways of knowing if your gut health is off are diarrhea, constipation, bloating and stomach pain. The not-so-obvious ways are acne and other skin conditions, allergies, fatigue, anxiety, weight gain, autoimmune conditions and more. Essentially, almost all conditions can be linked back to the gut.
Among the multiple steps to repair gut damage and build your immune system, the main ones are adjusting nutrition, addressing stress levels and engaging in adequate physical activity.
Start by looking at what you’re consuming. “O you who have believed, eat from the tayyib things which We have provided for you and be grateful to God, if it is indeed Him that you worship” (2:172). We should be eating halal and tayyib foods, meaning those that are pure, clean, wholesome, gentle and lawful — basically harmless).
Consider how fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods were grown. Are they filled with chemicals and pesticides that can lead to gut damage, cancer and other diseases, or grown organically and filled with nutrients? Were the slaughtered animals raised in a stress-free environment eating foods that are natural to them, or in factory farms on diets that cause disease and distress? If the latter, they would pass on illnesses to consumers. Thus, one can maximize the benefits from food and reduce damage by choosing pure, organically produced food.
One helpful step toward gut health is to reduce or remove certain foods from your diet. The first one is sugar, whose consumption has rapidly grown over the last several years, along with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health issues. The average American consumes over 150 lbs. of sugar per year! Sugar, especially refined sugar, lacks nutrients and kills good gut bacteria, thereby letting bad bacteria flourish all of which leads to gut-related damage.
As avoiding it completely may not always be possible, choose better options. Eating more fruits satisfies cravings and doesn’t cause addiction like regular sugar. Whole fruits also provide vitamins, minerals and fiber. Dates contain disease-fighting antioxidants and fiber to help promote regular bowel movements and may help control blood sugar levels. Honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar are good sugars that may be eaten in moderation.
Processed foods and fast foods also fall outside of what’s tayyib, since they are usually filled with artificial colors, preservatives and chemicals. Try to avoid fried foods, for they cause bloating, indigestion and other gut-related issues and can also lead to inflammation — the cause of all diseases — when consumed regularly.
People are increasingly avoiding gluten, which is mostly found in all wheat products and can damage the gut. The effects can range from immediate gut discomfort and diarrhea to longer-term effects such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies and gut and autoimmune disorders. The wheat we consume is definitely not what our ancestors used; it’s been modified, and its nutritional value has been changed.
Another common gut irritant is pasteurized milk and dairy products. While many may safely consume and benefit from yogurt and some cheeses, others must avoid dairy completely. You can get calcium from sesame seeds and leafy green vegetables.
Optimizing health means eating a combination of high-quality proteins, fats, fibrous foods and drinking plenty of water. Protein is vital for our bodies to function properly. Our blood is made from it, and our nervous system, immune health and ability to repair and recover require protein. Protein sources can be from organic grass-fed or free-range animals, eggs, or plant-based foods, such as seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, sea veggies and leafy greens. A common misconception is that meat needs to be eaten daily. Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) rarely ate meat.
Surprisingly, high-quality fats don’t make you fat! Our brains are 60% fat and need to be fed to function. Healthy fats come from organic animals, wild-caught fish, eggs, avocados, coconut oil, olive oil and other sources.
Fibrous foods slow down the absorption of food, helping to keep one full longer. It also adds bulk to stools, promotes regular bowel movements and prevents constipation. Examples of high fiber foods include non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, beans, lentils, fruits and whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, millet and sorghum.
Water is essential for life. Human bodies are approximately 70% water, so dehydration can cause constipation, abdominal and/or muscle pain, brain fog and fatigue, among other symptoms. Drinking approximately 8 cups a day, depending on your size and activity level, will keep all your systems functioning properly. People confuse thirst with hunger and eat when they should drink, which leads to overeating. Prophet Muhammad said, “No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach. Sufficient for any son of Adam are some morsels to keep his back straight. But if it must be, then one third for his food, one third for his drink, and one third for his breath” (“Sunan Ibn Majah,” 3349).
Focusing on stress levels is ideal for gaining optimal gut health. Regardless of how nutritious one’s diet is, stress wreaks havoc on the body. If stress is not manageable, talk with a professional so you can avoid damaging your physical and mental systems. Self-care or other stress-reducing strategies such as gardening also may provide needed relief.
Since the pandemic began, gardening’s popularity has grown. Exposure to dirt is necessary for healthy bacteria in the gut. Research has shown that gardening has a positive effect on mental health (see J. Environ. Hort. 37(1):30–38. March 2019). Planting a garden can improve one’s mood, focus and concentration. And when vegetables, herbs and fruits are successfully grown, the sense of accomplishment is priceless. Even if the attempt fails, just being outdoors will grant similar mental health benefits. When stress is reduced, blood pressure levels may also be normalized.
Finally, physical activity is another key component in this regard. Abu Hurayra reported: The Prophet said, “The strong believer is better and more beloved to God than the weak believer, while there is good in both” (“Sahih Muslim,” 2664). This refers to both one’s faith and physical strength. Exercise not only improves microbial bacteria and its diversity in the gut, but also helps improve motility or more efficient bowel movements. Exercise is also a stress reliever, for it improves mental health, supports weight management, strengthens muscles and bones, and more. You don’t have to go to the gym every day or run a marathon. Go for a walk, stretch, weight train or do whatever you enjoy — just move.
Improved nutrition, stress management and physical activity can improve gut and immune health, reduce the duration and severity of Covid-19 and other illnesses and improve one’s overall quality of life. Therefore, implementing these elements can make a world of difference.
Tahira Ismail is a certified consistency coach and registered health coach who specializes in gut health. She helps women suffering from digestive imbalances repair gut health, balance weight naturally and regain energy (www.wellnessreclaimed.com)
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