While it’s often thought that the brain plays the most important role when it comes to mental prowess, and exercise merely improves performance, there is a much-overlooked bodily system that’s equally vital. It’s not glamorous, nor is it the most comfortable to talk about, but if you’re looking to improve your competitive edge, you should definitely “go with your gut”.
The gastrointestinal system – or simply, the ‘gut’ – starts at the mouth and ends at the, err, back passage, and its main role is to digest food and absorb the nutrients that the body needs to survive. However, in the past few years, research has shown that the gut, also known as “the second brain”, has a far more significant part to play in health. In fact, it’s the key to mastering your mind and body.
To find out more I visited the lush, tranquil, and very exclusive Rakxa Wellness and Medical Retreat, just outside of Bangkok, to experience their Gut Health Programme. At this luxurious medical centre, which is partnered with Bumrungrad Hospital’s VitalLife Scientific Wellness Centre – specialising in anti-ageing, internal and gastroenterological medicine – I was met by Dr. Nattida Sribuathong, who explained why the gut is so crucial.
“In addition to digesting the food we eat, absorbing the nutrients needed for energy production, and removing waste materials, our gut plays key functions in the immune system, hormone balancing, and the synthesis of neurotransmitters,” she tells me. “It’s been discovered that an unbalanced population of gut microbes is linked to several illnesses, including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, and allergy and autoimmune disorders.”
The body’s population of microbes, also known as the ‘microbiome’, is a collection of bacteria that needs to be balanced in order for the gut to function efficiently. Scientists in Bangladesh recently used research on the microbiome to combat child malnutrition by creating a two-pronged treatment plan – addressing poor absorption of nutrients, as well as providing nutritious meals, to strengthen the children’s microbiomes. Traditional methods to combat malnutrition see short-term results, but in the long term, the children are not able to sustain them. With this procedure, however, they saw the kid’s physiques improve and they were able to maintain the gains, showing just how vital the microbiome is to health.
Apart from the body, gut health and detox also has a huge effect on the brain. “The brain-gut axis describes how our brain and gut communicate,” Dr. Nattida goes on to say. “This communication is bi-directional and involves several complicated routes, including the neurologic pathway, the endocrine pathway, the immunological pathway, and the humoral/metabolic pathway [bacterial metabolites and products]. Emerging research has indicated that gut microbiota has a significant impact on the brain-gut axis. Gut dysbiosis, which is characterised by increased intestinal permeability, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, and depression.”
With all this in mind, I decided to try a new approach to my overall wellness and seek treatment specifically for my gut. While visiting Rakxa I opted for the ‘Traditional Thai Ya-Pao Detoxification Therapy’, a holistic treatment that’s part of the Gut Health Programme. Under the supervision of a Chinese medicine doctor, it starts with an abdominal massage to clear out blockages, increase blood flow, and encourage the circulation of the lymphatic system. A heady blend of herbs was then burned on my abdomen, with the heat and herbs removing the excess air that causes bloating and cramping. This process was repeated, and while it sounds unpleasant, it was actually incredibly relieving and soothing. I left with a flatter abdomen and feeling much lighter.
I then took a tour to see how else my gut health could be supported. Rakxa’s Gut Health Programme is integrative, including both medical and holistic elements, such as a food intolerance test, probiotic replacement therapy, nutritional regime and colonic hydrotherapy, as well as ZenNaTai, Chi Nei Tsang and traditional Thai Ya-Pao. After an initial conversation with a doctor, a personalised programme is created according to a patient’s needs, with additional treatments that are delivered seamlessly during a seven or 10-day stay in one of the beautiful villas (privacy is a prime focus at Rakxa).
Of course, there are also ways of managing your gut health at home too, and Dr. Nattida’s four-fold advice starts with diet. “First, I would recommend fibre- and probiotic-rich foods. Fibre encourages the proliferation and diversity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Probiotics are living bacteria and yeasts found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, and kombucha.”
In addition, hydration is recommended. “Drink plenty of water,” Dr. Nattida adds. “The human body is made up of a substantial amount of water and being hydrated is essential for numerous processes to take place, including the elimination of waste products,”
“Third, exercise often. Exercise increases the amount of oxygen in our circulatory system and brain, boosts our core body temperature, and redistributes blood flow, all of which promote the proliferation of bacteria in our microbiomes.”
And finally, Dr. Nattida suggests finding tools for easing stress. “Stress should be well managed. Stress affects our mental as well as our bodily health. Anxiety and depression are influenced by the gut, and vice versa, and they can raise the risk of IBS, and persons with IBS are more likely to suffer from these mental health issues. Managing your mental health and stress levels through breathing exercises, music therapy, a daily walk, yoga practice, and other approaches, may aid in the reduction of unpleasant GI symptoms, and the restoration of your body’s balance.”
With so many detox and wellness tools out there marketed towards pushing our bodies to their limits, it’s clear that among them all, gut health is foundational to performing at our best.
“The gut plays a huge role in the health and well-being of our bodies,” Dr. Nattida says. “There’s no doubt that maintaining good gut health can help improve mental and physical health since they all have connections. And by improved nutrient absorption, reduced inflammation, increased energy production, improved mental health via the gut-brain connection, hormone and immune system balance, and improved sleep, a healthy gut can thus help improve our overall performance.”