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sliced fruit and vegetables

Good Digestion

How We Eat 

The old adage ‘we are what we eat’ is absolutely true. We need high-quality proteins, carbohydrates and fats to keep our mind, body and spirit healthy and happy. But how we eat can be important too.

Eat with Others for Better Digestion. A relaxed meal with friends or family is one of the true pleasures in life. And it improves digestion! Lively dinner conversations bring us joy, and encourage slower eating. The body digests food better in a calm environment, supporting the secretion of key digestive enzymes. Sharing a meal with loved ones can move you from a stressful ‘fight or flight’ state to a relaxed ‘rest and digest’ state, improving how well you absorb and use nutrients from the food that you eat.

The Obesity-Cancer Connection

In many studies, obesity and cancer go hand in hand, but does obesity itself increase cancer risk? Is obesity a ‘symptom’ of exposures to cancer-causing chemicals? “Obesogens” are chemicals that affect metabolism and how full we feel after eating. Many obesogens affect our hormones, disrupt our endocrine system and contribute to cancer development. 

Toxins are Stored in Fat. Research shows that our bodies protect us from the negative impacts of toxins by sequestering them in fat cells.  Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs, PCDDs/PCDFs and PBBs/PBDEs are of the greatest concern, as they can gradually accumulate in fat cells, wreaking havoc with our hormones. It is likely that chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenol-A, some pesticides and persistent pollutants, contribute both to metabolic problems/being overweight, as well as cancer. Eating a mainly plant-based, nutrient-dense diet rich in fibre paired with plenty of sweat-inducing exercise is the best path to maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your toxic load

Get your thyroid checked. If you’re having trouble losing weight despite your best efforts in the diet and exercise department, consider getting your thyroid checked. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can significantly affect thyroid gland function. This could mean potential weight gain, and less efficient metabolism and digestion.

When to Eat  

Research shows that it’s better to eat the majority of food during the day, rather than at night. This is what our ancestors did. But the advent of electric light extended our night-time activities. With many people working during the day and enjoying leisure time at night, it’s no wonder that night-time eating has become more the norm than the exception. Although there is no consensus about when you should stop eating at night, 3-4 hours before bed is the general guideline. You will get better sleep, and your body will have time to do its many overnight tasks, such as getting rid of toxins.

The practice of intermittent fasting is another way to reduce body fat, and supports the elimination of toxins from the body. Intermittent fasting can reduce cancer risk, improve metabolic health and promote longevity. What does it involve? The idea is to eat only during an 8-hour window (say from 10 am to 6 pm), and fast for the rest of the day. While this eating style is safe for many, make sure to consult a medical practitioner to ensure that it’s right for you.

The Microbiome – Understanding our Bacteria

Our bodies contain trillions of microbes, collectively known as the microbiome. In fact, our bodies contain more microbes than human cells! Mostly made up of bacteria, we rely on the gut microbial community to help us digest our food, and to make essential vitamins (such as Vitamin K) and important hormones including serotonin. 

Our microbiome has both beneficial and potentially detrimental bacteria. It is vital to keep a healthy balance between the two, to enhance the immune system and support good overall health. Collectively, these organisms regulate inflammation and permeability of the intestine, and modulate our immune system and allergic responses. Hormones produced by microbiota can even affect our brain function.

At the undesirable end of the spectrum are  some troublesome pathogens and parasites. When present in  significant concentrations in the digestive system, they can have health harming effects ranging from tooth decay, to a wide range of diseases including cancer.

Laboratory studies show that disruptive changes in gut microbiome species may contribute to colon cancer in mice. A 2014 study linked household dogs with microbes in house dust, hence in the microbiota, and finally also with risk of allergies.

Pathogens linked to cancer

  • Viruses:
    • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) [nasopharynx, Hodgkin’s and Burkitt’s lymphoma]
    • Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1) [acute T-cell leukemia]
    • Hepatitis B and C Viruses (HBV and HBC) [liver cancer, lymphomas]
    • Human papilloma virus (HPV) [Cervical, ano-genital, oral cancers]
    • Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8) [Kaposi’s sarcoma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma]
    • Human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8) [Kaposi’s sarcoma]
  • Bacteria
    • Helicobacter pylori [stomach cancer, lymphoma]
  • Fungal mycotoxins (in contaminated food, and mould in buildings)
    • Aflatoxin B, ochratoxin [gastrointestinal, liver and bladder cancers]
  • Parasites
    • Schistosoma haematobium, liver flukes [bladder, liver cancers]

Growing a healthy microbiome

Research reveals that our microbe balance changes according to what we eat. Fibre-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables support the growth of positive microbes. Unhealthy foods such as processed foods and sugar can cause an overgrowth of unfriendly microbes.  

To truly understand our microbiome, we must remember that they are alive. Just like us, they need to eat and they produce waste products. In other words, they are also “what they eat,” and hence “what we eat.” We can give beneficial bacteria a boost by feeding them foods that will make them strong and healthy. 

Prebiotics are foods that we can’t digest – but microbes can. Prebiotics contain dietary fibre that is not water-soluble, which means it can pass through the intestine unscathed, absorbing and removing toxins from the body. Sources include wheat bran, beans, some grains and cruciferous vegetables. Prebiotics produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the gut, which can prevent inflammation and overgrowth of undesirable bacteria. Prebiotics may be beneficial in prevention of colon cancer, in addition to reducing inflammation and supporting the immune system. 

Probiotics are live beneficial microorganisms. They can be found in live, fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso and yogurt. Probiotics feel right at home in the body, and can survive the harsh juices of the stomach to make it to the intestines intact. Probiotics may strengthen immune cells, speed tissue repair and reduce the size of some cancerous tumours. Some strains of probiotics may prevent cancer, and support anti-cancer therapies. This includes supporting the breakdown of estrogenic compounds linked to cancer.

For a refreshing take on the microbiome, check out this reflection by Michael Pollon,   “Some of my best friends are germs.”