Can a £279 test transform your body?
It promises to leave you lighter, flatter and healthier – but we warn you, it ain’t pretty. Rebecca Newman investigates the benefits of stool analysis
Could it be? Might ‘clean eating’ – with its emphasis on going gluten, dairy, or red meat-free – not be the cure-all we thought? Growing numbers of doctors and nutritionists are arguing that it isn’t – pointing out that spiralised courgette alone does not a balanced meal make.
However, sales of ‘free from’ produce are still soaring as many of us – especially those of us with habitually sore tummies – are persuaded that the path to good digestion is gluten-free.
But maybe now is the time to ditch this self-diagnosis. There’s a new, science-based, gut-friendly eating plan in town, and it could change your life.
‘It is so concerning when people come into the clinic, and I discover they’re not eating dairy, meat or gluten,’ says nutritionist Eve Kalinik. ‘It is misinformed, this vilifying of whole fruits, or of bread – often for the most spurious reasons.’
GP turned clinical nutritionist Peter Cox adds, ‘We see people who are restricting their diet to the point that they become undernourished.’
So what could be better than a way to find out exactly what’s going on in your digestive system, and which foods may or may not be problematic?
Say hello to comprehensive stool analysis. This not-terribly-sexy but very useful test has long been available on the NHS for the seriously ill. But improved technology is now making it a (comparitively) affordable private option, at £279.
‘It isn’t cheap,’ Kalinik concedes, ‘but people can be spending a fortune on Brazilian superfood powders, chia seeds and so on, which their gut may not even be able to absorb.
‘Testing is a far better way to spend your money. Every person is different: you can find out specifically what is causing an individual’s symptoms and work methodically to bring things back into equilibrium.’
Bumbi, a 40-year-old teacher from south London, can relate. ‘I had really bad abdominal pains,’ she says. ‘The doctor kept suggesting I ate more fibre, even though I already had a lot in my diet, and over time there was no improvement.’
Having read about the stool analysis test, Bumbi visited Kalinik to have it done. ‘I discovered I had very high levels of yeasts, which meant I was craving sweet foods.
‘Also, I learnt that microbes such as the lactobacillus family of bacteria [which process lactose, the sugar in milk] were missing entirely, so I was having difficulty breaking down dairy products.’
And this is the nub of the matter: bacteria. Research is focusing more and more on the importance of the flora in the gut: the bacteria, parasites and microorganisms collectively termed the microbiome.
Imbalance in the microbiome is linked to tummy troubles including IBS and bloating, to fertility and immunity issues, to low energy and libido, and to illnesses including Alzheimer’s and arthritis.
Our microbiome is as unique to us as our fingerprint. Hugely important to our wellbeing, it has been dubbed the ‘second brain’. In short, it’s worth looking after.
‘Eve tailored a special diet plan for me, and gave me supplements to help control the yeasts and probiotics to increase the good bacteria,’ says Bumbi.
‘It has been amazing. This time last year, I was a dribbling wreck. Today, the stomach pains have gone. Even the aching in my joints that I thought was arthritis has vanished. I’ve never had so much energy.’
Why might Bumbi’s microbiome have been so out of balance? ‘We are so clean these days,’ Kalinik says. ‘We tend to take too many antibiotics, which unilaterally kill all bacteria. We drink pasteurised milk, even though raw milk is full of good bacteria.
‘We use antibacterial cleaning chemicals. And we tend to eat food that has been processed, instead of the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains that give beneficial bacteria the “food” it needs to thrive.’
Based at London clinic Omniya, Peter Cox highlights the way that the test can be a useful way to debunk psychological concerns:
‘Some people have a strong sense of foods being healthy and unhealthy, and get emotionally attached to “clean” foods. The distortion of their diets to fit what they perceive to be healthy leads to the exclusion of essential nutrition – a condition called orthorexia.’
But Cox is careful to point out that stool analysis is not a magic bullet: ‘The test tells us about issues in the microbiome and how we might address them.
‘For example, if someone has a lack of bacteria such as acidophilus [whose many functions includes battling against pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli], they might temporarily reduce their intake of fibre-rich foods and take probiotics.
‘But we need to interpret the results alongside the social and psychological context: an individual’s general health, diet, habits, lifestyle. The test wouldn’t point to immunological aspects to digestive health, such as coeliac disease, which require a blood test.’
And, of course, you need to be able to bring yourself to be quite intimate with your, ahem, output. ‘It was the most revolting thing I’ve ever done,’ says Christine, a lawyer from Winchester, who underwent the test.
‘I was standing in the toilet gagging, scraping poo into various pots. But the test appealed to me because it’s not faddy. Before, I always felt bloated and exhausted. I’m vegetarian and discovered I wasn’t eating anything like enough protein. I was skipping meals, so my insulin levels were all over the place.
‘I was put on a diet where I eat regularly, and add a lot more fresh fruit and veg, nuts and seeds. It isn’t cheap, though.’
I put this concern to Kalinik. ‘It is all about where you put your priorities,’ she counters. ‘Some people will spend £10 at Pret A Manger for lunch, then go home and spend more on a takeaway.
‘There are simple ways to add probiotics to your diet, such as buying cheese made from unpasteurised milk, like the pecorino they sell in Sainsbury’s.
‘Sauerkraut is one of the best probiotics, and it costs hardly anything if you make it yourself. You don’t want to end up with a diet that is crazy; you want to learn a way of eating that will keep your body in a good place.’
Continues Christine: ‘Now that my gut is working properly, I’ve lost 2st, even though I’m eating a lot of food and it’s all delicious. It sounds so silly, but the test has changed my life. I feel the best I’ve felt in years.’
Top Tips | Get a good gut feeling, by Eve Kalinik
Cooked and cooled white potatoes: a good source of resistant starch that feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Garlic: eat it raw for allicin – nature’s best antibiotic.
Kefir: whether made with cow’s, goat’s or coconut milk, this serves beneficial bacteria directly to the gut.
Miso: fermented soy beans are a great source of beneficial bacteria.
Bone broth: packed with essential amino acids that provide the nutrients to support a healthy and robust gut membrane.
Unpasteurised cheese: full of gut-friendly probiotics.
Sourdough bread: the dough is fermented, so it contains beneficial bacteria.
Sauerkraut: one half-cup serving provides trillions of probiotics.
Fruit and vegetables: sweet potatoes, beets, berries and leafy green brassicas such as broccoli are good sources of fibre and antioxidants to support the gut.
Coconut oil: antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-parasitic, this delicious creamy oil helps fight disease-creating bacteria in the gut.
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