We talk to DR ELIZABETH BIGGS of Akesi about her quest for better gut health, the benefits of probiotics and how she went from practising Western medicine to co-founding a Singapore incorporated probiotic company.
How gut health affects your overall wellbeing
Gut health wasn’t a “thing” 20 years ago when Elizabeth was studying medicine at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Though the link between gut health and mood has certainly been known for some time, it’s only in recent years that researchers have really begun to understand how much of an impact a healthy digestive system can have on one’s overall wellbeing.
“It’s really a new frontier, much like the revolution around the human genome,” says Elizabeth. “To consider that the microbial world that resides on us and within us has impacts far beyond the gut wall is really quite staggering from a medical perspective. This is an incredibly exciting area, not only for the researchers in the field, but also for the implications for clinical medicine.”
She says that, while Western medicine traditionally approaches the body from a pathological viewpoint and considers the body in distinct organ systems, Eastern medicine takes a more holistic approach, viewing the body as a whole and the interconnections between body systems.
“Modern medicine has an incredible arsenal at its disposal, which is life-saving. But, we need to do more to stay healthier for longer,” she says. “We need to ask more why questions and target lifestyle and diet to help prevent ill-health.”
A personal journey to improve gut health
It’s these “why” questions that got Elizabeth interested in exploring a more holistic approach to health, including the benefits of probiotics. She was struggling with chronic migraines, recurrent yeast infections and poor concentration, and needed answers. Her instinct told her it was diet-related and, after conversations about gut health with her doctor and a lot of research, she decided to make some changes.
She began taking probiotic supplements, and changed her diet, cutting down on dairy and wheat substantially, and adding legumes, seeds and more plant-based options to the mix.
Elizabeth also began making her own fermented foods such as sauerkraut. Fermenting is the process in which natural bacteria feeds on the sugar and starch in the food; this creates lactic acid, which, in turn, produces valuable enzymes and various probiotic strains. It’s a good way of introducing live, beneficial bacteria species into the diet.
Finding the right balance with probiotic products
Upon making all of these dietary and lifestyle changes, Elizabeth not only stopped getting migraines, but also found that she actually felt better and more energised. Inspired, she and her friend Victoria McKellar founded Akesi, a probiotic and wellness brand with a product range of bio-fermented tonics designed to promote gut health and wellbeing.
“I think people should consider how their diet and lifestyle is disrupting their microbiota – the dynamic resident microbial ecosystem that predominates in the gut,” says Elizabeth.
These microorganisms in our gut play an essential role in digestion, immune functions and brain-gut signalling. In fact, an imbalance in the makeup of the gut microbiota is associated with various medical problems including obesity, inflammatory bowel conditions, autoimmune disorders and asthma. It can also be associated with food allergies and intolerances. Therefore maintaining the right balance is key to physical and mental health, immunity and disease prevention.
The benefits of probiotics
According to Elizabeth, the goal of using Akesi probiotic supplements, along with dietary changes, is to shift the microbial ecosystem into a healthier, more balanced direction. The probiotic powders are versatile and can be incorporated into food. Also, the brand’s probiotic tonics and spritzer are an easy swap for alternative drink options.
“I particularly love our spicy Bio-Fermented Turmeric, Ginger and Black Pepper Tonic. This probiotic tonic is a great anti-inflammatory shot you can have either in the morning to kick-start the day or mixed with sparkling water as a refreshing mid-afternoon drink.”
How to improve gut health – Elizabeth’s top tips
In addition to eating fermented foods and adding probiotic supplements to your diet, here’s what she suggests.
- Plan your week, and carve out nonnegotiable items. These can include your exercise or movement regimes, and your meditation, breathing or relaxation practices.
- Plan your meals and grocery shopping. Lists not only help you to stay on track, but they also help to reduce food wastage.
- Get quality sleep. It plays a huge role in how you feel each and every day, so prioritise it!
- Exercise with a friend, even if it’s a pet. We are social creatures and connecting is crucial.
- As American author Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He is referring to real, fresh and unprocessed food!!
Food as medicine
Armed with proof that making the right dietary changes to support gut health made a difference to her overall wellbeing, Elizabeth was quick to adopt the “food as medicine” philosophy. This is the idea that nutritious, wholesome food is the foundation of optimal health. Of course, this notion has been around for thousands of years. In traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, certain foods are used for different medicinal purposes.
“Living in Asia exposes you to alternative philosophies and traditional practices. It also introduces you to foods and practices that have rich cultural traditions. I believe that the Eastern perspective is more holistic, and looks for connections between mind, body and spirit; this is something we can all learn more about.”
This theory that poor health is connected to a lifetime of poor food choices isn’t a new one. But, it’s something that a lot of people don’t necessarily realise – especially those who don’t look at their health from a holistic standpoint.
“Over time, what you put on the end of your fork is far more important than the genes you inherit. Eating a minimally processed plant-based diet provides your body with nutrients that your body utilises for thousands of chemical processes. There is individualism in that some of us have greater and lesser capacity at absorbing and utilising these nutrients; that’s why different dietary patterns – paleo, keto and vegan, for instance – work for different people. Eating ‘food-like’ substances – highly processed and addictive ‘packet’ food – isn’t good for you and certainly isn’t medicinal. The challenge remains that our food system needs an overhaul!”
What do Elizabeth and her family eat?
So, what exactly would we find in Elizabeth’s fridge? “Staples are eggs, avocado, sauerkraut, coconut kefir and green, leafy vegetables. I’m loving watercress and growing my own rocket – the more bitter, the better!”
And, how does she get all four of her children – Dermot (13), Jessica (10), Lachlan (9) and Darcy (5) – to get on board with these healthy eating habits?
“We have a fabulous healthy eating reward chart, which you can download for free from the Akesi website,” she says. “Of course, persistence and patience are key to any small successes with kids. Palate change doesn’t happen overnight – it’s gradual.”
While there’s no convincing required when her children ask for Akesi’s Bio-Fermented Berry Spritzer, Elizabeth turns to Lucinda Miller’s The Good Stuff cookbook for some great recipes to appease her kids. She and Victoria also have some great go-to recipes for kids on their blog. There’s everything from yummy brownies and pancakes to healthy soups and more.
Find out more about the benefits of probiotics at akesiwellness.com.
This article first appeared in the June 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!