A twist on tummy troubles

Prolific public health advocate and author Professor Kerryn Phelps AM has a strong message for her conservative medical colleagues – listen to your patients’ ‘gut instincts’!

The one-time federal president of the Australian Medical Association and current Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, Prof. Phelps is not one to shy away from controversy over her passion for patient well-being.

Apart from the highly public spat she had with former Health Minister Michael Wooldridge in early 2001, there have been her strident calls for doctors to consider patients’ sexuality and gender issues when treating them.

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“As the AMA’s first woman president, I was able to get the association to adopt a sexuality position to help guide practitioners,” she said.

More recently, she admitted to YourLifeChoices that her new book, The Mystery Gut, is ‘definitely a prod’ to encourage fellow general practitioners to review how they diagnose irritable bowel syndrome.

She believes the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome is too broad and somewhat of a cop out for doctors mystified by patients’ symptoms.

Prof. Phelps’s latest book is dedicated to “all those people who suffer from a mysterious or undiagnosed health problem’’.

“I am fascinated at how the gut affects so many aspects of health,” she said. “We are increasingly making connections between the health of our gut system and chronic illnesses.”

Among conditions she believes have their genesis in the lining of our digestive tract are constipation, chronic fatigue, intractable eczema, anxiety and even “strange neurological symptoms like involuntary movement of limbs”.

After investigating the symptoms of hundreds of patients she had treated, Prof. Phelps concluded that the gut microbiome influenced health more than most doctors  previously believed.

Asked why she is one of the few practitioners breaking this new ground in Australia, she explained that many doctors were overly conservative and stuck to what they learned in medical school.

“Yet we now have an active field of research in the area of gut health and many more pathology tests and microbiome analysis tools that weren’t around when some people were still studying medicine at uni.

“The purpose of my book was to bring together all the current research and hopefully doctors will respond to it, because it is evidence based.

“You have to tread a very careful path between mainstream practice and introducing novel ideas. There always needs to be clinical evidence … and when it is there, as a practitioner you should be open minded.’’

An early adopter of integrated medicine, Prof. Phelps believes that some non-pharmaceutical options and remedies are better than prescription drugs at treating certain gut-related illnesses.

For specific ailments, she prescribes evidence supported treatments such as the elimination of some foods from diets, osteopathy and Western herbal medicine, among others.

Her advice to YourLifeChoices readers is:

  • If your doctor tells you that you have irritable bowel syndrome, check your symptoms against those listed in The Mystery Gut
  • Take that information to your doctor and ask for the tests I’ve recommended. If your doctor refuses, find another doctor and don’t stop looking until one agrees to send you for tests
  • If a diagnosis has eluded your doctor for years, be aware you may have a problem with your gut microbiome and that it can be healed with the right treatment

The book also devotes 50 pages to recipes you can make at home to help heal your intestinal tract.

Prof. Phelps has written three other books on wellness, with the latest written jointly with  colleague Dr Claudia Lee and daughter Jaime Rose Chambers, a dietician. She practises at Double Bay’s Cooper Street Clinic and Surry Hills Bourke Street Clinic, both in NSW. An Adjunct Professor at University of Sydney’s Medical Faculty and Conjoint Professor in the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University, Prof. Phelps was awarded an Order of Australia in 2011.

YourLifeChoices will give away copies of The Mystery Gut to the first five readers who write in to [email protected] and tell us how they solved their gut problems.

The Mystery Gut, published by Pan Macmillan Australia, is available in book stores. RRP $34.99

Written by Olga Galacho


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