Gut health, it’s the new hot topic in health. It’s kinda gross…and totally fascinating.
While the health industry is buzzing with probiotic yogurts and kombucha drinks, all these miracle claims can make you feel overwhelmed or skeptical. The field of gut health (despite it’s unfortunate name) is serious.
You have a whole other brain inside your intestines, capable of controlling your mood, focus, and even your behavior. Equipped with over 100 million neurons, your gut is one of the most influential systems of the body.
This is not just about poop. This is about whole body wellness.
Here’s how to get a healthy gut…
Why Is the Gut So Important?
“The gut,” a.k.a your gastrointestinal tract, is defined by the entire tube running from your mouth to your anus – including the stomach, colon, and all the helpful (and harmful) bacteria along the way. What does it do?
- Digests food
- Identifies and expels toxins
- Identifies and kills off allergens, viruses, and infection
- Extracts nutrients, vitamins, and minerals and releases them into the bloodstream
- Healthy bacteria lines your intestinal walls to keep out harmful pathogens – they’re the only barrier between toxins and the bloodstream
The Gut Is Your “Second Brain”
The gut’s nervous system, sometimes called your “second brain,” contains over 100 million neurons that run the length of the gastrointestinal tract.
These neurons send signals independently of the brain in your head. They decide when to shift food from stomach to the intestines, when to release hormones, when to expel waste, and even when to vomit (thus, why you can’t compel yourself not to throw up – your second brain says “This must go!”).
What’s All This About “Gut Flora”?
Impaired gut flora = Inflammation = Disease
Your gut contains your personal bouquet of “flora”—which is a nice way of saying “giant bacterial colony.” Both “good” and “bad” bacteria live happily in there, and when gut health is optimal, Kris Carr writes, “about 80-85 percent of bacteria are good guys and 15-20 percent are bad guys.”
When your gut is in tip-top shape […] you feel great, your body is strong and nimble, you rarely get sick, your energy is consistent, and you poop like a champ.
When there’s too much bad bacteria, however, you start feeling crappy. Imbalance usually manifests as digestive issues—which seems like an obvious correlation. But there is a whole host of other problems caused by the inflammation-causing bad bacteria that you’d never suspect:
What an unhealthy gut feels like:
- Digestive issues: including (but not limited to) gas, bloating, heartburn /GERD, constipation, diarrhea, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- Mood/Focus issues: depression, brain fog, and that mid-afternoon slump
- Skin conditions: eczema/psoriasis, acne, rashes and other skin conditions
- Allergies and asthma
- Autoimmune dysfunction such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, among others).
- In fact, research is finding that the major indicator of autoimmune disease development is the health of your intestinal barrier.
What’s Causing Imbalance?
Everything we eat—including food (duh), supplements, and medications—affects our crop of gastrointestinal flora.
When things get out of whack, there isn’t enough good bacteria coating our intestinal walls to block the bad stuff (i.e. viruses, toxins, free radicals) from passing through the gastro tract membrane and into the bloodstream.
This has been dubbed “leaky gut” syndrome (again with the unfortunate name).
Chris Kresser explains, “Researchers have identified a protein called zonulin that increases intestinal permeability in humans and other animals. [They] found that many, if not most, autoimmune diseases – including celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease – are characterized by abnormally high levels of zonulin and a leaky gut.”
What Hurts the Gut:
- Stress, especially high levels of chronic stress
- Refined carbs and sugars
- Toxins, pesticides, pollution, fillers and coloring
- Imbalance of omega 6’s to 3’s
What Helps Rebalance?
The field of gut health is relatively new, so research will continue to illuminate how our lifestyle influences healthy gut flora. In the meantime, this is what we know: fermented and raw foods help repopulate the good bacteria and fight off the bad.
Here are the major players:
- Probiotics – live bacteria and yeast usually found in yogurt and fermented foods, but are now offered in supplement form. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most common strains.
- Fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, soaked grains, kefir contain many strains of probiotics.
- Bone broth has been found to contain anti-inflammatory and gut-healing proteins, along with healthy fats, and many vitamins and minerals. The gelatin might also help restore and strengthen the gut’s mucosal lining.
- Raw milk – found to have higher antimicrobial properties than pasteurized milk, as well as higher levels omega 3 fatty acids and healthy fats. Read the full article on the pros and cons of raw milk from Chris Kresser here.
- Raw coconut oil + grass fed butter – known for their antimicrobial properties and immune system boosting proteins and enzymes. We sing the praises of grass-fed butter, get on it!
- Soaked grains – the soaking process ferments the germ in the bran, making it easier to digest and more nutritious. According to the Weston Price Foundation, the fermentation also neutralizes the phytic acid, naturally found in grains and beans, which blocks the absorption of calcium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. Fermentation also neutralizes enzyme inhibitors and breaks down gluten, sugars, and other difficult to digest elements in grains and beans.
I Think My Gut Needs Rebalancing. How to Get a Healthy Gut:
If you’re experiencing major digestive issues, severe allergies, or just post-meal brain fog, consider doing some experiments such as:
- Consider a flora overgrowth elimination diet.
Dr. Allison Siebecker put together a wonderful (and exhaustive) resource on all the elimination diet options here. Dr. Mark Hyman has a good beginner step-by-step here.
- Cut out lactose and gluten.
These are the most aggressive on your gut, and the first two nutrients you should eliminate to test for food allergies and inflammation (that could be causing a “leaky gut”). Read our article on a gluten-free elimination diet here.
- Try a probiotic supplement.
The Whole 9 blog has a great article on how to ease into supplementation.
The Future of Gut Health
We’ll be sure to keep you updated as this fascinating branch of nutritional science expands.