Our gastrointestinal tracts work hard to keep us healthy and happy. When gut health is compromised, we can face major health consequences.
You have more nerve cells in your bowel than in your spine.
80-90% of serotonin is made in the gut.
At least 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from some sort of digestive illness (not including heartburn), and digestive problems account for nearly 10% of all healthcare spending.
The hard-working gut allows nutrients and water to enter the body while preventing the entry of toxins/antigens. It’s a selective barrier between “us” and the outside world. But a distressed gut can’t act in our defense. Instead, it allows dangerous compounds to enter the body.
That’s where nutrition can come in. The right diet strengthens the gut in its guardian role, improving overall health and well-being.
If your gut is distressed, it won’t perform well and you won’t feel good.
A trip to your doctor might end with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), leaky gut (LG), celiac disease, food sensitivities, bacterial imbalances – or no specific diagnosis at all, since symptoms often overlap and it can be tricky to untangle the root causes of digestive disorders.
Eating enough fibre may play a significant role in gut health. The breakdown of fibre regulates pH balance, promoting the best environment for beneficial bacteria.
A leaky gut may prevent beneficial nutrients being absorbed whilst simultaneously inviting dangerous bacteria inside. This is called bacterial trans location. It can stimulate an immune response or inflammation, and it burdens the brain and liver.
A leaky gut often goes along with conditions such as:
- Type 1 diabetes;
- mental illnesses (including depression and schizophrenia);
- skin inflammation such as acne, rosacea, and eczema;
- diminished insulin signaling; and
Although that is not definitively proven, researchers hypothesize that certain compounds (e.g., gluten, casein) cross the leaky gut and provoke an antigenic response, leading to central nervous system dysfunctions.
What causes a leaky gut?
- the long term use of pharmaceuticals (most notably non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, birth control, and corticosteroids)
- excessive sugar/refined carbohydrate consumption;
- excessive alcohol consumption (although red wine in moderation seems to improve gut health);
- parasites, yeast, stress; and
- environmental contaminants.
Our gut communicates with all cells in the body, which means that disturbances in the gut can show up as disturbances in the brain (and vice versa). As a matter of fact, the brain actually kicks off digestion before the gut — we secrete acids and digestive enzymes before even swallowing the first bite of a meal!
Ever seen some delicious food and started to notice the amount of saliva in your mouth increase?
In addition, our emotions influence gut health.
When you’re afraid, your brain and gut know, and your digestion slows down. Ever had the experience of not being able to eat when you’re feeling especially anxious? That’s because blood flow to the gut are limited during stress.
At rest, the gut receives over half of all organ blood flow, but during exercise, blood flow to the gut can drop to less than 20%.
It’s important to be aware that symptoms of gut issues may manifest themselves externally through seemingly unrelated symptoms such as:
- joint pain;
- sleep disturbances;
- rheumatoid arthritis;
- restless leg syndrome;
- skin irritation;
- night sweats;
- headache and so on.
What causes gut distress?
Quite often it’s the food consumed and what works well for one, may be the issue for another.
These are the four most common contributing factors:
- Lectins: particular types of proteins. The most irritating type is found in seeds such as grains, beans/legumes, and nuts.
- Gluten and other similar proteins found in grains.
- Casein, lactose, and other immunoglobulins in dairy.
- Fructose, aka fruit sugar. People who struggle to digest fructose also often have trouble with other complex carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols).
For some, these factors can increase inflammation. Or they can mimic symptoms of respiratory allergies, such as sneezing, sniffles, and throat irritation.
For others, these foods stimulate a response that creates or exacerbates autoimmune symptoms such as joint pain or skin rashes (particularly eczema).
Other people simply lack the appropriate digestive enzymes to process one or more of these compounds. In this case, you might just get a general stomach upset, gas and bloating, nausea, and constipation or diarrhea.
How to improve your gut health
Get to the root cause. While there can be many causes of gut troubles, there is always a cause. Identify it before you mask symptoms with medications.
Eliminate any foods/drinks you know to be problematic. If you are consciously aware of a specific food type that is causing symptoms then remove it from not only your daily consumption, but your house and day to day environment so you’re not even tempted to go there.
Eat when hungry, stop when satisfied. If someone is having gut problems (and still gaining body fat), the first place to look is overconsumption of sugars, processed grains, processed meats, dairy, and rich meals.
Sugar alcohols can wreak havoc in the gut. If you are struggling with bloating and cramping, eliminating sugar alcohols might be a wise place to start (think sugar free desserts, gum, protein powders, protein bars, etc).
Slow down. The process of simply slowing down and chewing is important for enzyme release and breaking food down that becomes more manageable for the gut.
Consider glutamine. Glutamine can act as fuel for intestinal cells, and might help with the allergic response.
Check vitamin D levels. Low vitamin D status might decrease immune function and is associated with IBD.
Check iron levels. Decreased iron status is associated with poor gut function. The reason for this can be malabsorption of essential mineral binding foods such as grains and legumes, or simply a low iron intake. Vegetarians/vegans and endurance athletes are especially prone to this.
Supplement wisely. Natural compounds that might help gut health are peppermint, aloe vera, psyllium, melatonin, clove and zinc. Ideally you must solve the underlying problem (e.g. digestive intolerance) first.
Eat plenty of omega-3s (flax, walnuts, hemp, chia, fish,) and other whole food fats (olives, avocado, coconut, nuts, seeds, etc) to help moderate inflammation. Medium chain fats found in coconut oil can also assist.
Flavonoids can help improve gut health. Fruits, vegetables, beans (including soy), tea and coffee are the major sources of flavonoids in the human diet. Foods in the cabbage family and vegetable broths can also help here. Additionally, if you are on a FODMAP diet then choose very carefully.
Recover well. Sleep, stress management (e.g., meditation, yoga) and exercise are important tools to maintain low inflammation in the body. Improving these areas may improve gut health. Avoid big meals before exercise.
Eat real food. Our bodies have a longstanding relationship with whole/real foods. Food preservatives and additives, on the other hand, present a new (and perhaps impossible) challenge for our bodies.
Get fibre. Nutrient-dense, high-fibre carbohydrates like vegetables are important in the diet. Eat your veggies! And if you’re like most Westerners, you probably need more fibre. Try beans, peas, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits and whole grains.
Breast-feed. Children who are breast-fed tend to have less gastrointestinal infections and inflammatory disorders.
Avoid common triggers such as:
- added sugars;
- refined grains;
- acid blockers; and
- alcohol (except red wine in moderate amounts).
These harm our healthy bacteria, disrupt the delicate chemical ecosystem of our GI tracts, and/or cause additional gut damage (e.g. NSAIDs can cause GI bleeding).
Reduce your chemical burden. Choose organic when possible, avoid heating foods in plastics, use clean body products, avoid food colorings/preservatives and avoid fish high in toxins.
When ya gotta go, ya gotta go. If you need to evacuate your colon, do it. Avoid waiting. One to three bowel movements per day = good
Darren Bruce is the founder of EMB strategies. A health & well being company with the objective to have a positive, exponential effect on the global health epidemic the world currently faces by leading a team of coaches in facilities, mentoring new personal trainers at the PT Success Academy and interviewing the world’s leading coaches in the health & fitness industry on the #lifewithcoachbruce podcast