Gut health. If you dabble at all in the health and wellness arena, you’ve no doubt heard the term “gut health” or “healthy gut”. The more scientific term is gut microbiome. Whatever you call it, the gut has received quite a bit of attention over these past few years, and for good reason which I’ll dive into below….keep reading!
Brief explanation of the human gut and microbiome:
What is the gut? The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract starts in the mouth (where everything goes in), down the esophagus, to the stomach, into the small intestine and into the large intestine (where solid matter comes out). The GI tract contains millions and millions of microorganisms (various types of bacteria)! In fact, the most recent estimates suggest a 1:1 ratio of bacterial cells to human cells! Yes, it’s fair to say that we are just as much bacteria as we are human! In all seriousness, we are made up of significant amounts of bacteria, and these bacteria help to protect us, keep us healthy, and can trigger all sorts of signals in our body controlling things such as our mood, energy, maintaining a healthy weight, cognitive (brain) health, blood pressure, sleep, mood and much more. Any alterations in the normal and desired gut microbiome can lead to both mild to very major health consequences! Our individual gut microbiomes are all unique to us and can vary drastically depending on many factors, such as dietary intake and geographical location.
Say what? Dysbiosis is an imbalance in the gut microbiome (gut bacteria). That can lead to a whole host of negative effects on the body such as weight gain, depression, anxiety, thyroid disease, brain fog, low energy, insomnia, stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation and maybe even cardiovascular disease (such as heart disease)……and the list goes on. There is a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, for short, which can cause many, many gut symptoms related to an imbalance in gut bacteria.
How/why do I have a healthy (or unhealthy) gut?
Well, a healthy gut likely starts in utero and is also affected by whether a baby is born vaginally or by c-section. Vaginal is the ideal method of delivery for a healthy gut as it helps to get healthy bacteria into the baby’s gut. From there, many, many factors play a role into the development of a healthy or unhealthy gut. Breastfeeding, due to the superior nutritional content of breast milk plus the exposure to normal bacteria on the mother’s skin, is superior to bottle and/or formula feeding in regards to gut health. With ongoing growth and development during childhood into adult hood, things that contribute to a healthy gut are eating a wide variety of whole foods, such as non-starchy vegetable and fruits, as the fiber contained in these “feeds” the gut microbiome in a positive way. When we “feed” our gut healthy fiber, there are many processes that take place, one of them being the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which are anti-inflammatory in nature. Other things, such as stress, sleep, exercise, alcohol, smoking, processed food and sugar intake all affect the health of your gut in either a positive or negative way.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard the term “leaky gut”. In simple terms, the lining of the small intestine (the epithelial layer) is a tightly joined, single (one) celled structure that is supposed to only let good things in to our body and it’s supposed to keep the bad things out. You see, the small intestine is where most of our nutrients from our food is absorbed after it passes through the stomach. Once it hits the small intestine, this gut lining is the “gatekeeper” (a protein called Zonulin, which levels should be low) and regulates what nutrients and proteins pass through and which ones don’t. Having a healthy gut microbiome combined with avoiding foods that can alter this “gate” is important to prevent “leaky gut”. Leaky gut occurs when the “gatekeeper” no longer monitors the “gate” and the “gate” is open (increase in Zonulin) to letting everything through, including potentially harmful bacteria and proteins. Why does this matter? Well, consumption of various types of proteins (oftentimes proteins from wheat-based products such as gliadin, gluten) increases Zonulin (not a good thing) and opens the tightly bound gate, letting bad things get through. When too many proteins get through into our system that shouldn’t be there, our bodies can have unfavorable respones. Many, many conditions have been linked to “leaky gut” syndrome including, but not limited to: headaches, thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis for example), other autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, acne and other skin conditions, brain fog, depression, anxiety, behavioral disorder, autism, and many, many more.
How do I get a healthy gut or fix a leaky gut?
There is no single thing that is a “magic bullet” for achieving and/or maintaining a healthy gut. Like most things health related, it is a combination of many factors that lead to optimal health and, in this case, optimal gut health. There are some things you can do to support and promote improved gut health. Not all of these measures have large studies supporting these interventions (it would be difficult to get funding for this), but most gut health experts focus on many of not most of these interventions. This list is NOT exhaustive, by any means, but is a start.
- Eat lots of plant-based fiber: this will feed and help maintain a healthy gut microbiome that will have natural anti-inflammatory properties. These are known as prebiotics. I know you’ve heard of probiotics, but prebiotics? Yes, foods with prebiotic fiber actually feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods for plenty of prebiotic fiber.
- Avoid highly processed foods
- Avoid foods that can have a direct impact on the tight gut junctions: These can cause an unfavorable reaction in some people. We discuss these foods within our SUSTAIN program and provide adequate resources and guidance to do so correctly!
- Manage stress: too much chronic stress causes too much cortisol (stress hormone) to be released and this can have an unfavorable effect on our gut health
- Exercise: exercise has been shown to be helpful not only for overall health and wellness, but for gut health too
- Sleep enough: Poor sleep is linked to many health issues, including poorer gut health.
- AVOID UNNECCESSARY ANTIBIOTICS: yes, antibiotics can be life-saving in the right situation, but, unfortunately, are far over-prescribed. No, you do NOT need a Z pack for that cold. No, you likely do not need Augmentin for that sinus pressure you’ve had for 3 days. Now, for legit bacterial conditions such as strep throat, severe UTI or pneumonia, yes, antibiotics are necessary and potentially lifesaving! Antibiotics kill many kinds of bacteria, both bad AND good bacteria. If the good bacteria in your gut gets killed off, it sets the stage for overgrowth of bad bacteria and/or fungal overgrowth.
- Probiotics(?): the benefit of taking a probiotic supplement is still somewhat controversial and the evidence is unclear in regards to the absolute benefit(s). It seems some people experience benefit, some people have no effects, and others have seemingly worse symptoms when taking a probiotic supplement. Taking the wrong probiotics might even contribute to the problem! Better yet, consider consuming foods with natural probiotics such as fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh) and for those who tolerate dairy, something like full-fat kefir can be helpful as well.
- Caution with certain medications: oral contraceptives (birth control pills) and NSAIDS, such as Advil and Motrin, can also compromise the integrity of the gut and might contributute to leaky gut.
- Avoid over-sanitizing: yes, it’s good to wash our hands and be clean in general, but over-sanitization kills of many of the HELPFUL bacteria we should be exposed to on a daily basis. People who have pets, specifically dogs, typically have less allergies and less colds and seem to have better immune systems. Part of this could be due to “sharing” bacteria but also due to the stress lowering effect of the companionship.
- To piggyback from the previous point, get outside and get dirty! We are creatures meant to be outside and in the dirt. There are microbes present in nature that are beneficial to our gut and immune system.
- Drink bone broth: bone broth contains amino acids, including glycine and glutamine, that can be helpful in promoting a healthy gut.
If you do most or all of these things and are still concerned your gut isn’t healing, consider working with a functional medicine professional or an open-minded gastroenterologist who can do additional testing and workup to help you fix your gut.
If you are ready to tackle these but just need a little help and guidance, consider joining our 5 week web-based program, SUSTAIN and our private online community for the coaching and guidance you need!
Thank you for reading!
Thursby E, Juge N. Introduction to the human gut microbiota. Biochem J. 2017;474(11):1823–1836. Published 2017 May 16. doi:10.1042/BCJ20160510