Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.”
More and more research shows that our gut (digestive system) has a larger role in disease than science originally thought. We're not just talking about heartburn, constipation and diarrhea. We're talking about all kinds of issues, including allergies, pain, mood disorders, inflammation, skin health, hormonal health and nutrient deficiencies.
There are two key reasons. First, our gut is a barrier to the outside world and it needs to be strong so it can protect us. Secondly, microbes (good bacteria found in our gut) help keep our digestion and immune system in check. When either are out of balance, so fails our health.
Your digestive system actually contains exterior skin. While it resides inside your body, it is a barrier to the outside world. Through our mouth, stomach and intestines, we ingest food and absorb nutrients. Along with our food, we are exposed to accompanying external toxins like pesticides, herbicides and fungicides as well as disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites. The digestive skin needs to be strong and healthy in order to protect us from unwanted foes.
Science is just starting to scratch the surface on the connections between digestive health and other areas of our body, like our brain (a.k.a., "the gut-brain axis"). Not just our gut per se, but also the friendly resident microbes (good bacteria). These bacteria have newly discovered roles in our overall health. If you're up on health trends, you already know there has been a lot of excitement within the medical community relating to the “microbiome," immunity and mental health.
With that in mind, let's first explore the roles that our gut and our gut microbes play in our overall health. Then I'll give you tips on how to naturally improve your gut health so you can thrive.
The gut’s role in overall health
The gut’s main role is to act as a barrier – to let things in that are beneficial and to keep things out that are detremental to health. It allows us to absorb the nutrients we need to stay healthy and to eliminate waste. This seemingly simple role is actually quite complex and the system can break down in many places.
For one thing, our guts can "leak." Yes, like a long tube with holes in it, it can allow things to get into our bloodstreams that can wreak havoc. This is called “intestinal permeability” of the epithelial lining in the intestines.
What causes leaky gut?
Proinflammatory foods, antibiotics, medications, chemicals, chronic stress (even excessive intensive exercise) and bacterial imbalance in the intestinal tract can all damage the epithelial lining, allowing foreign antigens (antagonists) to enter the blood stream. When foreign antigens enter the bloods stream, they can cause an inflammatory or autoimmune response such as headaches, migraines, irritable bowl, chronic sinusitis, chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, food allergies/senstivities, the list goes on ….
There is some debate as to what exactly is leaking into the blood system – off gases from bacteria vs bacteria themselves vs undigested foods vs toxins. The verdict is still out, but we do know there is intestinal inflammation and a trigger of some sort that can start an autoimmune cascade. The medical community is starting to get on board (FINALLY), and research around gut health could be one of the most significant medical health advancements of our time. The holistic community is thrilled as gut health is always discussed first and foremost with clients (hello Hippocrates).
Inflammation and our immune system
You see, inflammation is a starting point for many diseases. A diagnosed disease may not have a direct linked to the gut (meaning that the disease may not be a bowel disease), but that doesn’t matter. Why? About 70% of our immune system lives in or around our gut. If our digestive system is inflammed, our overall health and immune system can be compromised, allowing for disease to flourish. Do you see the connection?
So, if you care about your health, maintaining a healthy gut barrier (or repairing an inflammed gut) should be of the utmost importance.
This includes ensuring you have the correct balance of good bacteria in your intestines. Gut microbes help us digest and absorb nutrients. They fight off disease-causing microbes, make some vitamins for us, and have all kinds of other health benefits, like mental health, reducing inflammation and stabilizing blood sugar.
Signs and symptoms of leaky gut
There are many indicators of intestinal permeability. None of these symptoms are proven to directly cause leaky gut (we discussed possible causes above). However, intestinal permeability is commonly present in many of these conditions:
Irritable bowel syndrome
Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, Coliitis)
Small intestinal bowel overgrowth
Allergies and food sensitivities
Chronic inflammatory conditions (arthritis)
Obesity-related complications (type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease)
Autoimmune disease (lupus, MS, type 1 diabetes, Hashimotos, and more)
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Propensity to gain weight, despite a balanced diet and exercise
Inflammatory skin conditions (eczema, pssoraisis, rosachea)
Low mood and autism
Nutritional deficiencies (ridges in nails is a good indicator, anemia despite eating recommended amounts of iron)
How to improve gut health
There are a lot of natural ways to improve gut health. Let’s start with what to stop.
It’s always best to eliminate the cause, so, lets stop giving our guts junk. Try eliminating added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol for a few weeks. You will be amazed at how much better your body (and gut) feels.
If you have food sensitivities or a chronic inflammation (i.e., sinusitis, headaches, aches/pains), try to eliminate other gut irritants. Dairy and grains contain common compounds known to irritate. Sometimes you only need to eliminate them for a few weeks to see a difference in health.
Soy, corn and sugar beets are typically genetically modified. Don’t eat soy, corn or beets? Don’t be so sure. Soy and corn are hidden in so many processed foods and sugar beets are the primary source for refined processed sugar in Canada, not sugar cane. Reducing quantity and picking GMO free is the best approach for a long list of reasons (too lengthy for this blog).
And if you have a diagnosed autoimmune or inflammatory condition (thyroid, lupus, MS, psoriasis), you need to be mindful of seeds, nuts, legumes and nightshades. This is not a forever elimination - just until your gut heals. And again, this is a much longer, lengthy discussion.
Organic is best
We've all heard organic is best to reduce exposure to toxins, but who can afford to buy only organic? I advise clients to start with protein (animal meats or nuts/seeds/legumes if you're vegetarian). Protein typically has a higher fat content. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are petroleum based, and fat absorbs to fat. It's simple science.
Prioritize your organic budget by what you eat most (chicken, eggs, nuts or beans) and go from there as your budget allows. Fruits and vegetables are typically water based and therefore, not as concentrated in chemicals. However, there is a list of the "dirty dozen" - fruits/vegetables that are higher in chemicals like strawberries, spinach and grapes. Prioritize these next, again, based on what you and your family eat most.
By eating nutrient-dense foods that do not include some of the key culptrits listed above, we allow ample macro- and micro-nutrients into our gut and maximize the chance for absorption. These nutrients help our bodies repair and build. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, colourful fruits and veggies, liver, and wild fish.
We also need to feed our system with gut-friendly microbes. When we ingest probiotic-rich foods and drinks, we can help to replenish our gut microbes. These are found in fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Make these a part of your daily diet.
Probiotic supplements are also part of the solution – especially if you have ever been on antibiotics. Remember, 70% of our immune system resides in our digestive tract. We need to ensure we have lots of the good guys to crowd out the bad. If you buy a probiotic, please ensure it has several strains of probiotics (more than 10 is ideal) and store the container in the refrigerator.
Whole foods are full of gut-friendly fiber. Health Canada recommends women consume 25g and men consume 38g daily. In reality, Canadians probably consume about 20g of fiber daily. This is a concern as too little increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
Fiber plays lots of roles in our gut, including whisking away pesky bad bacteria and toxins so they can be eliminated. It binds and removes cholesterol and hormones. Fiber also helps to feed our friendly resident microbes that help us absorb and digest our food better.
What foods have a lot of fiber? Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocado and even cacao. If you can't get your required 10 servings of fruits/vegetables daily, I strongly recommend a fiber supplement like a couple tablespoons of ground flax or chia seeds daily, or a serving of Renew Life Fiber Smart.
There are also lifestyle factors that can impact your gut health. CHEWING your food increases surface area for better absorption. Sleep and a stress management protocol helps reduce inflammation. And getting the right amount (and intensity) of exercise for your particular body and health helps you detoxify and eliminate waste.
All of these steps help strengthen your gut and enhance it's performance.
The function of your gut is key to your overall health.
There are two pillars of gut health: maintaining a good barrier and maintaining healthy gut microbes.
Eating nutrient-dense whole foods is the the easiest and key way to naturally improve both of these pillars. Whole foods are filled with nutrition, probiotics and fiber.
Eliminating common gut irritants like added sugar, processed foods, and alcohol will also help improve gut health.