by Dr. Will Cole
You’ve probably heard before that the balance of so-called “good” and “bad” bacteria and other microbes in your microbiome (that collection of critters we all host in our digestive tract) is pretty important, and it’s true. Research has shown and continues to show us just how much these various gut problems can affect health. In fact, studies have linked poor gut health to a multitude of conditions, including:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Weight loss resistance
- Thyroid disorders
- Skin problems like acne
- Brain problems
- Autoimmune conditions
- Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes
What leads to poor gut health?
Everyone’s microbiome configuration is unique, kind of like a fingerprint, but there are certain elements that can cause trouble for most of us. For example, we all have some yeast in our microbiomes, including the fungi Candida albicans. Normally, this yeast exists in harmony with the other microbes, but when it is allowed to overgrow, it can cause low-grade inflammation and stress on the immune system. Candida overgrowth can worsen already existing health problems, especially in those with autoimmune conditions or weakened immune systems. The same goes for certain types of bacteria that can cause digestive distress as well as other health problems.
Is your gut microbiome in a state of healthy balance, or are things going awry in there? Your first clue is whether or not any of these common lifestyle or medical factors that lead to poor gut health apply to you:
1. A poor diet
Like it or not, food can either fuel health or fuel disease. One very common way food fuels disease is by damaging the balance of the microbiome. Processed and sugary foods are the most obvious culprits because they feed the more pathogenic types of bacteria as well as Candida albicans, but underlying food sensitivities to even so-called healthy foods can also lead to gut-damaging inflammation. Grains are one common example – even gluten-free grains and whole grains contain amylose sugars that “bad” bacteria and fungi love to consume, and that contribute to inflammation. The best diet isn’t always obvious, and depends on your personal microbiome makeup, genetics, and lifestyle.
2. Gut-meddling medications
Medications may be necessary (although many people take them unnecessarily), but even the ones that help you can have side effects—have you educated yourself on what they are? One of the most common side effects of both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications is compromised intestinal barrier. In other words, medications can make your gut more permeable, leading to “leaky gut syndrome.” A few of the most notorious culprits:
- Antibiotics can save lives, but frequent use and overuse of these drugs kill gut bacteria without distinguishing between good and bad. With more good guys gone, pathogenic bacteria and fungi can take over, especially if you are not making efforts to restore the balance through probiotic supplements or fermented foods.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, relieve pain by blocking the enzyme cyclo-oxygenase, but this also inhibits it from doing its important job of protecting your stomach from the corrosive effects of its acid. The result can be an increase in intestinal inflammation and consequent permeability. Research estimates that 65 percent of people who consistently use NSAIDs have intestinal inflammation and 30 percent have ulcers. If left unchecked, gut permeability can trigger an autoimmune response.
3. Chronic stress
We are all meant to handle stress now and then, but when stress becomes chronic and you experience consistently high levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol along with decreased oxygen delivery to the gut, damage can be the unfortunate result. Blame the gut-brain axis, too (see number 8 on this list), because the emotional turmoil of chronic stress can directly impact gut inflammation.
4. Alcohol overuse
A glass of wine every once in a while probably won’t do much to your gut in the grand scheme of things (unless you are already experiencing inflammation and severe gut dysfunction). However, consistent alcohol consumption in even the healthiest people can be an intestinal irritant, as well as suppressing the hormones that protect against inflammation and gut permeability.
5. Autoimmune conditions
Since the majority of your immune system is located in your gut, “leaky gut syndrome” can be both a cause and an effect of autoimmune problems. But inflammation can destroy the integrity of the gut lining, and then when undigested food particles and the toxic by-products of digestion leak out of the gut into areas where they are not meant to be, the body can mount an attack against these perceived “invaders,” increasing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that destroy your gut lining to even higher levels, in a vicious cycle of inflammation.
6. Hormone imbalances
Imbalances in the hormones estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones, and cortisol have all been linked to sluggish healing of intestinal damage. This can lead to leaky gut syndrome, as the chronic inflammation in the gut lining damages it, causing it to become more permeable. This may explain why you may not be able to heal despite your best efforts—it’s those pesky hormones! Many people need to focus on balancing their hormones before they can successfully heal their guts.
7. The blood sugar roller-coaster
When blood sugar skyrockets due to excessive carbohydrate intake or insulin resistance, compounds known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, go sky-high too, which can increase the permeability of your gut as well as inflict free radical damage on other tissues, accelerating aging.
8. Neurological problems
Your gut and brain are forever linked. They were formed from the same fetal tissue while you were growing in your mother’s womb. They continue this special bond throughout your life through a connection known as the gut-brain axis. Because of this bond, brain problems like depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, stress, and dementia can lead to leaky gut syndrome and vice versa.
Assess your gut health.
While you may suspect you have gut problems because of your symptoms, without running any labs, you won’t know for sure. These are the labs that I typically recommend to my patients, to determine if any of these gut problems are a factor in a particular health case:
1. Gut permeability labs
I always run tests for Zonulin and occluding antibodies. These two proteins control gut permeability, and the presence of antibodies can indicate damage to the tight junctions that keep your gut lining sealed. I also test for actomyosin antibodies, which can indicate destruction of the gut lining, and lipopolysaccharides (LPS) antibodies, which can also indicate leaky gut syndrome, if these antibodies are not contained within the digestive tract.
2. A comprehensive stool analysis
This test can uncover everything from the presence of parasites to bacterial imbalances to conditions like candida overgrowth or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or SIFO (small intestinal fungal overgrowth)—any of which can negatively impact gut health.
Heal the gut
Once you know the status of your gut health, you can take action for meaningful and sustainable healing. Depending on the severity of your issues, healing can take awhile and patience is paramount. For those with only minor gut dysfunction, healing a not-so-perfect gut can take anywhere from two to 12 weeks. This is due to the fact that your gastrointestinal tract is covered in enterocytes that quickly regenerate, giving you an entirely new gut lining in as little as every three weeks.
However, for those with more severe gut dysfunction, such as long-term inflammation, leaky gut syndrome, or an autoimmune condition, healing can take anywhere between 12 and 24 months before true and secure healing is achieved. While many people see improvements each month, long-term healing can only be accomplished after this one- to two-year period of implementing various natural healing tools. The most effective include:
1. An elimination diet
An elimination diet is my gold standard for uncovering hidden food intolerances. In order to heal your gut, you need to stop eating foods that continue to damage your gut and increase inflammation, but you can’t know what foods are irritating to your individual gut until you remove all potential irritants for a certain amount of time and slowly reintroduce them one at a time, monitoring your body’s reaction. This will allow you to determine which foods your body loves and which foods your body hates. My mindbodygreen video class gives you step-by-step instructions on how to do an elimination diet the right way.
2. Rotating your food
Variety is the spice of life as well as the salve to an inflamed gut. Eating many types of foods will not only give you a wide variety of much-needed nutrients, and rotating these foods to avoid having any one food too often will help you heal and keep your immune system balanced. A good rule of thumb is to never have any one food more than once a day, or even better, no more often than every three days. For example, if you love leafy greens, have Romaine lettuce one day, kale the next day, and collard greens the day after that, before rotating back to Romaine lettuce.
3. Taking probiotics
Probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi will reinoculate your microbiome with good bacteria—especially important if you’ve recently had a round of antibiotics or been under a lot of stress. A probiotic supplement will also give your gut a much-needed boost of essential bacteria. Use different ones to keep the selection varied and improve your chances for a more robust and diverse microbiome.
4. Drinking bone broth regularly
This superfood brims with collagen and minerals that can soothe and repair a damaged gut. Sip it alone as a warm drink or use it as the base for soups and in other recipes. It’s easy to make (especially in a slow cooker or pressure cooker) but you can now buy good quality bone broth in most grocery stores.
5. Trying intermittent fasting
By going extended periods of time without eating, you’re able to give your digestion a much-needed break. There are many ways to do this, such as fasting every night for at least 12 hours (many people do 16 hours) or fasting for one day every week.
6. Managing your stress
If you are feeding yourself a giant slice of stress every day, all the health food in the world isn’t going to help heal your gut. Chronic stress can suppress the immune system, decrease blood and oxygen flow to the intestines, and contribute to gut lining permeability. Making time to de-stress through pressure-relieving activities like tai chi, yoga, or meditation can make a huge difference in your stress levels and in turn, your gut health.
7. Eating more cooked foods
Raw foods are packed full of nutrients but they can also be difficult to digest. Cooked foods decrease the amount of work your digestive system needs to do to break down food because some of that has been done for you through the cooking process. Even easier to digest are pureed foods like smoothies and pureed soup. Going easy on your digestion can help reduce bloat and lead to a healthier gut. As you heal, you will be able to tolerate raw foods better.
8. Taking targeted natural supplements
Nobody wants to take a giant fistful of vitamins every day, but there are a handful of gut-healing supplements I often call upon to help my patients in digestive distress. These can help speed healing and make a big difference in symptoms:
- L-glutamine: This essential amino acid gets depleted quickly during times of physical stress. Since it is the preferred fuel of your gut’s enterocyte cells, this is the perfect supplement to support optimal gut health.
- Colostrum: The lactoferrin in colostrum works as a prebiotic to feed good bacteria and fuel its growth. It also promotes cell growth in the intestines to repair a damaged gut.
- Slippery elm: This natural botanical works as a demulcent to reduce inflammation in the gut. You can find this in tea or supplement form.
- Turkey tail: This adaptogenic mushroom works wonders against gut overgrowths like SIBO and candida overgrowth. Try it in a warm drink.
- Deglycyrrhizinated licorice: Sip on licorice tea to soothe and heal your gut lining and ease digestive trouble.
- Marshmallow root: This root supports the repair of a damaged gut lining by coating the stomach to protect it against increased inflamation. You can find this in tea or supplement form as well.
Knowledge is power when it comes to your health, especially the health of your gut. Arm yourself with understanding so you know what destroys and what heals you, and you will be the one in control of your health future. For additional support, work with a qualified practitioner to help take your healing journey to the next level through labs and a customized care plan. Before you know it, you will be back on the road to restoring your thriving health and feeling like yourself again.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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