by Dr. Will Cole
The health and permeability of your gastrointestinal tract – what’s in it, and how well it is sealed off from the rest of your body – has a significant effect on many aspects of your health. Underlying microbiome and barrier integrity issues such as leaky gut syndrome, SIBO, and candida overgrowth have been linked to just about every modern health problem. Some health issues, like stomach pain, bloating, IBS, constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux, are obviously gut-related, but gut dysfunction can have a ripple effect, causing or aggravating weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, inflammation, autoimmune disease, and even cancer. In short, there are many consequences of having an unhealthy gut.
Lest you be fooled, don’t think regular bathroom habits or the absence of heartburn means that your gut is sound. Many gut problems are asymptomatic in terms of digestive symptoms – approximately 22 percent of people with gut problems can have significant damage to their small intestines but not suffer any gastrointestinal symptoms at all.
But maybe you are health-savvy and already practicing gut-friendly habits like eating fermented food, drinking kombucha, taking probiotics, and sipping on bone broth. And yet, you may still feel like your gut isn’t where it should be. You are still having symptoms, health issues, or obvious signs of gut dysfunction like bloating, pain, and acid reflux. How long will it take before your gut-healing practices make a difference?
Healing from the inside out.
Let’s begin by imagining the surface area of your gastrointestinal tract. If you spread it all out, it would cover about the size of a tennis court! This internal “court” is covered in special cells called enterocytes that constantly regenerate so that you get an entirely new gut lining every two to three weeks. If you are healthy and don’t have any chronic conditions like autoimmunity or inflammation, and if you don’t have any food sensitivities, you could heal a not-so-perfect gut in as little as two weeks or as long as 12 weeks, studies suggest.
A study from Harvard, published in the medical journal Nature, found significant changes in gut bacteria actively happening just three days after a dietary change!
Unfortunately, most people who are trying to heal their guts do have other health issues that make healing happen more slowly. If you have chronic inflammation, Lyme disease, viral infections, blood sugar issues, adrenal fatigue, SIBO, an autoimmune condition, histamine intolerance, candida overgrowth, or leaky gut syndrome, it’s going to take longer to get you back on the right track. You are on what I call the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum, so you are going to have to come at your healing from multiple directions at once to get results.
What is the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum?
Autoimmune disease doesn’t just pop up one day out of nowhere. It begins with the slow burn of inflammation, which can simmer and spread for years before you get a diagnosis. This means if you have some inflammation, you don’t necessarily have a diagnosable autoimmune disease, but you could be headed in that direction. Did you know that to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, your immune system has to have already destroyed a significant amount of tissue (such as the brain, gut, or thyroid)? For example, there has to be a 90 percent destruction of the adrenal glands to be diagnosed with Addison’s disease (a disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones). There must be severe destruction of the neurological tissue to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and massive destruction of small intestine tissue to be diagnosed with celiac disease (CD). I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait around for that level of disease before I can put a name on it.
This is why I look at this process as just that, a process, not a state. This process has, three stages:
- Silent autoimmunity: You have positive antibody labs but you have no noticeable symptoms.
- Autoimmune reactivity: You have positive antibody labs and symptoms.
- Autoimmune disease: You have enough body destruction to be diagnosed with a specific condition.
A large percentage of my patients fall under #2. They have labs that are a little off, and they have uncomfortable symptoms, but they don’t have a diagnosis and have been told by their conventionally trained doctors that they are “fine.” Inflammation and symptoms are not “fine,” in my opinion. In these cases there is almost always some gut dysfunction and these patients are quite likely headed towards much more serious health issues if they do not intervene in the process.
Taking food allergies and sensitivities into account.
One of the most powerful things you can do to reverse your inflammation and go the opposite direction on the inflammation-autoimmune spectrum is to start healing the inflammation in your gut by addressing the foods you put into it. Researchers are now finding what we’ve been saying for decades in functional medicine: food reactivities like gluten sensitivity are just the beginning stage of one end of the larger inflammation spectrum, with autoimmune conditions like celiac disease (CD) on the opposite end.
And as I mentioned before, there needs to be significant destruction of the intestinal microvilli to be diagnosed with CD. Only around 10 percent of people with CD have obvious digestive symptoms. Instead, they end up struggling with other seemingly unrelated symptoms like skin problems, anxiety, or depression. Therefore only about 5 percent of celiacs ever get diagnosed and leaves close to 3 million Americans with celiac disease who have no idea that they have it and another 15-20 percent with gluten sensitivity.
For people with this kind of inflammation spectrum dysfunction it can take up to six months just to begin reducing inflammation and antibody levels that can result from eating a reactive food like gluten. But that doesn’t mean you won’t notice improvements. I find clinically that my patients notice symptom reduction with each passing month, but for those who are already progressed along spectrum, it can take up to two years before changes are dramatic and sustained.
I encourage people who want to know more about your gut health to get a proper functional medicine work-up and appropriate labs to get an idea of where you really are. Even though it may not happen as quickly as you would like, gut healing will begin to happen, especially if you stay focused on gut-friendly health habits and heed professional guidance.
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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