by Dr. Will Cole
Gut health is everything. Underlying microbiome and gastrointestinal problems such as leaky gut syndrome, SIBO, and candida overgrowth can be linked to just about every modern health problem. From weight gain and fatigue to anxiety and depression to autoimmune conditions and cancer, there are many consequences of having an unhealthy gut.
You may be thinking, “I go to the bathroom just fine, gut problems aren’t an issue for me.” But the truth is that you don’t need to have gut symptoms to have underlying gut problems. Many are asymptomatic as far as digestive symptoms go but manifest as downstream symptoms somewhere else in the body. In fact, around 22 percent of people with gut problems can have significant damage to their small intestines but not suffer any gastrointestinal symptoms at all.
Many of you health-savvy mindbodygreen readers know this, and you’re already doing tons of healthy stuff – like drinking kombucha, popping probiotics, and sipping on bone broth – to optimize your gut health. But what if you’re not noticing any improvements or you’re improving much more slowly than you thought? How long does all the gut-healing stuff take, anyway? Well, I am glad you asked!
Healing your gut means healing your whole body.
To answer this important question, we have to go down to a cellular level. First of all, the surface area of your gut is around 300 square meters, which is about the size of a tennis court! These super important gut-lining cells, called the enterocytes, are constantly regenerating and in a normal healthy gut, you have an entirely new gut lining every two to three weeks. The gut-healing time of people who don’t have autoimmune conditions, food sensitivities, or other inflammatory health issues varies, but studies suggest that it’s somewhere between two and 12 weeks.
Another study from Harvard, published in the medical journal Nature, found significant changes in the makeup of the gut bacteria occurring just three days after a dietary change! This demonstrates the amazing power of the foods we eat, but in reality, most people interested in healing their gut have other health issues that make healing more complex and a lot slower. If you have one or more of these health issues, gut healing will definitely be a journey: chronic inflammation, Lyme disease, chronic viral infections, blood sugar issues, adrenal fatigue, SIBO, and autoimmune condition, histamine intolerance, candida overgrowth, or leaky gut syndrome. And to understand the issues above – and how they relate to your gut-healing journey – we have to understand something I call the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum.
Understanding the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum.
For starters, to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the immune system has to destroy 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 also has to be severe destruction of the neurological and digestive systems to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and celiac disease (CD), respectively. But of course, these diseases do not happen overnight! This is merely the end stage of the larger autoimmune spectrum, and there are actually three main stages on the autoimmune spectrum disorder:
- Silent autoimmunity: When there are positive antibody labs but no noticeable symptoms.
- Autoimmune reactivity: When there are positive antibody labs and symptoms.
- Autoimmune disease: When there’s enough body destruction to be diagnosed with a specific condition.
I find that there are countless people in Stage 2 of the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum: not sick enough to be labeled with an autoimmune disease but still damaged by the effects of autoimmune reactivity.
Taking food allergies and sensitivities into account.
Researchers are now finding what we’ve been saying for decades in functional medicine: food reactivities like gluten sensitivity are just one end of a larger inflammation spectrum, with autoimmune diseases like celiac disease (CD) on the opposite side. As I’ve said, there needs to be significant destruction of your intestinal microvilli to be officially labeled as having celiac disease (CD). Moreover, only about 10 percent of people with CD have obvious GI symptoms; instead, they experience other seemingly unrelated symptoms like anxiety, depression, or skin problems. This leads to only 5 percent of celiacs ever being diagnosed! This means that there are around 3 million Americans with celiac disease who have no idea that they have it and gluten sensitivity in another 15 to 20 percent of us. For these people, it can take up to six months just to bring down the autoimmune-inflammation antibodies of eating a gluten-containing food just one time! this is not even taking into consideration any other food sensitivity or health problem slowing down the gut-healing process.
Most of my patients are dealing with one or more of these gut health, inflammation, autoimmune issues. I find clinically that while health improvements are seen monthly, it’s really around the two-year mark that we see sustained and noticeable changes. If you have more complicated gut health issues, I encourage you to get a proper functional medicine work-up and appropriate labs to get an idea of what you’re up against and to make sure you’re addressing everything you need to on your unique gut-healing journey.
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.
Photo: Emmanuel Hidalgo