In Part 1 and Part 2 of the Gut Health series, we discussed Candida overgrowth and Leaky Gut Syndrome. These are two issues that can disrupt the delicate balance of our digestive systems, and thus affect our overall health. In Part 3, we’re going to talk about what you can do to improve gut health and restore the balance in your gut to strengthen your immune system and improve health.
Research indicates that the gut is the gateway to either health or disease, depending on how you take care of yourself. Because up to 70-80% of our immune response is regulated by the gut, focusing on improving its function is a great starting point to improve your overall health.
In this case, when we refer to ”your gut” or “gut health”, we are talking about the entire digestive system from your mouth all the way through your intestines and colon to where things come out the other end. While the bulk of your microbiome lives largely in the intestines, breakdown of food begins the moment you begin chewing and continues in the stomach, and then on to the intestines where nutrients are processed and waste products are eliminated.
The microbiome consists of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that all contain genes. The make-up of these genes is determined at birth by your mother’s microbiome along with the food that you eat and the lifestyle that you lead. While we cannot control our DNA, we are able to change our genes and gene expression through diet and lifestyle.
I always thought that your genes, just like DNA, never changed. But that’s not the case. While a person inherits genes from their parents, it’s not correct that everything you inherited in your genes is permanent. Your lifestyle and circumstances can awaken individual genes and/or suppress others. Your diet, how active you are physically, stress levels and your environment can all have a positive or negative effect on your genes. The healthy state of your gut seems to have the most significant effect on your genes and gene expression. That’s fairly empowering.
Gut Health: How do Things go Wrong?
The gut is not static. It’s a living organism that changes all the time based on stimuli such as diet, stress, medications and other environmental factors. Some medications such as NSAIDs can cause dysbiosis (unbalance) in the gut within hours of taking them. However, a microbiome that is healthy will bounce back quickly. Problems usually become chronic when stressors to the gut occur over a period of time such as eating an unhealthy diet on a regular basis.
Another factor that can cause fairly serious setbacks to your gut health is use of antibiotics. When antibiotics are needed to fight off a serious infection, they can be lifesaving and extremely valuable to your health. However, the prescribing of antibiotics has gone way overboard. If you don’t have to take antibiotics to get over an illness or infection, I would recommend you opt for more rest and vitamins and natural remedies instead, even though it may take a bit longer to get well. By taking antibiotics when you could get well or recover without them, you are doing your own health and immune system a huge disservice, as a full course of strong antibiotics can kill as much as a third of your microbiome – the good bacteria in your gut.
Poor gut health can cause all manner of imbalances, diseases, and chronic conditions. Stressors on the mind and body can also be cumulative and get worse over time especially if they are allowed to go untreated.
These are some of the things that can cause disruption of the microbiome:
- Poor diet high in sugars, starches, bad fats, and processed foods
- Too frequent use of antibiotics
- Long term or excessive alcohol consumption
- Overuse of NSAID drugs
- Any kind of Immunosuppressant drugs
- Other medications used long term have also been found to have an adverse effect on the microbiome, including drugs like proton-pump inhibitors and other acid reflux meds, antipsychotic drugs and metformin, an antidiabetic drug.
- Gluten and other inflammatory foods
- Lack of exercise/sedentary lifestyle
- High stress levels
- Lack of consistent and quality sleep
- Excessive intake of artificial sweeteners
- Imbalanced hormones (including thyroid)
- Insulin resistance
- Candida (yeast) overgrowth
ALL of the above items can contribute to gut dysbiosis, and many people have multiple contributing factors which puts them at greater risk for autoimmune type diseases and serious, sometimes life-threatening illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Imbalances within the gut microbiome can present a variety of symptoms and lead to excess inflammatory responses throughout the body which is the root cause of so many diseases. If you have ongoing digestive issues such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, IBS, IBD, Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease, etc., chances are that the root cause of these symptoms lies with an imbalance of the gut microbiome.
However, gut dysbiosis does just manifest with digestive issues. All manner of bodily functions can be affected. Joint inflammation and pain, skin conditions such as psoriasis, hormonal imbalances and much more can be as a result of an unhealthy gut.
One of the root causes of so many types of serious disease is inflammation. Inflammation can be caused by infection or illness, but chronic long-term inflammation begins in the gut. For optimal health, root causes must be addressed. Otherwise, it’s only symptoms that are addressed which won’t cure the problem.
How to Improve Gut Health
There are different types of testing kits on the market that can give insight as to some of the things affecting your gut health. For example, there is a food sensitivity test called the ALCAT® which will tell you if you are sensitive to or allergic to many types of food. There are also tests such as the Genova GI Effects which will give you a detailed report regarding the pathogens and bacteria that may be in your biome. These certainly aren’t the only two brands out there, and a google search will provide you with a comprehensive list of gut testing products and what they specifically do. Many of these can be done at home and then sent in for interpretation by the administering company.
A lot of people realize that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired and oftentimes, need the help of a professional. I would suggest looking for a functional medicine type of physician because they specialize in delving deep via lab testing and/or gut testing to properly diagnose you. STUDIES https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5414803/have shown that the gut plays a major role in regulating other organs, brain function, and the endocrine system.
Because the endocrine system and gut microbiome are so closely related, it’s likely that if you are having problems in one area, you will be having imbalances in the other. A reputable functional medicine provider can help you get hormones balanced and focus on your gut health too.
DIY Gut Restoration
While you can’t change your DNA, you absolutely can change your gut microbiome and therefore your genes and gene expression. Here is a guide to improve gut health with a healthier microbiome and thus strengthen your immune system:
- Eliminate sugars, sodas, simple carbohydrates, and processed foods from your diet.
- Avoid wheat-based foods or other inflammatory-promoting items such as gluten.
- Avoid bad fats such as commercially produced vegetable and seed oils. These types of foods are processed using petroleum products and filled with toxic chemicals in order to extend their shelf life. These types of oils are commonly used in store-bought baking products.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners, except for stevia (actual stevia, not “stevia that is mostly erythritol or another sugar alcohol (check the labels). Studies such as this one: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25313461 have shown that some artificial sweeteners adversely affect gut health and contribute to obesity and metabolic disorders.
- Eat healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds. Use healthy oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil to replace commercially processed oil. Butter or ghee, which are saturated fats, are also nutritious and acceptable forms of fat. Coconut oil has also been shown to destroy candida cells.
- Eat lots of vegetables – as much as you can at every meal.
- Eat whole fresh fruits (not dried fruits or fruit juice) and don’t eat fruit with other proteins or fats. Fruits will digest fairly quickly unless you eat them with something heavy.
- Take NSAID pain relievers only when absolutely necessary and avoid long term use. Past studies have already shown how harmful these types of drugs can be for cardiovascular health, however, newer research studies, such as this one: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4754147/ show that they can be harmful to the gut microbiome and contribute to Leaky Gut Syndrome. CBD oil is a better option for chronic pain.
- Take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. Not only can you become resistant to antibiotics, but they also will immediately disrupt the balance of your microbiome as they kill all types of bacteria, including the beneficial kind.
- Avoid taking proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec and Nexium for heartburn and other digestive symptoms. These types of drugs inhibit the digestion process significantly and while they may provide temporary relief, they are only contributing to the problem. If you have acid reflux, drink a glass of water with one teaspoon of baking soda in it. This will neutralize the acid quickly.
- Avoid GMO (genetically modified) foods since they can activate an inflammatory response.
- Incorporate probiotics into your regular diet. Probiotics add to the healthy flora in your gut, promoting health and balance of the microbiome, and aid in healing intestinal permeability problems. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, and also in kombucha and healthier (low sugar) yogurt. You can also take a probiotic supplement on a daily basis.
- Eat more prebiotics which are found in foods such as green bananas, artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes and jicama. Prebiotics provide food for the good bacteria in your gut and keep these types of bacteria strong and thriving.
- Take digestive enzymes with every meal can improve gut health, especially if you are having symptoms of gastrointestinal distress. Enzymes help to break down your food allowing your body to draw the proper nutrients, and for toxins and waste products to pass through your intestines.
- Incorporate plenty of Omega 3s into your daily diet. Omega 3s curb inflammation, not only in the gut, but all over the body. They’re found in cold water fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon and in many meats and vegetables. Additionally, they are sold in supplement form (usually labeled as Fish Oil or Krill Oil).
- Organic bone broth is especially nutritious and healing for your gut. It contains collagen and glycine, both of which help to repair damaged cell walls all over the body, and the gut lining.
The Big Three
What you put into your body is especially important as discussed above. The old saying, “You are what you eat” has a lot of truth to it. In addition to the things you consume through your mouth, there are three more factors to take into account in improving gut health. For improving gut health, it is imperative that you also focus on exercise, stress reduction, and proper sleep. Without these three additional things, you are going to find it hard to achieve or maintain any kind of healthy state.
There are different types of stressors that we all experience daily. Mental stress and emotional stressors can wear us down affecting not just the mind, but also the body. Big stressors such as illness, divorce, loss of a loved one, and traumas can wreak havoc on our lives and immune systems. These types of things can also be cumulative making them harder to recover from as we get older. Eating a poor diet, not getting enough sleep, and exposure to toxins can also place the body under a great deal of stress. While we can’t always control how our day is going to go, or the life events that we encounter, we can make choices which will make us more resilient and better able to handle stress. Being mindful, practicing meditation or prayer, exercising, and eating right can all help improve gut health, not to mention other health benefits. It also helps tremendously to have a support system in place, whether that be through your family, friends, church, or other social network.
Dr. Mark Hyman, best-selling author and former functional medicine director at The Cleveland Clinic, opines,
“Did you know a lack of community and strong social connection can have a disastrous outcome on your health? When surrounded by people that see us, elevate us, and support us, we feel like anything is possible. We often only focus on eating well and moving our bodies, which are most definitely keys to good health, but they mean nothing if someone feels isolated, disconnected, and lonely.
“Emerging science is beginning to unveil the effects that community, or a lack thereof, can have on health and mortality. Research has shown social stress, such as rejection and isolation, is a stronger predictor of chronic disease-related mortality than traditional factors like inactivity, smoking, and excessive alcohol use.
“Social stress is also very strongly linked to the way our bodies manage inflammation, which is a major risk factor for chronic disease. I always say, if you want to get healthy, surround yourself with healthy people. If your friends are drinking green juice and doing yoga, you’re more likely to do the same.
“A sense of community, trusting friendships, and the feeling of belonging are vital concepts in the bigger picture of whole-body health. And in our modern day of technology and digital communication, it can be easy to miss out on strong human connections. We need to consciously choose to connect with people in a genuine way.”
Poor sleep habits or the inability to get enough sleep contributes exponentially to the stress load that the body and mind experience on a daily basis. If you are not getting good sleep, you are undermining your own efforts to properly heal. Numerous research studies have been conducted over the years regarding how too little of it can affect the mind and body. Another study, found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290721/, shows how much a lack of sleep can affect the gut microbiome health and how good sleep can improve gut health.
Not only does exercise help to keep excess weight off, it also greatly reduces the inflammatory response in the body and lessens the effects of stress on the mind and body. It obviously helps to build strong muscles and bones, but also causes cells in the human body to become more insulin sensitive (a good thing!), which lessens the chances of developing insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity and improve gut health as a result.
Taking Control of Your Health – Start With the Gut
Making diet and lifestyle changes can seem overwhelming. Some people find that starting with smaller, baby steps helps them to stay on their path. Others find that going all in is a better plan for them. It’s up to you. But I do usually find that those going all in at once often fall off the wagon more easily. I recommend working it gradually. Quitting sugar alone can be a huge adjustment and can make you feel pretty crappy for a few weeks as your body goes through withdrawals. BUT, once you get through that uncomfortable period, you will start to feel so much better and have more energy and clarity.
Also, just know that you are most likely going to “fall off the wagon” on your new healthy habits. Just acknowledge that this is quite normal and then hop right back on that wagon as fast as you can. Don’t take it as a failure or give up and throw in the towel. You will violate these guidelines at times. Just know that. The trick is staying a majority of the time within these healthy guidelines as best you can.
I find it helpful to keep a daybook/calendar where I can track my process and progress. It helps me with awareness, which is half of the battle. Some evenings as I’m writing down what I ate that day, it’s eye opening to see that I might not have done my body any good and it motivates me to try harder. These types of incremental steps and the awareness of what I am doing have helped me to move forward and get healthier. Be patient with yourself too. It took awhile to get to wherever you have landed, and it will take a while to get healthier. But in the end, you are absolutely worth it!