Last week I discussed how naturopathic and functional medicine practitioners usually begin their healing process (and prevent future health troubles) with careful attention to that 30-foot food tube meandering through you from your lips to your anus.
The essence of good gut health is essentially how well you’re digesting, absorbing, and using the food you eat and how efficiently you’re getting rid of what could potentially harm you.
Whatever you’re eating–even if it’s junk–your gut is trying its very best to absorb from it what you require to function efficiently. It’s also protecting you from infection, allergens, and toxins in food.
By eating healthfully, you’re supporting the whole process. Eat junk and your gut has to work overtime to keep you alive, ultimately becoming weaker and weaker for lack of nutrients. Do right by your gut and it will repay you many times over.
Here’s what your gut does for you, 24/7
—It digests whatever you’re eating, absorbing what’s worthwhile into your bloodstream for use everywhere in your body.
—Lurking amidst the waste products (aka poop) in your large intestine are three pounds of bacteria that act as a virtual factory to facilitate digestion, deactivate toxins, and manufacture vitamins.
—Your gut lining is the single largest immune system in your body, responsible for 80% of your body’s defenses.
—The gut is quite literally your peripheral brain, actually manufacturing more neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) than your brain itself. When you have a gut feeling about something, it’s not your imagination.
Trouble in your kishkes
Here’s what can trigger trouble in your kishkes (Yiddish for intestines) and how things can go wrong with your gut, leading in turn an unhealthy you. By the way, if you feel just fine and are perfectly happy with a completely symptom-free digestive system, well god bless, but read this list anyway in case something goes wrong.
–The biggest villain is a crappy diet of processed and junk food. It will shorten your life, period. Here’s what happened to 44,000 French men and women whose eating habits were tracked over the years. Even better, go take another look at what 30 days of McDonald’s did to Morgan Spurlock in “Supersize Me” and I’ll say no more.
–Another significant factor is drinking too much alcohol or taking too many medications, the side effects of which damage your intestinal lining and/or disrupt the bacterial balance of your microbiome. Damaging drugs include H2 blockers like Nexium, NSAIDs like Advil, and antibiotics.
–Chronic, low-level intestinal infections, especially caused by parasites and Candida (yeast), are also implicated. It puzzles me that gastroenterologists tell patients these buggers are harmless and don’t require treatment but then go on to prescribe a lifetime of H2 blockers.
–Hidden food sensitivities: the Big Six are dairy, egg, corn, gluten grains, citrus, and soy.
–Environmental toxins like mold, mercury, and the swill of chemicals added to processed foods by agribusinesses and “food” manufacturers.
–Shortages of adequate amounts of hydrochloric acid and enzymes in your digestive system.
–Stress can throw everything in your gut out of balance, from the type of bacteria in your microbiome to compromising the quality of your intestinal lining (also known as leaky gut).
Clean up your eating
If you’re struggling with chronic health issues or you simply want to initiate some good preventive maintenance, here are some first steps you can take toward gut health:
–Eat chemical-free, anti-inflammatory foods. The list of helpful foods is lengthy (pretty much all vegetables and fruit) and the foods that trigger inflammation mercifully short (essentially sugar and all refined carbs). Check out Harvard’s list here. It comes down to eating only whole foods, with plenty of veggies, fruit, beans and whole grains (unless you’re sensitive to them), preferably unsprayed or organic or mostly clean from your farmers market. Try to limit your meat intake, enjoying only hormone-free, antibiotic-free animal products occasionally.
—Eat fermented foods. The helpful bacteria in them are a powerful gut protector and balancer.
–Test yourself for hidden food sensitivities. The easiest and most efficient way to do this is the food elimination/reintroduction program described here. I’ve long lost count of the number of patients with chronic symptoms who returned smiling and symptom-free to report “it was gluten (or dairy or eggs) all this time.”
–If you have chronic digestive symptoms, ask your practitioner to order one of the several excellent functional GI tests mentioned last week. The test will reveal bacterial imbalances and whether or not you would benefit from supplemental digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid (Betaine). Also get breath tests for Helicobacter pylori bacteria and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). If your doctor says it’s just stress and gives you Band-Aid treatments like tranquilizers, H2 blockers, or anti-spasmodics, pick up and go elsewhere. If you want to skip the testing, give yourself a monthlong trial of digestive enzymes with every meal. My associate, naturopathic physician Caley Scott, ND, highly recommends Thorne BioGest, available in our apothecary, though not online at WholeHealth Chicago.
Heal your gut lining
Now that you’ve cleaned up your eating habits by eliminating the junk and eating (for the rest of your very long life) primarily anti-inflammatory whole foods, you can heal your gut lining with just a few supplements:
—A good probiotic will help build up your population of good bacteria. OrthoBiotic is an excellent choice.
—A mainstay of gut healing is the amino acid glutamine and an outstanding product is Glutagenics. You really only need to stay on this for a month or two, but some patients prone to chronic digestive issues keep taking it as a maintenance supplement.
–Supplemental omega-3 is always a good idea, especially if you’re a vegetarian or don’t have access to fish rich in omegas. Here’s a list of plant-based sources of omega-3, though I’d also suggest a good omega-3 supplement like Integrative Therapeutics Pure Omega twice daily.
–Food sensitivity elimination/reintroduction to ferret out hidden food sensitivities.
–Low-inflammation, whole-food eating, now and for the rest of your life.
–If you have GI symptoms, go to a qualified practitioner and get functional testing of your digestive processes including hunting down parasites, candida, H. pylori, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, and shortages of the “good-guy” bacteria.
–Eliminate as much as you can the threats to your gut: alcohol, NSAIDs and other meds, processed foods. I figure none of you smoke cigarettes anymore, but those who still do should know that nicotine (even in passive smoke) triggers massive inflammatory reactions throughout your body.
–Suggested supplements: Glutagenics, OrthoBiotic, BioGest with meals, and Pure Omega.
David Edelberg, MD