Gut health is a trendy topic these days—and rightfully so! The more we learn about our gut, the more we’ve come to realize just how much it impacts our overall wellbeing. Whether you’re dealing with ongoing gut issues, like IBS or bloating, or you’re interested in learning how you can support your gut health, consider this your go-to guide.
What exactly is the gut?
What we commonly refer to as “the gut” is the gastrointestinal tract. Its job is to process food from the time it’s first eaten until it’s either absorbed by the body or passed out as stool. The process of digestion begins in the mouth. Here, your teeth and chemicals made by the body (enzymes) begin to break down food. Muscular contractions help to move food into the gullet (oesophagus) and on to the stomach. Chemicals produced by cells in the stomach begin the major work of digestion.
While some foods and liquids are absorbed through the lining of the stomach, the majority are absorbed in the small intestine. Muscles in the wall of the gut mix your food with the enzymes produced by the body. They also move food along towards the end of the gut.
Food that can’t be digested, waste substances, germs (bacteria) and undigested food are all passed out as feces.
The term “gut” is synonymous with the digestive tract−primarily the stomach, small and large intestines. Our gut serves as host to approximately 1,000 unique species of bacteria, both good and bad, that regulate the immune system, aid in food digestion, produce certain key nutrients and protect us from toxins and pathogens. To maintain proper gut health, we need to maintain the proper balance of bacteria
How does the gut impact our immune system?
What many people don’t realize is that 70 to 80% of the immune system is housed in the gut microbiome, which is why gut health is so important. It has also recently become obvious that alterations of these gut microbial communities can cause immune dysregulation, leading to autoimmune disorders.
In a nutshell, your gut microbe helps the immune system by teaching your immune cells how to recognize foreign invaders, influencing the chemical signals sent by your immune cells and to encourage your body to activate the immune response. The gut microbes also helps your intestinal walls stay strong. With strong intestinal walls, your body can better block pathogens with body tissue.
The small intestine functions as the epicenter of the adaptive immune system. Here, billions of healthy bacterial organisms kill off invading bacteria; help digest food; produce immune molecules, vitamins and cancer-prevention compounds; and even help to regulate your hormonal metabolism.
Think of your gut flora like good, dark, rich garden soil infused with compost and earthworms: a wake plant can survive in these conditions. But if you have bad soil (like dry, crumbly, nutrient-depleted soil), a strong plant may not survive.
Same with the human body: a healthy person has about 3 pounds and 500 different species of good bacterial flora, and when good flora is vibrant, the whole body does well. But when bad bacteria prevail, illness strikes. When we support our gut health, our body is better equipped to fight off the intruders.
What things hurt our gut microbiome?
Found in non-organic grown fruits and vegetables. Glyphosate (Round-up), is a pesticide used as a drying agent that is sprayed heavily on wheat, corn, soy, some beans, almonds, and oats (another reason to buy organic). Pesticides have been shown to disrupt gut bacteria in animals, preferentially killing beneficial forms and causing an overgrowth of pathogens.
Found in personal care products like antibacterial soap, mouthwash, toothpaste, and deodorant. Triclosan is easily absorbed through the skin and gastrointestinal tract and alters the types of microbes present in the gastrointestinal tract. These alterations impair the immune-regulating activities of gut microbes and predispose our bodies to allergic diseases such as allergies and eczema.
Phthalates, PFOA’s, and Dioxins
Found in hygiene products, cleaning products, personal care products, pots and pans. Human studies find that newborn exposure to high levels of phthalates alters the gut microbiome and immune response to vaccinations. Additionally, phthalate exposure during puberty compromises the microbial formation of the vital regulatory metabolite, butyrate, in mice. Recent studies find that exposure to persistent organic pollutants, like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), shift microbes in the gut, thus increasing gut porousness, inflammation in the intestines, and cognitive dysfunction.
Bisphenol or BPA
Found in hard plastic water bottles and the lining of canned foods, BPA alters the normal gut flora and disrupts the body’s hormonal system by mimicking the hormone estrogen.
Antibiotics change the ecology within the gut. One change detected following various disturbances is an increase in gut E. coli populations. Patricia Raymond, MD, a gastroenterologist in Norfolk, Va., and founder of YourHealthChoice.net. “It’s like setting off an atomic bomb in the intestines.”
Acid-blocking compounds: Antacids neutralize the acid in our stomach, which is the body’s first line of defense from harmful pathogens that we ingest every day. We increase our risk for stomach bugs and infections if we are taking antacids on an ongoing basis.
NSAID’s (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as anacin, bayer, and motrin. It’s long been known that NSAIDS can cause bleeding, inflammation, and ulcers in the stomach and small intestine. However, recent research suggests that this is the result of dysbiosis, or changes in the gut microbiome balance brought on by these medications.
NSAID’s also increase your intestinal permeability, which means they make leaky gut worse.16 This means they widen the tight junctions in your gut cell wall that allow food particles and other toxins to enter your bloodstream.
Viruses and other infections
Yeast/fungus, parasites, bacterial overgrowth, and viruses. Diversities of gut microbiota decrease during the development of most infectious diseases, which reflects the general observation that members of Clostridiales or Bacteroides were depleted. The gut microbiota plays an important role in the development and maintenance of host immunity. It can protect against gut invasion by foreign microbes through nutritional competition and colonization resistance. On the one hand, infectious diseases can cause alterations in gut microbiota by affecting gut function and immunity. On the other hand, inflammation caused by alterations of gut microbiota may aggravate infectious diseases.
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners: Refined sugars acidify the system and prompt the body to make more bile— and some types of bad bacteria feast on sugar and bile acids.
- Conventional dairy: Meaning the kinds of dairy that aren’t fermented- such as sugary yogurts (Yoplait, Dannon’s), shredded cheese, cow’s milk. You want to consume dairy-based products like unsweetened kefir, probiotic-filled yogurts, and raw or grass-fed organic milk.
- Alcohol: Heavy alcohol use encourages an overgrowth of harmful bacteria while reducing the population of helpful bacteria. This can lead to inflammation, and allows toxins to enter the bloodstream. A disruption in the balance of gut bacteria can cause health problems such as leaky gut syndrome and gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Meat: Depending on how it’s sourced and how often it’s consumed. Bacon, sausage, and conventional beef are the worst offenders. Grass-fed, organic meats are far better, as it’s rich in vitamins, low in saturated fat, high in omega 3’s (the powerhouse fat), and free of factory pesticides and feed. Most regular meat brands are known for raising their livestock with antibiotics, which is detrimental to your gut; several studies show healthier microbiomes in vegetarians.
- Inflammatory oils: Canola, vegetable, safflower oil, soy, and peanut oils. The consumption of industrial seed oils represents an evolutionary mismatch.Eating industrial seed oils raises our omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acid ratios, with significant consequences for our health. Industrial seed oils are unstable and oxidize easily. They contain harmful additives. They’re derived from genetically modified crops. When industrial seed oils are repeatedly heated, even more toxic byproducts are created. Given these reasons why they’re so awful, consuming high levels of these kinds of oils, which increases omega 6’s, alters the gut microbiota and promotes gastrointestinal inflammation, thereby contributing to the development of IBS and IBD. The higher-quality the oil, the better your body will function. That’s because the body uses the fat you eat to build cell walls. You have more than 100 trillion cells in your body, and every single one of them needs high-quality fat.
- Processed foods: Processed foods can include anything from packaged meats such as bacon and beef jerky to sugary treats such as packaged muffins and cookies—both of which are filled with refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs are grains, breads, and flours that have been stripped of fiber, which is associated with promoting satiety, balancing blood sugar levels, and feeding gut flora (healthful bacteria in the stomach). Some of the worst processed food offenders include coffee creamer, soda pop, fried food (think fast food/take-out), bacon & sausage, sugary cereal, frozen entrees, restaurant desserts, ready-to-bake pie crusts, chips, crackers, commercially-baked goods, commercially-made cake frosting, margarine, “low-fat” sweets.
- Many gluten-based products: We’re no longer eating the wheat that our parents and grandparents ate. In order to have the drought-resistant, bug-resistant, and faster growing wheat that we have today, we have hybridized the grain. It’s estimated that 5 percent of the proteins found in hybridized wheat are new proteins that were not found in either of the original wheat plants. These “new proteins” are part of the problem that has lead to increased systemic inflammation, widespread gluten intolerance, and higher rates of celiac. Today’s wheat has also been deamidated, which allows it to be water soluble and capable of being mixed into virtually every kind of packaged food. This deamidation has been shown to produce a large immune response in many people. With fast food at our fingertips, we are eating much more wheat than our ancestors ever did. Gluten has just become so difficult for our intestinal walls to break down the proteins within gluten, thus, creating disruption, weakening of the walls, and external symptoms like pain, bloating, and autoimmune diseases.
Stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol
Of all the toxins you can put in your body, stress is one of the worst. High stress levels are connected with increased activity in the “sympathetic tone” (muscle contractions of the sympathetic nervous system), which shows that the adrenal system has been working too hard, which can cause chronic disease, cancer, etc.
- A 2001 study published in the Journal of Interferon and Cytokine Research, which tested first-year medical students for the production of “immune molecules,” such as cytokines and chemokines, after a major exam, found that the stress of test-taking markedly affects the body’s immune-cell distribution and its ability to fight off disease.
- Stress slows the body’s ability to heal tiny fissures in the intestinal lining. Stress can also speed up or slow down the contractions in the small intestine, affecting the rate food moves through your system.
- In a 1999 study published in the international journal Gut, people in gastrointestinal clinics cited severe life stress as a precursor to their gastrointestinal problems. Although the connection isn’t clear, scientists do know that stress breeds inflammation and also upsets the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the contractions of the intestine, thereby changing the speed at which food moves through you. Stress affects our biochemistry at many levels.
What foods can we eat to support our gut health?
Fiber and plant-based foods
These will nourish your bacterial flora and supply other nerve centers in your immune system with a steady supply of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutritional goodies. Some good options include: Brussels sprouts, artichokes, broccoli, collard greens, kale, asparagus, beets, green beans, acorn squash, lentils, chia seeds, oranges, avocados, garbanzo beans, berries, and edamame. The more fiber you have in your diet, the more diversity you’ll have in your ecosystem.
There’s prebiotics—of which fiber is the most common–carbohydrates that feed the good bacteria residing in our guts, that are rich in fermentable sugars that feed precisely gut bacteria. Some sources of prebiotics include raw garlic, raw onion, Jerusalem artichokes, raw dandelion greens, asparagus, raw chicory root, and unripe bananas. Olipop drinks are a favorite of mine to support gut health as well.
There are probiotics which are live organisms which may or may not be microbes that are already found natively in and on our bodies. We mostly ingest probiotics through the foods we eat. Some foods that have probiotics include fermented dairy products like kefir and yogurt, miso soup, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha tea, fermented meats, fermented fish, and pickled veggies. These are great for supporting gut health.
Finally, there’s synbiotics, which are a combination of both pre and probiotics that can help support gut health. By getting your prebiotics and probiotics at the same time, they can work together easily. Essentially, the prebiotics are helping to feed the probiotics, so they can do their thing. Greek yogurt and sliced (mostly green) bananas, edamame and miso soup, and kimchi with sliced onions in it are all examples of ways to consume synbiotics.
Other gut-building foods include:
- Bone broth
- Collagen powder (see below)
- Cabbage juice
- Chia seeds
- Slippery elm bark tea
- Marshmallow root tea
What else can we do to support our gut health?
Slow down when eating and be mindful about chewing your food slowly. By giving that nutritious bite a good working over, you dramatically increase your digestion capabilities.
Avoiding irritants and allergens
Prioritizing what we use in our cleaning products, personal care products, and home products (buying organic fruit and veggies, using glass over plastic, avoiding non-stick pots and pans, etc).
Exercise is able to enrich the microflora diversity in your gut. This could potentially contribute to reducing weight, obesity-associated pathologies, and gastrointestinal disorders. Exercise is also an excellent way to boost your immune system. Movement increases the capacity of the glands, improves circulation, reduces stress, and boosts adrenal function.
Some Supplements, minerals, and compounds
Taking probiotic supplements especially after taking antibiotics can be helpful for optimal gut health. It’s a good idea to consider probiotic supplements if you don’t eat dairy, can’t have foods that are high in histamines (like kraut or kimchi), or if you don’t eat soy (like miso).
Collagen makes up structures throughout your body, including your digestive tract. You naturally make collagen. But unless you eat a lot of organ meats and bone broth, you probably aren’t giving your body enough amino acid building blocks to produce enough collagen protein, which is where a collagen supplement (like collagen powder) comes in handy! Although, do your research on clean label project and other websites dedicated to ensuring products are low in heavy metals!
Zinc-L-carnosine (ZnC), also called polaprezinc, is a chelated compound that contains L-carnosine and zinc. It’s a required mineral found in meat, eggs, shellfish, cheese, legumes, and tofu. Zinc is an essential mineral that is a part of many enzymes that are critical in cell proliferation during cell repair, especially in epithelial and epidermal cells. L-carnosine is also part of ZnC. It is found in the muscles of vertebrates, and therefore dietary meats. It has been shown to play a protective role in wound healing, immune function, diabetes, and loss of vision, and this is thought to be due to its role as a buffer and as an antioxidant. The combination of zinc and carnosine that results in ZnC is said to have superior health benefits compared to either alone as carnosine enhances the absorption of zinc because of its solubility and perhaps because it delivers zinc to the tissues in a delayed/extended release manner. It may promote the restoration of a healthy gastric lining in people with peptic ulcers. A new study reveals that zinc deficiency – a condition that affects 25 percent of the world’s population, especially in the developing world – alters the makeup of bacteria found in the intestine.
- Vitamin C
Vitamin C has a role in the immune system, especially by enhancing the function of the white blood cells that gobble up invading bacteria.
The primary role of glutathione is to protect cells from oxidative stress. It’s abundantly distributed in the mucosal cells of the gastrointestinal tract both in animals and humans. It binds with harmful chemicals, heavy metals and other toxins in the body and carries them into the bile and the stool so they are excreted. It has been used for helping those with immune disorders, autism, digestive disorders like colitis, cardiovascular diseases and other problems. Glutathione is created in the body from glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine. Taking these amino acids can help the body naturally produce more, but there are also some great food sources of these building blocks needed to make it:
- Onions and garlic
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Avocado and walnuts
- Poultry and egg yolks
Black elderberry juice in particular can help keep the digestive system stay healthy. It improves digestion by promoting the secretion of digestive juices, and it also prevents constipation. Not only that, but it’s also been found to inhibit the growth of bacteria like Helicobacter pylori. Never eat elderberries raw though. You can incorporate them in your diet via syrups (keep in mind, they’re likely high in sugar or gummies.
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin D has important functions beyond those of calcium and bone homeostasis, which include modulation of the innate and adaptive immune responses.
- Vitamin D deficiency is prevalent in autoimmune disease. Cells of the immune system are capable of synthesizing and responding to vitamin D.
- Two kinds of Vitamin D:
1. Vitamin D3, sometimes called calciferol, is the stuff that is produced when our skin is exposed to direct sunlight. It’s all ready for our body to take in, metabolise and use. This is the form of Vitamin D we want to be getting.
2. Vitamin D2, sometimes called ergocalciferol, is the other form. It’s like the analogue version of Vitamin D. There’s a complex process that needs to take place in the body for Vitamin D2 to be ready for the body to use. That’s why a lot of scientists agree that actually Vitamin D2 isn’t really that helpful for our body, as it isn’t the type we are used to absorbing and utilising.
- So we want to be getting more Vitamin D3 than Vitamin D2 because that’s what will help keep us healthy and will be the most beneficial.
Sources: supplement, use it in its spice form for cooking, teas, golden milk.
“A healthy GI tract serves as a barrier that prevents undigested food particles, microbes, and toxins from entering the body through your bloodstream. When the cells lining the intestinal wall become damaged, substances are able to “leak” into the body.”(7)
Eczema, migraines, acne, mental health can occurs when you experience inflammation, “which is your body’s response to a perceived threat. Your immune system is so stressed by these threats that it goes into overdrive and attacks your own skin cells.” (7)
“Many people who have eczema have asthma and seasonal allergies as well. These are also caused by inflammation and an overactive immune system.”(7)
And we know 70-80% of the immune system is housed in the gut as well.
And we know gut microbiome produce hormones. They also signal to your glands in your body to let them know how much of each hormone should be created and released.
The gut plays a huge role in human health. If you are battling any of the above, work with your doctor to find the root cause.
Do you think most people know this now about the gut?