Over the past 20 years or so, gut health has become a bit of a buzzword. But what exactly is gut health and what is a gut? The definition of the gut is a tube that connects the mouth to the anus which is the stomach digestive system that passes out anything that our bodies do not digest. However, the gut as a whole is not that simple. The gut has a lining that has the surface area of 400 square meters and uses roughly 2 times the amount of energy as the brain in order to function properly. Many researchers support the idea that gut health is the key to our overall health.
The idea the gut affects your overall health may be hard to believe. But it comes down to two related variables, the intestinal barrier and gut microbiota.
In the human gut there are approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, these are the “gut microbiota”. These microbes are responsible for a large part of our health. Gut microbes promote peristalsis, the movement of food through the intestines. They are also responsible for protection against infection, producing vitamins, and maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal mucus layer. However, gut microbes have other jobs outside the GI tract.
When outside the digestive tract, gut microbes have influence on other organs and tissues. Through the complex interactions between other organs and tissues, gut microbes are responsible for regulating 70-80% of the immune system as well as influencing blood sugar control. If you thought that’s all gut microbes do, think again! They also regulate the brain, bone, heart, skin, eyes, and muscle tissue. If the gut microbiome is disrupted, certain functions that are usually regulated by the gut microbiota, immunity and brain function, can become impaired. When these functions stop working effectively, you can develop chronic conditions such as autoimmune disease, metabolic dysfunction, and mental health issues as well as a host of other health problems.
What exactly disrupts the gut microbiota? There are many influences from modern day lifestyle that play a role in the disruption of the gut microbiota.
A huge culprit is processed, inflammatory foods. The typical modern diet is packed full of processed, inflammatory foods such seed oils and refined carbohydrates. A diet heavy in refined carbohydrates and seed oil reduces bacterial diversity and in turn induces inflammation within the gut, this can contribute to a multitude of adverse health effects.
Processed foods are not the only thing to blame though. The combination of low fiber intake with other inflammatory and processed foods can disrupt the gut microbiota. Our gut microbes use dietary fiber to fuel itself. A lack of fermentable fiber can cause deprivation of gut bacteria and can lead to the reduction of helpful bacteria.
Our diets are not the only factor that can disrupt the guts microbiota. Our stress levels can alter our gut microbiota. As well as circadian rhythm disruption, which is caused by abnormal sleep schedules and blue light exposure at night. Both can cause imbalances within the gut microbiome. It also compromises the intestinal barrier which is the second essential factor that influences gut health.
The other huge variable to our gut health is referred to as the intestinal barrier. It is a multilayer system that is made up of intestinal epithelial cells and proteins, which prevents non-nutritive, potentially harmful substances including proteins from escaping your intestines and into the bloodstream. When properly functioning, the intestinal barrier is the guts security, essentially. The intestinal barrier, when in good condition, is strong and tight. The intestinal barrier not only keeps certain things out of your bloodstream, but it also lets in important nutrients that our bodies need. If the barrier is damaged or weak, the gut’s lining becomes hyperpermeable, meaning it allows liquids and gases to pass through the gut at a higher rate. When the lining becomes more hyperpermeable, it exposes the body to many different possibilities that could cause damage to the body.
The escape of large proteins and molecules from your gut into the blood is known as “leaky gut”. The leaking of substances that are incompatible with our bodies into the bloodstream causes an inflammatory response in the immune system. Chronic inflammation resulting from leaky gut has been found to be an underlying cause of many chronic health conditions. It therefore could be the culprit for many health conditions people struggle with today.
As discussed before, there are many factors that can harm the gut microbiome, those factors like stress and processed foods, also contribute to leaky gut. It is crucial to understand that leaky gut is often a predisposing factor in the development of other health issues. Moreover, there are certain substances that can cause abnormality in the intestinal barrier’s permeability. Research has identified one of these substances as a protein called zonulin.
Zonulin is responsible for the increase of permeability within the intestinal barrier. Okay so why does this matter? A common part of a modern diet is grain. In fact, grains make up about 30% of the calories in the standard modern diet. Gliadin, which is a component of gluten protein (found in many grains), increases zonulin production – promoting leaky gut.
Leaky gut occurs on a spectrum. There is a large varying array of severity, triggers and symptoms. A host of inflammatory offenders that contribute to the development of leaky gut. For instance, wheat germ agglutinin (a lectin that protects wheat from insects, yeast and bacteria) has been found as a direct cause of leaky gut. Below are a few more factors that can contribute to the cause of leaky gut.
– Low stomach acid
– Environmental toxins
– Heavily processed foods
If you experience any of these symptoms, taking a closer look at your gut health might explain what you are going through.
– Multiple food sensitivities and/or allergies
– Psoriasis, eczema, and other skin conditions
– Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
– Anxiety and depression
– Chronic fatigue
– Joint pain
– Seasonal allergies
Though there is a good chance your gut is compromised if you experience any of these symptoms, gut health is not synonymous with intestinal permeability. The most fool-proof way to identify leaky gut is by testing the levels of zonulin, the protein mentioned previously. If a leaky gut is left untreated, it is near impossible to improve other health issues you may be experiencing such as blood sugar regulation and cognitive function. Both of which are crucial to living a happy healthy life, which is why it’s so important to focus on promoting a health intestinal barrier.
So you want to heal your gut naturally? The first step is to avoid or reduce disruptive factors that harm the gut microbiome and intestinal barrier.
– Remove Processed, Inflammatory Foods
Try to move towards a more whole foods-based diet that is nutrient-dense. Try to identify foods that commonly cause inflammation in your diet, gluten, grains and dairy tend to be a big culprit.
– Add Fermentable Fibers
Get your fill of fermentable fibers, which can be found in foods such as onions, garlic, green plantains, and artichoke. These foods help fuel the growth of gut bacteria that aids in the healing of leaky gut. Adding in fiber can be helpful for many but not for all. Some people experience digestive issues from certain high fiber foods. Remember to always listen to your body.
Some researchers propose that fiber is actually not essential and many people have eliminated fiber entirely and healed their gut related symptoms by cutting out all plant based foods and dairy from their diets. This for many is the most extreme version of an elimination diet essentially consuming only beef, lamb, and salt. Meat, of course, contains zero fiber and has a brief adjustment period, but a number of people have experienced cessation of most of all of the symptoms in days or weeks of starting this protocol, at that point, adding one food at a time to see how the body and mind reacts. Some continue with a fiberless meat based diet and others carefully add back what works for them.
– Add Fermented Foods
Foods that are fermented are filled with probiotics that encourage the healthy restoration of the gut microbiota and intestinal barrier. Foods such as kimchi, yogurt and kefir provide an abundance of probiotics. Kombucha is also a great way to consume probiotics. However, be wary of fermented foods if you are struggling with other health conditions that may be exacerbated by consuming fermented foods.
– Emphasize Healthy Sleep Habits
Get your sleep! Getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night is highly recommended. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule and reduce the amount of blue light exposure at night.
– Develop Exercise Routine
Get your body moving and develop an exercise routine that is sustainable to you.
– Manage Stress
Partake is stress-reduction exercises, for example meditation or yoga. Taking time to let your mind and body decompress from the day to day activities is great for our health!
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