How to improve your gut health
We’ve all heard the saying, “listen to your gut.” And while that advice often refers to our intuition, it should also speak to our digestion. Your gut guides your overall well-being. Quite literally, your gut is the epicenter of your mental and physical health. Yet it’s all too common to experience lots of digestive issues that make a huge impact on our strength and vitality. If you want better immunity, efficient digestion, improved clarity and balance, focus on rebuilding your gut health.
I know it may seem like there’s always something we could be doing better. And frankly, our quest for getting well can be downright exhausting! Sometimes our health issues can feel so big and daunting. This is especially true when it comes to serious chronic diseases. I remember getting frustrated many times. I thought to myself, for gosh sake, I’m doing everything I can to heal this disease and though I’m grateful it’s still stable, why won’t the sucker just go away? I give up! Then I decided to take it down a notch and focus on healing areas of my life and my body that I actually could control. My digestion had always been really weak. I got colds every year and had a list of health problems stemming from my gut. That’s when the light bulb went off. I decided to forget about cancer and focus my energy on my digestive health instead. Finally, improvements I could see, feel and measure!
By supporting this mighty system, you’ll see chronic health issues (like fatigue, fogginess, colds, aches and pains) diminish, and you’ll feel abundant energy return. I know it sounds too good to be true, but it really isn’t. I’ve experienced these results, and I’ve seen hundreds of readers do the same. Now it’s your turn.
Today, we’re going to cover the basics of digestive health. You’ll learn what your gut does and why it’s so important to keep it healthy. Then, we’ll discuss how to care for your wonderful gut so that it continues to take care of glorious you. Let’s dive in!
What happens inside your gut?
Your gut holds trillions of bacteria that help process your food, produce nutrients, and fight disease. In fact, there are ten times more bacteria in your gut than cells in your entire body! These little guys are super important and they need your help. Since what you eat, drink and think affects the environment in your gut, your daily choices play a critical role in whether those trillion plus bacteria help or hinder your well-being.
It’s all about balance when it comes to gut health. When your gut is in tip-top shape, about 80-85 percent of bacteria are good guys and 15-20 percent are bad guys. You feel great, your body is strong and nimble, you rarely get sick, your energy is consistent, you poop like a champ, life is good. The healthy bacteria are free to do their job with ease. They assist with digestion, produce disease-fighting antibodies, crowd out bad bacteria and produce certain hormones, vitamins and nutrients.
But when the harmful bacteria stage a revolt, all hell breaks loose. They totally gum up the works and cause painful problems like inflammation and infection, which can then lead to health issues such as constipation, candida, allergies, arthritis, headaches, depression, autoimmune diseases and more.
Medications (especially antibiotics and antacids), environmental toxins and chemicals, stress and illness greatly affect the ratio of good to bad bacteria. When bacteria is wiped out indiscriminately, the good guys get mowed down, giving the bad guys a chance to increase their ranks. Hello, chronic health issues.
The food you eat also affects the ratio of good to bad bacteria. Everything you consume is processed and either absorbed into your body or eliminated via your gut. Your gut completes the amazing task of digesting your food and pulling the nutrients, vitamins and minerals out of the food so that they can be absorbed into your bloodstream.
And your gut’s mind-blowing capabilities don’t stop there. Your gut also identifies invaders — toxins, microbes, viruses and allergens that could harm your health — and moves them through your digestive system so that they can be excreted. Buh-bye!
The key to this system working in your favor is two-fold:
1) Lend your gut a hand by feeding your body whole, plant-based, nutrient-dense foods.
2) Consistently practice a healthy lifestyle (less stress, exercise, less exposure to environmental toxins, proper rest) that supports the good gut bacteria and keeps the harmful bacteria under control.
Your mental health affects your gut health (and vice versa).
Did you know you have two brains? Yup, you’re THAT smart. The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) controls almost all voluntary and involuntary activities within your body. For example, a voluntary action would be slicing your veggies, while an involuntary action would be blinking, breathing or falling in love with Matthew Crawley’s character in Downton Abbey (kidding, not!). The involuntary actions carried out by your central nervous system are constantly at work taking care of you. Nice, right? Thank you, central nervous system; you’re a peach!
Now guess where your second brain lives. Your gut! Yup, it has a mind of it’s very own. Your gut’s “brain” is known as the enteric nervous system. This system is home to 100 million neurons within your intestinal wall. These cute little neurons transmit important information throughout your body. They also control digestion and send status updates to the brain, letting it know how things are going in your belly.
Your two nervous systems have an intricate relationship that’s just now being explored by scientists through the field of neurogastroenterology (that’s a mouthful!). While the enteric nervous system initiates and sustains digestion on its own, signals from the brain, such as stress and anxiety, can have dramatic effects on how well it works. In addition, the brain receives chemical messages from the gut, which can affect your mood and emotions. In fact, the vast majority of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, anxiety, depression and more) is actually made in your gut, not your brain! It’s all connected and sadly, few doctors ask you about your digestive health when you tell them you’re feeling too blue to cope.
Your gut is a major component of your immune system.
Did you know that about 60-70 percent of your immune system lives in your gut? Meet your GALT, also know as gut-associated lymphoid tissue. Your GALT lies just below the mucosal lining of the gut wall. It’s very thin (only one cell thick!), and most importantly — it’s integral to your immune system. The GALT contains specialized immune structures called Peyer’s patches that are filled with immune cells, such as B cells and T cells, which are responsible for recognizing and neutralizing harmful bacteria. When pathogenic bacteria visits your gut via food or your environment, the Peyer’s patches trigger your immune response to prevent them from passing through the gut wall.
Another way your gut protects you from infection and disease is through an abundance of healthy bacteria. To keep harmful bacteria from overthrowing your gut, healthy bacteria need to thrive and cover your gut wall — the only thing standing between everything inside your gut and your bloodstream. It helps to imagine that your gut wall is a parking lot. There are a limited number of “parking spots” along your gut wall. You want good bacteria parked in those spaces, so bad bacteria is crowded out. Keep those spaces filled by adopting the following gut health tips.
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Now that you know how important your gut health is to your overall well-being, how can you take care of your spectacular gut?
1. Take a probiotic supplement. A daily probiotic supplement will help boost the good bacteria in your gut, keeping the bad guys under control, boosting your immune system and easing digestive issues. This is especially helpful when you’re taking a medication, such as an antibiotic that has wiped out a large amount of gut bacteria. Some recommended brands: Dr. Ohirra’s, Primal Defense, Healthforce Nutritionals (Friendly Force), and MegaFood’s Megaflora.
If you’ve been focusing on your gut health for a while and your symptoms persist, you may want to try additional supplements to restore balance in your belly. In his book Revive, my friend Frank Lipman, MD recommends taking an herbal antibiotic, which can help kill an overgrowth of bad bacteria (I’ve taken GI Microb-x in the past). He also suggests taking a glutamine-based formula to repair your gut lining and digestive enzymes with meals to assist with breaking down and digesting your food. To find out which of these measures might be necessary have your stool analyzed by Metametrix or Genova Diagnostics. This analysis will identify parasites, abnormal bacteria, yeasts and other gastrointestinal issues, which will help you create a supplement plan, ideally with the help of an Integrative MD or Naturopath.
2. Eat probiotic whole foods. You can also eat whole foods that are fermented and contain large amounts of good bacteria. Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, microalgae and coconut kefir are fantastic plant-based probiotic-rich foods. When looking for probiotic-rich foods, avoid vinegar-based and/or pasteurized varieties, since these elements kill good bacteria. You want to pick up (or make!) lacto-fermented probiotic foods (FYI–this is a plant-friendly approach, no whey is necessary). If you’re interested in making your own probiotic foods, Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz is a popular book on the subject. Word to the wise: Get educated on fermenting at home before diving in–it can be risky if you don’t know what you’re doing!
3. Eat prebiotic whole foods. Certain foods feed and support the growth of good bacteria. By eating more whole, plant-based, fiber-filled foods, you’re fueling the bacteria that support your health. Raw onions, garlic, dandelion greens, artichokes and bananas are some of the best prebiotic foods to add to your diet.
4. Eat regularly, but not constantly (and don’t eat late at night). To give your gut a chance to clean up and clear out bacteria and waste, it needs a rest from digestion. Every 90 minutes to two hours, the smooth muscle in your intestines move and groove to keep bacteria and waste truckin’ through your digestive tract. But this process is put on hold every time you eat. Can you see why snacking constantly slows down digestion and contributes to bacterial overgrowth? I’m not saying that you need to fast for long periods — eating regularly helps prevent constipation and bloating — but it’s best to take breaks between meals.
5. Stay hydrated. A good rule of thumb for staying hydrated is drinking half your bodyweight in ounces of water each day. For example, if you weigh 130 pounds, you should drink about 65 ounces of water. That’s about eight 8-ounce glasses of water. Your gut needs water to keep bacteria and waste moving through your digestive system, which will help prevent constipation and bloating. When you’re dehydrated, these issues can throw off the balance of bacteria in your gut and lead to inflammation. Give your gut a hand and drink more H2O!
6. Lessen refined sugar and processed foods. When you consume processed, sugar-laden, refined foods, you’re giving bad bacteria an all-you-can-eat buffet, which increases the likelihood of all the aforementioned bull crap that weighs you down and dims your shine.
7. Lessen stress. Remember when we talked about the connection between your brain and your gut? When you experience chronic stress, your brain goes into fight or flight mode, causing your digestion and blood flow in the gut to slow down, the muscles that push along waste and bacteria to freeze up and the secretions for digestion to decrease. All of these stress responses equal a poorly functioning gut! Take care of your gut health by coping with stress through breathwork, yoga, meditation, therapy, time in the outdoors and the countless other stress reduction techniques available to you.
I hope this information inspires you to love your gut back to health. Your turn to share: How will you help your gut today? And if you’ve been down this road, what has helped you recover? I’d love to know! I’m still on the path, as are many of my readers.
Peace and digestion,