We’ve all heard the saying, “listen to your gut.” Usually that advice refers to our intuition, but it should also speak to our digestion. That’s because our gut guides our overall well-being. Quite literally, our gut is the epicenter of our mental and physical health.
It’s all too common to experience lots of digestive issues that make a huge impact on our strength and vitality. So, if you want better immunity, efficient digestion, improved clarity and more overall balance—focus on rebuilding your gut health.
A little effort goes a long way!
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 and thinking, 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 on. 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 your 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 thousands of participants of my 21-day total wellness program, Crazy Sexy You, do the same.
In this article, I’m 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.
What happens inside your gut?
In your gut are 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.
When you’re in balance, beneficial 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 gum up the works and cause painful problems like inflammation and infection. This can lead to health issues such as constipation, candida, allergies, arthritis, headaches, depression, autoimmune diseases and more.
How to improve your balance.
What would cause a revolt? The biggest culprits are medications (especially antibiotics and antacids), environmental toxins and chemicals, stress and illness. These all affect the ratio of good to bad bacteria.
When bacteria are 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, and proper rest).
Your mental health affects your gut health (and vice versa)
Did you know you have two brains? Yup, you’re THAT smart. First is the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). This 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. 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. Yup, it’s your gut! Your gut has a mind of its very own 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 “brains” 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 dramatically affect 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 known 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!), but most importantly, it’s integral to your immune system.
The GALT contains immune structures called Peyer’s patches. These are filled with immune cells, such as B cells and T cells that recognize and neutralize harmful bacteria. So, when pathogenic bacteria visit your gut via food or your environment, the Peyer’s patches trigger an immune response that prevents 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. This is the only thing standing between everything inside your gut and your bloodstream.
Think of your gut wall as a parking lot with a limited number of “parking spots.” You want good bacteria parked in those spaces, so bad bacteria is crowded out. How can you do that? By adopting the following gut health tips.
How to improve gut health
1. Take a probiotic supplement.
When folks ask what 3 things you’d bring if you were stranded on a desert island, my answer is always probiotics, probiotics, and probiotics. They’re that important!
A daily probiotic supplement will increase the good bacteria in your gut. This keeps the bad guys under control, boosts your immune system and eases digestive issues.
A supplement is especially helpful when you’re taking a medication, such as an antibiotic, that has wiped out a large amount of gut bacteria. A few brands I recommend are Healthy Gut, 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 can 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 what will work for you, have your stool analyzed by Metametrix or Genova Diagnostics. They can identify parasites, abnormal bacteria, yeasts and other gastrointestinal issues that 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 fermented foods that 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 vegan-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.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that are good for your gut, while prebiotics are a type of fiber that helps feed those good bacteria already living in your gut. Think of probiotics as the good bacteria themselves, and prebiotics as the food that keeps them happy and healthy.
Prebiotics can be found in a variety of whole, plant-based, fiber-filled foods. Some of the best prebiotic foods to add to your diet include raw onions, garlic, dandelion greens, artichokes and bananas are
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 muscles 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. Eat less 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. Reduce your stress levels.
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. This causes digestion and blood flow in the gut to slow down, so the muscles that push along waste and bacteria freeze up and digestive secretions decrease. All of these stress responses equal a poorly functioning gut!
Take care of your gut health by improving how you’re managing stress. Try breathwork, yoga, meditation, therapy, time in the outdoors or any of the countless other stress reduction techniques available to you. They’ll help shift your body from fight or flight mode to rest and digest mode—your gut’s BFF.
I hope this information inspires you to love your gut back to health.
Your turn: 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!
Peace & good digestion,