Research done over the last two decades is revealing that gut health is critical to overall health. Basically, if your gut is unhealthy you are at greater risk for a number of serious health issues. Diabetes, obesity, depression, autism spectrum disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome are not on people’s top ten list of things to get this year. The solution to preventing these is simple; take good care of your gut.
Improving gastrointestinal health can do more than benefit digestive processes. Absorption of nutrients is improved which means the body gets everything it needs. Additionally, the integrity of the gut barrier can be restored and strengthened with proper care. The durability of our intestinal wall is of such importance that improving gut health has quickly become one of the top goals for medicine this century.
Gut flora: we can’t flourish without them
Trillions of microbes and organisms reside in our gut; a number much higher than the actual count of cells in our body. With such abundance, these organisms must be pretty important. In addition to the large quantity, there are close to 400 different species of bacteria in the human gut. We are essentially more bacteria than we are human. This should tell you that taking care of these bacteria should be our number one priority.
The friendly flora in our gut helps to promote efficient gastrointestinal function, regulates metabolism, protects from infection, and makes up more than 75% of our immune system. Given that our immunity is essential to our health and longevity, and this immunity consists of a large number of flora, we really need to show them some love.
When gut flora are out of balance, unfriendly, or pathogenic, bacteria have a chance to flourish. In situations like this, individuals have been known to develop diseases that range from depression and autoimmune disorders, to inflammatory bowel disease and type-2 diabetes. Each of these unpleasant ailments can be avoided or corrected by ensuring our friendly flora is taken care of. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that contribute to their depletion.
- Birth control
- Diets low in fermentable fibers
- Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods
- Dietary toxins like wheat which cause leaky gut
- Chronic infections
- Chronic stress
Antibiotics have proven to be particularly dangerous for our friendly flora. While they are great at killing off harmful strains, they are not able to distinguish the good from the bad, so our good bacteria are also eliminated. An over reliance on antibiotics has caused bacteria numbers to decrease as well as a lessening of the diversity of bacteria strains. A change in the composition of the intestinal flora is damaging to our health and recovery is only possible with probiotic assistance.
The gut barrier: the ultimate security system
The gut is basically a giant hollow tube passing from the mouth to the anus. What enters through the mouth and is not digested, simply passes out the other end. One of the most important functions of the gut is to prevent foreign substances into the body. Digested nutrients and minerals are absorbed, thanks to the hard work of effective digestive enzymes, and anything harmful or not needed is waste. It is the job of the gut to decide which is which.
An unhealthy gut can become permeable, a phenomenon known as leaky gut. Large protein molecules are able to pass through the barrier and enter the bloodstream. Proteins do not belong outside the intestinal walls so our bodies send out defenses to protect us from this ‘foreign’ invader. These attacks have played a role in the development of autoimmune diseases such as type-2 diabetes and Hashimoto’s. In fact, many researchers believe that leaky gut is the precursor to many autoimmune diseases. The integrity of our intestinal wall (or barrier) is critical.
Our large intestine determines if we can tolerate toxic materials or if we are going to react to them. When the intestinal wall is breached by food toxins, the immune response that is started affects more than the gut. Other organs and tissues like the kidneys, pancreas, liver, brain, and skeletal systems can all be impacted. What you need to be aware of, is that leaky gut does not necessarily mean you have gut symptoms. It can manifest as eczema, heart failure, thyroid conditions, arthritis, mental illness and depression.
Recently researchers discovered a protein called zonulin. This protein has the ability to increase intestinal permeability. Studies done on autoimmune diseases have found high levels of this protein. Additionally, they discovered that by introducing zonulin to animals, type-2 diabetes could be induced almost immediately. The leaky gut they develop starts a process of making antibodies for the islet cells which are responsible for making insulin.
The test may have only been conducted on animals, but the results are very real and need to be taken seriously. What we can take away from these studies is that wheat and other gluten-containing grains should be avoided. Gluten contains the protein gliadin which increases zonulin production. The next phase from there is leaky gut. Other factors that contribute to leaky gut include poor diet, infections, certain medications (NSAIDS, steroids, antibiotics), stress, hormonal imbalance, and neurological conditions.
Fatigued, inflamed, and depressed gut: a.k.a ‘Leaky’
Modern lifestyle choices promote bad intestinal flora and leaky gut. The two are interchangeable so if you have one, you likely have the other. When flora levels are poor and intestinal walls are permeable, you will have inflammation. It is the natural inflammatory response of our immune system that is behind these autoimmune diseases. The response itself is normal, but what it is attacking should not be there in the first place. A healthy gut will not allow material to pass and our bodies have nothing to go after. No inflammation equals no problem.
Keep your gut happy
There are several things you can do to restore and maintain a healthy gut, both in terms of flora and barrier.
- Remove all food toxins from your diet
- Eat fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi
- Combine a high-quality multi-strain probiotic with an effective, plant-based digestive enzyme supplement
- Eat plenty of fermentable fibers like yams and sweet potatoes
- Treat any intestinal pathogens, like candida, if you have any
- Find ways to manage our stress levels
Whatever the reasons your gut has been compromised, follow these tips to get it back on track. You need your gut, and it needs you.