Good Health Starts in the Gut

Lately, there seems to be an endless parade of ads for products that hint at improving digestive problems. Foods fortified with probiotics and fiber are all the rage and they are popping up in the strangest places: tortillas, hummus, candy bars, and drinks of all sorts. It appears that Americans have some serious digestive problems and are in need of some serious gut healing. While adding more fiber and probiotics to your diet is an important step, relying on these new fortified foods isn’t likely to bring any real healing and long term relief. Instead opting for a diet that really addresses the underlying causes and a supplement routine that really gives your intestinal cells what they need to heal is the best answer to creating lasting relief and real gut health.

We don’t generally pay much attention to our digestive processes, unless something goes wrong of course. But the process of eating, breaking down the food, and then absorbing it is truly an amazing process. Each time we eat, our food begins the long journey which will progressively break it down into its most basic parts so nutrients can be absorbed and unusable parts can be excreted. The digestive system is also responsible for defending the body against foreign invaders, removing bodily wastes, destroying old intestinal cells and creating new ones, fostering the growth of beneficial bacteria, making certain vitamins like K and B12, and releasing hormones that communicate with the brain and heart. Without this complex system, we wouldn’t get the nutrients we need to constantly fuel bodily processes. The problem is that this intricate system is easily derailed by our modern lives. Stress, chemicals and pesticides, a lack of fiber, and the use of medications can all alter the functioning of the gastrointestinal system and the beneficial bacteria that reside there. Once the gut becomes compromised, it becomes more susceptible to further damage and a viscous cycle begins. The symptoms that indicate a need for gut healing are numerous but may include gas, bloating, cramping, constipation and/or diarrhea, food allergies and sensitivities, indigestion, leaky gut, or skin conditions like acne and eczema.

For anyone dealing with gut issues a comprehensive approach to healing involves two critical steps. Step one, remove the gut-offending substances. Step two, feed the gut the nutrients it needs to heal and repair. Easy enough right? Now let’s look at how to accomplish these steps.

Step One: Remove the Offenders

Often people want to skip this step, instead looking for the magic combination of pills that will “just fix it,” but this step is critical. If you are continually ingesting foods that your gut is sensitive to, all the gut-healing nutrients in the world will only take you so far because the damage will continue to occur. The first things to eliminate are processed foods containing artificial chemicals and ingredients. Choose organic food to avoid pesticides and herbicides, switch to filtered water, and eliminate sugars. Next eliminate the foods that you are personally sensitive to. For most people with gut problems adopting a gluten-free diet is a good place to start, since three out of 10 Americans are sensitive to gluten. After gluten, dairy and grains (including corn) are probably the next biggest culprits; sensitivities to soy are also common. It is common to be sensitive to many different foods, especially if your gut problems have been going on for a long time. For many people with chronic gut problems adopting a completely dairy and grain free diet may be necessary.

Step Two: Heal and Repair

After the offending foods have been eliminated most people start to notice improvements, but without the second step of healing, full recovery is less likely. There are plenty of foods that can be added to aid in this recovery such as cabbage juice; probiotic rich foods like plain full-fat yogurt and kefir (if tolerated); unpasteurized sauerkraut and miso; ghee, which contains butyric acid that nourishes the intestinal cells; coconut oil, which contains fatty acids the body can use to ward off invading bacteria and fungus; and fiber-rich foods, especially ground flax and chia seeds, which are mucilaginous and help protect the gut lining while also keeping things moving. Adding these foods can be tremendously helpful, but to achieve true gut health it’s important to consider creating a supplement routine that will nourish and heal.

If your gut has been damaged for any length of time, your ability to absorb nutrients has also been impaired and you may be deficient in one more essential nutrients. Start with the basics: a high-quality multi vitamin/mineral and an omega-3 supplement and from there consider adding any one or more of the following supplements to your routine.

Multiple Vitamin

A high-quality multi vitamin will contain zinc, essential in promoting healthy cells in the GI tract; vitamin A, needed to support mucosal membrane health in the GI tract; and vitamin C, which supports intestinal cell regeneration.

DGL

(Deglycyrrihized licorice) promotes mucus secretion in the stomach lining, protecting the stomach and allowing mucosal cells to heal. The effects of DGL are felt quickly and are a favorite of people suffering from heart burn and indigestion.

Digestive Enzymes

Aid in the chemical part of digestion, while thoroughly chewing and the muscular motions of the digestive system do the manual part. Those with compromised digestion are often lacking in their own production of these important enzymes. Supplement with a broad spectrum enzyme and remember to take it with meals, since they work by coming in contact with foods.

Probiotics

Literally translated to “for life,” are the friendly bacteria that occupy the intestinal tract. These bacteria help to keep the intestines free of undesirable bacteria, make food for the intestinal cells, and even help to make some vitamins. Stress, chemical exposure, and antibiotics are some of the more common causes of these friendly bacteria’s destruction. While cultured foods like yogurt and miso can re-populate them to some extent, once probiotics are severely depleted supplementation is usually necessary. There are many different strains of probiotics and it can be a bit daunting to choose one. To start, choose a basic multi-strain, high-potency product.

L-Glutamine

It's is an amino acid found abundantly in the body that supplies fuel for the intestinal cells, allowing for healthier cells with better absorptive abilities.

Gamma-oryzanol

Derived from rice bran oil, helps to normalize gastric secretions and has been shown to have a healing effect on the colon. A typical dose is 100 mg three times a day for three to six weeks.

Zinc

Is necessary for the healing of the stomach lining as well as the intestinal lining. Zinc-carnosine in particular supports the mucosal cells of the stomach, helping to protect the stomach lining. A number of human clinical studies have found it to be useful for the prevention and treatment of gastritis and gastric ulcers. Zinc-carnosine also appears to help prevent irritation caused by the use of NSAIDs and modulates inflammation throughout the digestive tract.

N-acetylglucosamine (NAG)

This naturally occurring enzyme helps repair the mucosal lining in both the stomach and the intestines by aiding in the synthesis of the viscous top layer of the gut mucosa.

Aloe Vera

Is vitamin, mineral, and polysaccharide rich. It has been used by many traditional cultures for digestive complaints of all sorts and is healing and soothing to an inflamed digestive tract. Choose a juice that is pressed from the inner filet to avoid the mild bowel stimulant properties the whole leaf can have and follow the bottle directions.

Many Different Herbs

It can be used either in pill, powder, or tea form. Herbs such as fennel and chamomile can inhibit muscle spasms and help to dispel gas and bloating. Peppermint and ginger are traditional digestive tonics while slippery elm or marshmallow have demulcent properties that soothe and nourish the mucus membranes of the digestive tract. The good news is that gut cells are very willing to heal when given the proper conditions. Following a gut healing routine for three to six months should be sufficient for most people, but be flexible and don’t be afraid to follow that gut feeling!

Not So Great GRAINS

The regular consumption of grains is a relatively new addition to the human diet. The Agricultural Revolution occurred as recently as 10,000 years ago and radically altered the human diet. Up until that point, approximately 2.5 million years before that, our Paleolithic ancestors subsisted quite well without any grain in their diet. A study of the archeological records indicates that the introduction of grains to the diet created a drop in overall health. Early farmers were shorter than their pre-agricultural ancestors, they had more infectious diseases and more bone and tooth disorders. The introduction of farming also brought the first vitamin and mineral-deficiency diseases including scurvy, beriberi, and iron deficient anemia. Many researchers and nutritionist believe that the human body still has not adjusted to this new addition. And there is some good research to suggest that all grains, even whole grains, may not be as healthful as we’ve been lead to believe.

Grains contain anti-nutrients like phytates. Phytates bind to minerals in the digestive tract, rendering them unavailable for absorption. High intake has been associated with zinc, iron, and calcium deficiencies. Grains also contain lectins, another anti-nutrient that can bind to all cells of the body. Lectins damage the gut lining and can interfere with metabolism and hormone balance. The lectins in grains compromise the structural integrity of the intestinal lining, increasing gut permeability and encouraging the spread of bad bacteria. Both of these processes ultimately compromise the immune system and are associated with the occurrence of nearly every autoimmune disease.

Grains contain opiate-like substances called exorphins. These are similar to our own natural endorphins and bind to endorphin receptors in the brain, creating narcotic-like and mood-altering effects. These exorphins can be addictive, creating a false sense of wellbeing and making it difficult to give grains up. Grains are not really that nutritionally dense. While often being touted as nutritious, all grains are mostly starch and calorie for calorie supply far less vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients than vegetables and even meat. So what’s a 21st century human to do? Consider giving up grains completely. Give it time to see how your body reacts. If you choose to include grains in your diet focus on whole whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and buckwheat and properly soak them before cooking to minimize the damage. Check out Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon for more information on soaking and properly preparing grains.