Believe it or not, optimal health starts in the gut. Although holistic healthcare professionals have long known this to be true, conventional medicine is finally starting to catch on as well, admitting that intestinal health plays an undeniably significant role in overall health. The role of the gut is to digest and absorb the nutrients from our food and to eliminate toxins and waste. It makes sense that if the gut is compromised, our health will also be compromised.
How Healthy Is Your Gut?
The obvious signs and symptoms of gut dysfunction include the following:
- Gas, bloating, or burping after meals
- Heartburn (also termed acid reflux or GERD (link))
- Abdominal pain or cramping after eating
- Constipation or loose stools
- Flatulence and/or foul-smelling stools
- Bad breath or taste
- Food sensitivities
Compromised gut function may also be indicated if you have a compromised immune system or struggle with mood or nervous system disorders.
What You Can Do about It
Look at your diet
The essential first step in getting yourself back to health is to look at your diet and digestive capacity. If you are eating inflammatory foods such as processed foods, refined sugars, caffeine, or alcohol, you may be damaging the integrity of the gut lining over time. Unknown food sensitivities may also be creating inflammation. This inflammation can eventually contribute to peptic ulcers, Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome/Disease (IBS/IBD – link), intestinal permeability (Link), food sensitivities, and a compromised immune system. Inflammation has been linked to autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, skin diseases, mood and sleep disorders, hormonal conditions, and cancer.
Improve your digestion
If you are not digesting your food well, your body simply cannot absorb the fuel and nutrients from your food, no matter how healthy you are eating!
Stress is a very common factor that interferes with digestion. Stress activates the flight-or-fight response in the body and halts the rest-and-digest response. The hundred million neurons that line the gastrointestinal (GI) tract regulate secretion of our digestive enzymes and regulate peristalsis, and these actions are compromised during stress.
These neurons communicate via neurotransmitters, with the main one being serotonin, the body’s “happy hormone.” Did you know that at least 80 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut? If the gut is malfunctioning, it may be shutting down your serotonin production, which can lead to lack of joy, mood changes, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression. We can all improve our digestion by cueing the relaxation response in the body by eating mindfully and by avoiding eating when we are rushed, stressed, or multi-tasking.
Sufficient digestive enzyme production by the stomach, pancreas, and liver are essential for ideal digestion. Signs of poor enzyme production include gas and bloating shortly after eating, feeling heavy or tired after eating, nutrient deficiencies (such as anemia-link), greasy foods causing nausea or headaches, greasy stools, multiple food sensitivities, and sometimes even acid reflux. If this describes your experience, talk to your healthcare practitioner about suggesting an appropriate digestive enzyme to supplement short term. You can also take steps yourself to improve your stomach acid levels by:
- avoiding fluids during meals, and
- consuming a small amount of water with the juice of half a lemon or a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar thirty minutes before meals to acidify the stomach.
- Ensure you have a good balance of healthy gut bacteria
There are more than 100 trillion bacteria in your body, working to protect you, detoxify food-borne toxins, support your immune function, and produce certain B-vitamins and Vitamin K. You can even think of the microbiome (link) as a functioning and communicating organ!
If our gut flora is out of balance, we can reinoculate the gut with friendly bacteria by eating probiotic-rich, fermented foods such as yogurts, sauerkraut, kimchi, kvass, miso, tempeh, tamari, sprouts, and kombucha. Prebiotic foods will also support good bacteria to thrive in the gut. Eat more raw garlic and onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, underripe bananas, and dandelion greens.
Heal the Gut
It is now time to heal the gut lining that has been damaged due to inflammation, restoring the integrity of the gut to keep us safe. Several foods can be helpful in soothing and healing the gut mucosal cells, including bone broth (or mineral broth), chia seeds, coconut oil and coconut butter, olive oil, fish oils, and fermented foods. If you’ve been struggling with poor gut function, consult with your health practitioner about specific nutraceuticals known to heal the gut.
The length of time required to recover gut health depends on the extent of damage and may take many months; however, you’ll notice improvements quickly once you start to incorporate some of these tips. The path to optimal physical and mental health is unique for everyone. What’s best for you and what’s best for your best friend isn’t always going to be the same thing. Just like everybody is unique, every body is unique as well. It’s essential that you consult with nutritional experts and medical practitioners who are well versed in gut health to determine what will work best for you.
Optimal health requires a holistic approach. A daily practice of healthy eating, exercise, and mindfulness will go a long way toward ensuring your food is properly digested, absorbed, and assimilated to fuel your cells.
By: Sharon Pendlington, Health Coach & Client Care Coordinator, Westcoast Women’s Clinic