All disease begins in the gut. – Hippocrates
In the next few years, you’re going to see a huge shift in how nutrition is approached. Instead of diet plans, fat loss quick fixes, and “eat this but don’t eat that” advice, you’ll start to see an emphasis on healing the gastrointestinal tract and fixing issues like leaky gut in order to lose body fat, build muscle, avoid chronic disease, relieve autoimmune-related issues, and even address issues like depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s.
Since 2013, two of the top five best selling drugs in the United States have been drugs for treating digestive problems. It’s time to stop throwing ice cubes into a boiling pot of water when we have the ability to turn off the flame. At a time when over 64 million Americans are dealing with digestive diseases, the importance of maintaining or improving gut health cannot be underestimated.
Table of Contents
The Digestive System In A Nutshell
Basically, the aim of the digestive system is to keep hold of the good stuff in our food and to get rid of the bad stuff. Your brain actually starts the digestive process by secreting different acids and enzymes. When your body thinks it’s about to be fed, your mouth salivates and your pancreas starts secreting enzymes.
Here is an overview of what the digestive system consists of and how it works:
- It contains nearly four pounds of healthy bacteria.
- It starts at the mouth and ends at the anus.
- The stomach breaks down the foods we eat by churning it.
- The small intestine is used to extract nutrients from foods, so that we can absorb them.
- The large intestine is used to eliminate the waste that we don’t need.
- The mucous lining replaces and repairs itself every three to seven days.
If this thing isn’t working efficiently, you won’t be working efficiently.
The Gut At A Glance
Many people see the brain as the CEO of the whole system, but I like to think of the gut as the guy behind the scenes who’s pulling all the strings. Your gut influences the way you think, the way you look, and the way you feel.
The Gut And Wellbeing
The gut contains tons of neurons that release the same neurotransmitters that are found in your brain, transmitting information via electrical and chemical signals. The gut relays messages to the brain through the vagus nerve.
When you make poor food choices, or you are under digestive distress because of environmental or lifestyle factors, your body can send signals that lead to anxiety and even depression. Essentially, your gut has feelings.
95% of serotonin, which is often referred to as the mood hormone and which is associated with decision making, is found in the gut. Having a healthy gut can therefore lead to improved decision making and better moods. According to Michael Gershon – the author of The Second Brain -, “Serotonin in the gut can mobilize inflammation, detect potential invaders, and essentially get the gut to mount a full-fledged defensive reaction.” This, to me, says that the health of your gut plays a huge role in how your brain interprets your wellbeing.
Other things serotonin has been shown to influence (1):
Aside from serotonin, dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and norepinephrine, which is responsible for attention, focus, and the fight or flight response, are also produced and received in the belly.
Our digestive system also contains cells that help to produce and receive enkephalins and endorphins – chemicals that produce feelings and emotions like joy, satisfaction, pain, and pleasure. So, in essence, it’s not just your head and your heart that let you know how you’re feeling, but also your gut.
Because of the poorly manufactured food many of us eat, stress, and toxic environments, the brains in our bellies are being damaged daily, which is making it harder for them to connect with our heads, and so we struggle with things like decision making.
The Gut And The Immune System
The gut contains ten times more bacteria than the total number of cells in the body. It determines which nutrients we absorb and the byproduct toxins that are produced.
With over 70% of your immune system living in or around your gut, poor gut health can lead to a weakened immune and nervous system. It can also influence various hormonal functions. Below are some of the more common issues associated with poor gut health.
Leaky gut occurs when partially digested foods, bacteria, and toxins are able to pass through the intestinal lining and enter into the blood stream. This sets off an alarm in the body that the inmates are now running the asylum. The immune system then acts like a DeLoren and hits 88MPG, causing inflammation throughout the body, as well as the release of the stress hormone, cortisol.
- Foggy brain
- Joint pain
- Restless leg syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes
- Weight gain and loss
What Causes Poor Gut Health
Man, oh man. This list could be really long. But, to sum it up, poor gut health can lead to the following issues.
- Poor food choices
- Abuse of caffeine
- Abuse of alcohol
- Overuse of antibiotics (a real catch-22)
- NSAIDS (Advil and other OTC pain relievers)
- Bad bacteria
- Environmental factors
- Low amount of beneficial bacteria (due to a low iron or low carbohydrate diet)
- Anti-nutrients (lectins, gluten, lactose, fructose)
- Sugar (nourishes bad bacteria, yeast, and fungi)
- Low blood flow to the gut (for endurance athletes)
Benefits Of Having A Healthy Gut
The tricky thing with your gut is that it does not contain nociceptors – sensory neurons that sense pain. This means that gut problems manifest themselves as some of the autoimmune conditions we mentioned earlier.
With a healthy gut and plenty of friendly bacteria, your belly is able to avoid some of those conditions and absorb the vitamins and minerals that are essential to your health, such as those listed below.
- Vitamin K
When your gut is healthy, it also has the ability to help you fight dangerous pathogens that contribute to common diseases, to digest food, and to even improve your mood (as we mentioned earlier).
How To Heal Your Gut
The health of your gut is primarily determined by gut flora (intestinal microbiota) and the health of your gut barrier. So, how do you improve your gut flora and improve your overall digestive health?
Healthy bacteria in the gut deplete because of age, gender, and diet. It’s important to start taking care of your second brain before any problems occur. Before using any gut healing protocols, start small by establishing some healthy eating fundamentals first.
- Slow down and chew your food slowly, so that your stomach will have an easier time, not only absorbing vitamins and minerals, but also letting your brain know when you’re full. Set a timer if you have to, and take twenty minutes to eat. Put down your utensils between bites or try using chopsticks to slow you down.
- Avoid fake foods and artificial sweeteners. Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies are still chocolate chip cookies, no matter how you sling it. Also, watch out for “real food cheats.” I’m all for paleo ice cream and paleo cheesecake, but if you’re having some serious gut issues, simplify your meals by eating a good grass-fed protein source, lots of veggies, and some healthy fats in the correct portion sizes.
- Sleep! Give your body time to repair itself. Most of its restoration is done while it’s resting. Do not neglect this process.
If you have the basics down already, it’s safe to move forward with your gut healing process. I touched on healing the gut a little in the article about eating for autoimmune conditions, but here’s a summary of what to do.
- Remove toxins and anti-nutrients from your diet and lifestyle.
- Eat more real food and use beneficial supplements like L-glutamine, omega-3 (krill or fish oil), and antioxidants. Include super foods like grass-fed organ meats and bone broth. Magnesium and zinc have also been found to be beneficial for gut health.
- Take one to two servings of probiotics per day with your meals (try fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha). Fiber is another important part of the process, as it resists digestion in the small intestine and ends up being fermented in the large intestine, creating short-chain fatty acids that your body uses for fuel and to maintain a good pH balance.
- Replace lost enzymes by including digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid to help break down food and absorb key nutrients.
If you are still having problems, you can try an elimination diet. For more on how to do this, see our article about dealing with specific food sensitivities that may be contributing to poor gut health.
Common food sensitivities:
If you’re still struggling with gut issues, Cyrexlabs.com offers array tests that can be done at home and mailed in. These tests can help you to see how healthy your gut actually is. We also recommend Solving Leaky Gut – the online program that teaches you how to build a healthy gut that support you for life.
Now that you know how important the health of your gut is to your overall wellbeing, what will you be doing about it?
Resources & References
- What is serotonin? What does serotonin do? (1)
- West, N.P., Pyne, D.B., Peake, J.M., Cripps, A.W. Probiotics, immunity and exercise: A review. Exer Immunol Rev. 2009: 15-107-26.
- Lattimer JM & Haub MD. Effects of dietary fibre and its components on metabolic health. Nutrients 2010;2:1266-1289.
- Delzenne,N.M., Neyrinck, A.M., Backhed, F., Cani, P.D. Targeting gut microbiota in obesity: Effects of prebiotics and probiotics. Nat. Rev.: Endocrinol., Nov 2011, 7:639-646. doi:10.1038/nrendo.2011.126
- Sturniolo GC, et al. Zinc supplementation tightens “leaky gut” in Crohn’s disease. Inflamm Bowel Dis. (2001)
- Autoimmune Statistics
- Life-style determines gut microbes
- Is Your Digestive System Making You Fat, And Sick?
- Solving Leaky Gut
- Gut feelings: the future of psychiatry may be inside your stomach
- Probiotics and human health: a clinical perspective
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