Simple Steps to Improving Gut Health
Freshman year of college I began my studies in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition. I also started diving into the world of alternative health independently. That's where I first read Hippocrates' statement: “All disease begins in the gut.”
From that point on - I've been absolutely fascinated by gut health, the digestive system, and how the foods we digest, assimilate, and eliminate affect other aspects of our physical and even mental health.
Now as I study functional nutrition I have an even deeper understanding of this extensive connection - but no matter how much I learn, I realize that my studies will never end.
Let's get into the basics.
The quote above may not be 100% true for every disease in every person. But more and more research shows that our gut (digestive system) has a bigger role in more diseases than we used to think! This isn't just about heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, IBS, IBD, etc. We're talking about all kinds of issues including but not limited to allergies, joint pain, skin problems, autoimmune conditions, mood disorders, migraine headaches, and nutrient deficiencies.
Why is gut health so important to our overall wellness?
Our gut is the portal to the outside world. This is where we take in disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. This is also where we take in nutrients (and toxins). The nutrients we ingest and absorb are the building blocks for every single part of our body. The foods and other substances we ingest can also play a major role in inflammation. As a personal example - I get plantar fasciitis simply from eating certain foods that are inflammatory to me as an individual.
What causes inflammation in one person does not necessarily cause the same inflammatory response in another person.
We're just learning the connections between our gut and other areas of our body - even our brain! In fact our gut has even been called the "second brain" because of how it influences mood. It's not just our gut per se. It's the friendly resident microbes that we're learning have incredibly important roles.
So, let's talk about these roles and then I'll follow up with some tips and 19 recipes to improve gut health!
HERE'S WHY HEALTHY GUT FUNCTION IS SO CRITICAL TO OVERALL WELLNESS
Our gut’s main function is to act as a barrier via its gut mucosal barrier. It's supposed to let things in that should come in and to keep things out that should stay out.
But what happens when this seemingly simple function - isn't functioning correctly?
For one thing, when your gut wall gets irritated there is an inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation leads to gut permeability or "leaky gut." A "leaky gut", like a long tube with holes in it, can allow things (antigens, pathogens, immune complexes, bacteria, undigested food, and toxins) to get into our bloodstream that can wreak havoc on our many systems.
A dysfunctional leaky gut is a starting point for many diseases that don't seem connected to the gut because it's an indirect connection.
Maintaining a functional gut mucosal barrier is one pillar for overall gut health!
A healthy gut is critical for both digestion and gut immunity.
FUN FACT: About 70-80% of our immune system lives in and around our gut.
Chronic infection, infestations, and chronic exposure to inflammatory agents compromise our immune system and can eventually even shut it down.
The second pillar of gut health is having a healthy balance of friendly health-promoting microbes.
help us to digest and absorb nutrients,
fight off disease-causing microbes,
make some vitamins for us, and
have all kinds of other health benefits, like mental health benefits, reducing inflammation, and stabilizing blood sugar.
SIMPLE STEPS TO IMPROVE YOUR GUT HEALTH
There are a lot of natural ways to improve gut health. Let’s start with what to stop.
It’s always best to eliminate the cause, so let’s stop giving our guts junk to deal with. How about eliminating added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol? Are there any foods that tend to make you bloated? Take a break from these things for a few weeks and you may be amazed at how much better your body (and gut) feels!
You may also want to eliminate other gut irritants. Dairy and grains contain common compounds known to irritate some people’s guts. Sometimes you only need to eliminate them strictly for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference for your health.
By eating nutrient-dense foods and chewing thoroughly, we allow ample macro- and micro-nutrients into our gut to maximize the chance for absorption. These nutrients help our bodies build and repair our gut and every other body part. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, colorful fruits and veggies, liver, and fish.
Since the second pillar of gut health is our microbes - we can help to replenish our gut microbes by consuming probiotic-rich foods and drinks. These are found in fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Make these a part of your daily diet.
Whole foods are full of gut-friendly fiber. Fiber plays lots of roles in our gut, including whisking away some of those pesky bad bacteria and toxins so they can be eliminated. Fiber also helps to feed our friendly resident microbes that help us absorb and digest our food better. What foods have a lot of fiber? Vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and even cacao.
And don’t forget the uber-important lifestyle factors like getting enough sleep, stressing less, and getting the right amount (and intensity) of exercise for you. It’s easy to forget some of the simple, but key links there are between what we do with our bodies and how well they function.