Digestive issues are an all too common complaint in the United States. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is the most common chronic medical condition in the Western world. Four and a half million Americans are constipated, and millions experience gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Additionally, 15 million experience heartburn daily.
Americans also experience a high incidence of autoimmune disorders and so-called “lifestyle diseases” such as high cholesterol, joint problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease and allergic disorders. What do these diseases have to do with your digestion you ask? A lot!
Gut health is the core of our total well-being. It’s the place where nutrients get broken down and assimilated, providing the building blocks for our cells and ultimately, your entire body. Your gut is also the first line of defense against infectious agents and pathogens, protecting you from environmental and bacterial toxins leaking into your bloodstream. Your gut is actually home to up to 80% of your immune system.
What is the key to gut health? Bacteria! Our digestive system is filled with bacteria, over 100 trillion bacteria cells in our digestive system alone! These bacteria aid in the nourishment and defense of the digestive tract and the whole body. These beneficial bacteria are known as probiotics and they help maintain a healthy microbial balance in the digestive system. Probiotics help to synthesize key B vitamins, vitamin K, and produce digestive enzymes to help with the absorption of nutrients. Probiotics aid in the routine detoxification (of normal metabolic waste products as well as environmental toxins) necessary for optimal health, and also work to protect the integrity of the intestinal lining.
Unfortunately, these naturally occurring friendly bacteria can be depleted by a number of factors such as: a diet filled with refined foods and preservatives, stress, medications (such as antibiotics, birth control and acid-suppressing medications), and environmental toxins. As we age, the levels of certain good bacteria (especially Bifido bacteria) in the large intestine naturally declines.
This depletion in friendly bacteria upsets the delicate balance in the gut and can allow for some not-too-friendly bacteria, yeasts (one of them being Candida), parasites and other various microbes to flourish, and this is what we call gut dysbiosis (imbalance of the gut flora), and this can cause problems.
The Standard American Diet (SAD), high in refined sugar and flour, and low in fiber and fresh vegetables, can set you up for these problems, and if paired with medication use, stress and/or environmental toxins, can result in a host of digestive disturbances which could potentially lead to other more serious, and sometimes seemingly unrelated health issues.
We are hearing more and more about Leaky Gut Syndrome, where
the integrity of the gut lining is compromised and becomes more “porous”, allowing for only partially digested protein molecules to be absorbed into the body. This causes the immune system to go into over-drive to remove these substances from the body where they’re not supposed to be! The immune system is highly intelligent, and over time will produce antibodies to the most common offenders that they have repeatedly had to “react” to. This leads to food allergies and sensitivities. Two of the most common acquired food allergies are gluten and dairy. These are two of the most complex proteins for the human digestive system to break down and so are often only partially broken down before they get absorbed through a leaky gut. Because they are also very commonly ingested in our culture, they are two of the most common acquired food allergies.
The immune system is not designed to be dealing with these constant, daily “invaders” and this immune system over-activity can sometimes cause the immune system to go a little hay-wire (to oversimplify), potentially leading to various autoimmune disorders (such as MS, Hashimoto’s disease of the thyroid, and rheumatoid arthritis) where your immune system is attacking proteins in your body that are similar to the food proteins your body has developed antibodies to.
What can cause Leaky Gut? All of the contributing factors to gut dysbiosis can eventually lead to Leaky Gut Syndrome. Gut dysbiosis can lead to an overgrowth of Candida or other unfriendly microbes, and this gut dysbiosis causes inflammation of the gut lining. Candida overgrowth also leads to suppressed stomach acid, which then causes further mal-digestion and an imbalance in the gut ph, which can allow candida to flourish even more. Chronic inflammatory conditions can also contribute to Leaky Gut.
Symptoms of Leaky Gut can be varied. Some of the most common symptoms include: food allergies, foggy thinking, depression, anxiety, fatigue, low energy levels, joint/muscle pain, autoimmune disease, arthritis, hives, eczema, psoriasis, chronic or frequent inflammation, chemical sensitivities, IBS, Crohn’s disease, and chronic inflammatory bowel disease. That is a long list! Obviously not everyone who has one of these issues has leaky gut, however, it’s always a wise idea to look at the digestion when dealing with any of these health concerns. Addressing the cause of a health issue is always more effective than simply treating the symptoms.
The basic approach is to healing Leaky Gut is to: remove the offending substances, soothe and repair the gut, support digestion, and restore gut flora balance through probiotics and diet. The following guidelines will help prevent and reverse leaky gut and gut dysbiosis symptoms.
- Eat a diet high in fiber and fresh vegetables (some raw for the enzymes).
- Remove inflammatory foods from the diet such as: vegetable oils high in omega-6 (olive oil and coconut oil are great as they have a better balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids), sugar, refined flour, too much saturated fat.
- Avoid foods with preservatives and artificial colors and flavors.
- Eat lots of fermented and cultured foods (kefir, yogurt, kimchee, sauerkraut, etc.) to help replenish friendly bacteria.
- Eat plenty of healing foods such as flax seeds, chia seeds, coconut oil (anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, healthy essential fatty acids, or EFA’s).
- Use healing botanicals such as licorice root (my favorite for GI inflammation), marshmallow root, chamomile, plantain, peppermint, and aloe.
- Take a quality multi-strain probiotic with both Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains to replenish your friendly bacteria population.
- Take digestive enzymes to help you fully digest your food until you can rebuild your digestion naturally.
- Take a fish oil or omega-3 supplement to reduce inflammation and provide healthy EFA’s.
- Take glutamine powder to help repair the gut lining.
- Take a quality whole food multivitamin to ensure you’re getting the nutrition you may not be getting from your food.
- Take a quality gluten free fiber supplement if you’re not getting enough fiber through your diet.
- Eat plenty of greens – green smoothies are a good way to get in plenty of raw greens in a more easily digested form. Greens are nutrient and enzyme-rich, alkalinizing and naturally detoxifying.
- Eat in a relaxed state of mind, sitting down, and chew your food well.
- Drink at least 2 liters of water a day, away from meals.
- Start your day with a cup of warm water and lemon to alkalinize and get the digestive system moving.
- Greatly reduce or eliminate cigarettes, coffee, alcohol, recreational drugs.
- Try stress-reduction techniques if stress is an issue for you. Yoga, walking in the woods, meditation… whatever brings you joy or relaxation.
- Avoid common allergens if you suspect you have an issue with these. Common allergens include, though are certainly not limited to, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and nuts. Gluten and dairy are always a good place to start when you have digestive distress and allergic symptoms.
- If you feel like you may have an issue with food sensitivities and are ready to get to the root of the problem, try an elimination diet to identify potential food allergens.
Spring is the perfect time to think of doing a modified cleanse and/or elimination diet. There is an article on The Local Grocer website about spring cleansing for seasonal allergies and an overview on elimination diets. www.nhlocalgrocer.com. I would advise that you work with a qualified holistic health professional, or find a cleansing group led by someone qualified and experienced.
Allergyfreemenuplanners.com is a website I recently discovered that offers whole food and allergy-free menu planning (3 meals a day, 7 days a week) for various special diets, elimination diets, and allergy concerns. This could be an invaluable tool for anyone feeling a little overwhelmed with the thought of making big changes to their diet. Anyone who has experienced the life changing transformation that occurs when food allergens are eliminated, and digestive wellness is restored, will tell you that it is well worth the effort.
Heather Chase is the owner of The Local Grocer, our local health food store, cafe, deli and bakery. The Local Grocer works to provide local, organic and allergen free food options. She is a clinical herbalist and nutritional consultant. www.nhlocalgrocer.com