How To Maintain A Healthy Gut
Let me ask you a question:
Do you have a healthy gut?
Recently we explored factors that contribute to the deterioration of gut health 'The impact of a healthy gut vs. an unhealthy gut' and explained the importance of maintaining optimal gut functioning in order to enhance the health of your entire body.
Some of the key signs that your gut health may be compromised:
- Frequent bloating, heartburn, flatulence, constipation and/or diarrhea.
- Presence of skin disorders such as eczema, acne and psoriasis (1).
- Allergies and intolerances (2).
- Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety (3).
- Autoimmune diseases (4).
- Chronic fatigue (5).
- Digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Factors contributing to poor gut health:
- Unhealthy dietary habits.
- Chronic stress (6).
- High alcohol consumption.
- Overuse of medications, particularly antibiotics, NSAID’s, antacids and acid-blocking medications (7).
The Functional Approach to Gut Health
For those of you that don’t know, a functional approach to health is the new norm in scientific research. Although this term may sound a bit new-age to some, all it really means is that we should focus on optimal functioning of the body while recognizing that all body systems are connecting. In other words, focussing on optimal functioning of the gut may also help to improve disorders in other body systems, such as mood disorders, skin issues and inflammation.
According to the functional medicine model, it is imperative that we identify, address and correct any signs of gut dysfunction in order to support sustained well-being and avoid any further complications down the line. This process can be achieved using the ‘four R’ protocol for gastrointestinal health.
The Four R’s of Gut Healing
Before you begin any form of gut healing protocol it is important to get any necessary testing done first in order to identify exactly what the root cause of your gut dysfunction is.
- Could you be experiencing increased levels of inflammation from eating a processed diet?
- Perhaps you are suffering from a bacterial imbalance or pathogenic overgrowth?
- Or, maybe, you have an unknown food intolerance or compromised stomach acid production from years of consuming medications which contain these side effects?
Once you have identified the key contributing factors, you can begin your journey back to wellness:
1. Remove: now that you have identified what might be contributing to your poor gut health, it’s time to give your body a break.
- Remove any foods that you are sensitive too. Even if you don’t have an intolerance it can be useful to reduce your intake of the key offenders for a few weeks such as dairy, gluten, eggs, soy and peanuts, at least while you’re getting your digestion back on track.
- If you are experiencing a bacterial imbalance or pathogenic overgrowth, cut down on sugar and refined carbohydrates. Instead, replace these foods with plenty of fiber and antioxidant-rich vegetables.
- Consider your medications. If you are a long-term user of antibiotics, acid blockers, NSAIDs or antacids, speak to your doctor about possible alternatives.
2. Replace: it is very important to replenish your levels of digestive enzymes and/or hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Often, if you have been exposed to some of the contributing factors above, it can affect our body’s ability to produce adequate amounts of enzymes and hydrochloric acid required for proper digestion.
3. Rebalance: It’s important to focus on rebalancing the gut microbiome, which will influence everything from genetic expression to immune functioning. Rebalancing can be done by increasing prebiotic fiber intake which feeds and supports the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Prebiotic fibers can be consumed by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to promote bacterial diversity. Additionally, consuming probiotics in supplement form is another way of inoculating your gut with good bacteria.
4. Repair: Increase your nutrient intake. If you have had suboptimal digestive functioning for a while, it is likely that you have been experiencing less than ideal levels of nutrient absorption. It is vital to re-establish healthy nutrient levels, not only to avoid deficiency but also to support the healing, sealing and soothing of a damaged gut lining. Enhancing your intake of key nutrients will also support immune functioning, calm inflammation and further aid food absorption for lasting gut health.
How To Promote & Maintain Gut Health
Follow The Principles Of An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
An anti-inflammatory diet should be the foundation of any good gut healing protocol. Certain foods such as gluten, casein and high doses of fructose (8,9) have been known to irritate the mucosal gut lining which can lead to immune activation and maldigestion over time. Avoiding processed, refined and high sugar foods while including plenty of healthy foods like green leafy vegetables, prebiotic fibers, fermented vegetables, berries, olive oil and wild-caught oily fish is key. Ensure that you are also removing those foods you might be sensitive to long enough to allow your gut to heal.
The fiber in your diet is the primary food source for your healthy gut bacteria. When fiber is in short supply, this can affect the composition and diversity of the bacterial species in your gut, which has been linked to a number of disorders including obesity and depression (10)(11) Instead, increase high fiber foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Your gut will thank you for it!
Address Your Stress
A stressed body is in a sympathetic nerve state, commonly referred to as ‘fight or flight’ mode. While this state is vital for survival when the body is under attack, it is not so useful when you are trying to digest your food. As part of the ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism, all unnecessary processes such as digestion and cellular repair are shut down in order to preserve energy for more critical survival functions.
Unfortunately, when you find yourself in a perpetually stressed state, this can impact your bodies ability to properly digest, absorb and assimilate food. Over time this can lead to inflammation, malabsorption and even disease. In order to avoid this, you need to learn how to address your stress.
Manage and release excess stress through activities such as meditation, yoga and deep breathing. Additionally, take 15-20 minutes out of your day to enjoy your meals in a quiet place where you’re not thinking about your ‘to do’ list. All of these actions will work to decrease your stress levels, calm inflammation and slow cellular aging.
Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Sleep
One of the most influential non-dietary factors for your health is sleep. Sleep is your body’s chance to repair and recuperate from the day’s activities and it is a vital time for calming inflammation, stabilizing blood sugar levels, allowing cellular repair and promoting hormonal balance (12). Experts suggest to get between 7-8 hours of sleep per night for optimal health (13). If you struggle with insomnia, consider listening to a meditation podcast before bed, sipping on some valerian root tea or taking an epsom salt and lavender bath in the evening to relax and unwind.
When In Doubt, Ferment It!
Fermented vegetables are a staple food in many cultures around the world; a habit which has been lost in the modern convenience diet. These vegetables not only contain beneficial bacteria, but they also consist of prebiotic fibers which are the food of choice for your healthy gut bacteria. Try sauerkraut or kimchi as a side dish or consider adding miso, natto or tempeh to your meals for an added gut healing benefit.
Sip On Some Bone Broth
The popularity of bone broth has steadily risen over the last few years and for good reason. Fresh bone broth contains a myriad of soothing and gut healing nutrients such as collagen, glucosamine and electrolytes which work to heal and maintain the integrity of your gut lining. Consider including more soups or stews in your diet or, try a warm cup of broth as an alternative to your usual mid-afternoon snack.
Gut Healing Supplements
If you’re interested in elevating your gut healing protocol, then look no further than the following nutrients! By adding a few of these herbs and supplements to your daily routine, you can effortlessly speed up your gut recovery.
If you’re experiencing digestive symptoms such as bloating and discomfort after meals, you may not be breaking down your food as effectively as you should be. Adding in digestive enzymes may assist with this breakdown, in order to allow you to extract more nutrients from the foods you’re consuming while easing any digestive symptoms.
If you have been experiencing digestive issues for quite some time it is likely that you may be low in certain key vitamins due to malabsorption. B12, iron and calcium are commonly low in those experiencing lowered stomach acid production, while the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are essential for immunity and re-building the integrity of the gut lining.
Probiotics are a great way to quickly and effectively replenish levels of healthy bacteria in your gut. It is worth testing to see which specific bacterial strains you might be low in, however, if this is not an option for you, then it is important to opt for a multi-species probiotic with at least 10 billion colony forming units to ensure bacterial diversity within the gut.
The body requires L-glutamine for energy production as well as for the healing and repair of tissues. When the body is under a lot of stress, glutamine usage becomes accelerated and levels can quickly become depleted. As glutamine is an essential energy source for the cells in our gut, it is vital to ensure that you have adequate levels. One of the richest food sources of L-glutamine is bone broth - or, you can consume L-glutamine in a pure, powdered supplement form.
A number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of zinc supplementation for supporting immune balance and decreasing levels of gut permeability (14,15). Zinc is not always easily absorbed unless bound to another compound - so, consider a chelated form of zinc such as picolinate for increased bioavailability and absorption.
Top Up On Anti-Inflammatory Spices
As inflammation is often present in cases of gut dysfunction, certain anti-inflammatory agents can be useful to calm the immune system and allow for healing. Ginger is not only a powerful anti-inflammatory, but it has also demonstrated an ability to aid gut motility, therefore enhancing immune health while reducing digestive distress (16). Turmeric, another well-known anti-inflammatory agent has been found to both dampen intestinal inflammation and soothe the gut lining (17).
Don’t Forget The Omega-3’s
Omega-3 fatty acids have been widely studied for their ability to cool inflammation in the body. Additionally, recent studies have found omega-3’s to improve the composition and diversity of bacteria within the gut (18). Increasing omega-3 rich foods such as flax seeds, walnuts and oily fish in your diet can provide a natural but powerful method for improving gut health. Alternatively, if you choose to supplement, make sure that you are using a high-quality product to avoid impurities and contaminants which could impede anti-inflammatory actions (19).
As you can see, if you want to regain your health, then rebalancing your gut is a vital first step. With a few adjustments and some targeted nourishment, you could be back on the road to wellbeing in no time.
Tell us what you do to support your gut health in the comments below!
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