Three Easy Ways to Support Your Gut Health Right Now
December 12, 2019 at 21:19 by Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
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In functional medicine, we have a saying: “Treat the gut first."
Functional medicine is the most advanced kind of integrative medicine. It looks at the patient as a system—a whole, integrated system. It looks at how all your parts—from gut to immune system—work together to create health or disease. Functional medicine focuses on root causes as opposed to symptoms. (Some of the most well-known health gurus—Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Joseph Mercola, Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. Josh Axe—all practice functional medicine.) I, myself, am what’s called a functional nutritionist.
All of us have figured out that health really begins in the gut. And we know from combined decades of clinical experience that most people do not have a healthy one. Far from it. (I’ll tell you why that matters—and what to do about it—in a minute. Stay tuned!)
“Gut health” is an elusive concept because it’s defined in many different ways, so accurate statistics on gut health in the general population are hard to come by. What’s not hard to come by are statistics on how many folks experience gut “issues” (most of which are clear signs of an unhealthy gut).
Nearly 75% of us experience gut problems.
A well-conducted survey1showed that a whopping 74% of Americans experience gut symptoms. According to Dr. Rashini Raj, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, over half of them don’t ever talk to their doctor about these symptoms.1
Symptoms of a troubled gut include—but aren’t limited to—constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating and cramping. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We now know that there are trillions of non-human microbes that live in our gut (and on our skin). This busy, bubbling ecological system of microbes is known to scientists as the microbiome. Microbiome research is exploding because we now know that the health of the microbiome influences a host of human conditions from obesity to depression.
When the balance between “good” and “bad” microbes in your gut tips in the wrong direction, you have a condition called gut dysbiosis, which has now been linked to irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, allergy, asthma, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity and even cancer. 2,3
What about “leaky gut”?
What functional medicine health practitioners call “leaky gut” is the result of inflammation in the gut wall, which is the layer of protective cells that separate the contents of the gut from the bloodstream. (You can think of the gut wall like a thin layer of tightly woven cheesecloth.) When there’s inflammation in the gut wall, it’s like poking holes in the cheesecloth and loosening the weave. This allows rogue substances (like undigested food particles or toxins) to enter the bloodstream directly. The immune system notices an intruder and goes after it. That defensive attack by the immune system frequently triggers all kinds of symptoms, including joint pain, skin rashes and more.
Starting to see why we say, “Treat the gut first?”
What can I do right now?
If you have gut issues, there are a few easy things you can do right now that may improve things. If things don’t improve, you should definitely see a functional medicine practitioner (MD, DO, licensed naturopath, chiropractor or nutritionist) to help you identify their cause. Eliminating known dietary irritants and potential sources of inflammation (i.e. gluten) is a good first step. An elimination diet—where you remove certain foods for a fixed period of time to see if symptoms go away—is another.
Meanwhile, here are three things you can do immediately:
1. Take digestive enzymes.
As we approach 40, we often stop making enough digestive enzymes to properly and completely digest our food. Undigested foods or food particles are trouble waiting to happen (see the discussion on leaky gut, above). Not only that, poor digestion may impact your ability to absorb important components of food like amino acids or vitamins. Digestive enzymes are worth a trial. Try taking them as directed on the label with every meal for about a month and see if you notice a difference.
2. Take probiotics (and eat more fermented foods).
In that great ecological system in your gut called the microbiome (see above), “good guy” microbes and “bad guy” microbes co-exist. An example of a bad guy bacteria is Candida albacans, an overgrowth of which causes yeast infections. An example of good guy bacteria would be lactobaccilis.
Probiotics—the “good guy” bacteria—are found in naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, tempeh, olives (from the olive bar, not the olive jar!) and authentic, old-fashioned fermented sauerkraut. You can also take probiotic supplements. Think of probiotic supplements as reinforcements for the good guys in your gut.
3. Switch to emulsified oils, especially for your Omega-3s.
Even the highest quality dietary and supplemental oils like Barlean’s fish and flax oils still have to be digested. There’s no getting around that fact. And the digestion of fats can be a problem for many people (think burping or gas or oily stools). Enter emulsified oils.
Remember, both in nature and in the body, oil and water don’t mix. And the plasma in your blood is 92% water. So when you ingest a fat (like fish oil), the body has to transform that oil into something that can enter the bloodstream. That transformation is called emulsification. It’s a natural step in the digestion of dietary fats, and normally, your body handles it without a hitch. But in people with compromised digestive systems, that may not always be the case.
In an emulsified form of fish or flax oil, such as Barlean’s Seriously Delicious Omega-3, the emulsification step has already been done for you. The emulsified oil is “bloodstream ready” and thus ready for action. Emulsification also allows Omega-3s to be flavored—a far more palatable choice than straight oil for many people, including kids! And best of all, peer-review research shows that emulsified oils are better absorbed than standard fish oil capsules.4,5
If you want to dive a little deeper into gut health, any of these books is a great place to start:
Natural Solutions for Digestive Health by Dr. Jillian Sarno Teta and Jeannette Bessinger
Healthy Gut, Healthy Life: A Scientifically Proven Plan for Reversing Disease and Chronic Illness by Nicole Spear, CNS and Jill Carnahan, MD