What is the importance of gut health? One of the first things we learn in naturopathy is to ‘treat the gut first’. This concept has been taught for centuries and now with modern science catching up, we can fully understand why this traditional treatment protocol is so important.
The health of our digestive system is reflected in just about every other system in the body. It’s not just its ability to extract the nutrients that are required for our bodies to operate optimally, but for its ability to produce substances such as nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters. Without all these essential ingredients that the gut provides, we would simply cease to exist.
For these reasons alone, ensuring optimal gut health is vital to your very being.
When we talk about holistic gut health, we include everything from the mouth the anus. We don’t break it down into compartments, as an imbalance in one area will result in imbalances in another area.
Naturopathically, we look at how we are chewing our food, how our stomach is beginning to digest the food, how our small intestines are absorbing nutrients and how efficient our bowel is excreting the remains. We also assess our relationship with food as the mind-gut connection can have a dramatic effect on how we digest and absorb our food (1). The mind-gut connection is a huge topic that we will get into another day.
At the forefront of gut health, today is the role of our microbiome and its effect on our entire health. The term microbiome refers to the bacteria that resides within us. This bacteria can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on our health, and getting it into balance is key to complete health. In the past few decades, science has really put a spotlight on how vital it is to have a microbiome that is thriving within us.(2)
So where are we going so wrong?
Despite all of our new found knowledge into gut health, we are seeing digestive disturbances in epic proportions. In the clinic, digestive health would have to be the number one health complaint that I see and treat.
People are diagnosed with so many digestive issues. Ranging from the more simple conditions such as indigestion, IBS and food intolerances to life altering conditions such as Crohn’s disease, Inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune diseases.
Almost all digestive disorders share one or more of the following underlying mechanisms:
▪ An overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO)
▪ An imbalance between “good” and “bad” microbes in the gut
▪ A permeable gut barrier (leaky gut)
▪ Chronic bacterial, parasitic, or fungal infections (such as H. pylori, Blastocystis hominis, Candida albicans)
▪ Low stomach acid or digestive enzyme production
▪ Sensitivity, allergy, or intolerance to certain foods
▪ Impaired communication between the gut and the brain
The main cause of these underlying mechanisms can be put down to a few simple things –
- Poor diet
- Overuse of medications and antibiotics
- Poor sleep
So how do we heal our gut?
Firstly we want to start with healthy digestion. We want to ensure that we have adequate digestive enzymes and stomach acids to break down our food. If you don’t produce enough digestive enzymes, you can’t break down or absorb protein, fat, or carbohydrates properly. It’s not hard to imagine that this could lead to digestive problems. Poor enzyme production is caused by low stomach acid, stress, micronutrient deficiency, advancing age, and a diet the is high in processed foods.
Next, we want to move onto how well we absorb our nutrients. This occurs in the lining of the small intestines. The gut is first and foremost a barrier designed to keep certain things (like pathogens and toxins) out and let other things (like beneficial bacteria and nutrients) in. When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable (leaky), substances that should not escape the gut—such as large, undigested protein molecules and bacterial toxins—pass into the bloodstream, where they trigger an immune reaction and provoke inflammation. Leaky gut is very common in most digestive disorders, so it’s a good idea to take steps to restore healthy gut barrier function.
Healing the gut barrier can be easily done with –
Nutrients (vitamin A, D, zinc, MSM, L-glutamine, N-acetyl-glucosamine)
Herbal medicine (slippery elm, marshmallow, liquorice, turmeric and chamomile)
Probiotics (certain strains are specific or certain conditions. Sorry, but Yakult, won’t cut it.
Prebiotics – this is the food for your beneficial bacteria. Good sources of probiotics include soluble fibre such as sweet potato, inulin, chicory root, raw asparagus, onion, garlic, leek, green bananas and dandelion greens. Getting adequate amounts of these foods will encourage your gut bacteria to thrive.
Dietary Changes – removing processed foods from the diet, eating lots of fermented foods, soluble fibre and identifying foods that might be triggering your symptoms. You may be prescribed a diet such as the FODMAP, Ancestral, Elimination or 30 Day Reset Plan.
Please don’t run to the health food shop and self-prescribe yourself a gut health protocol. Consult with a qualified health practitioner who can determine what nutrients and dietary advice that is right for you.
Many digestive disorders originate from a short list of underlying imbalances in the gut. Often adjusting the diet, addressing maldigestion, healing the gut lining, replenishing the gut microflora, and managing stress bring most patients significant relief from gut symptoms. If symptoms still continue then it can be worth running a few diagnostic tests to determine if there are parasites, imbalances in gut flora or inflammatory based conditions.
Maintaining good gut health is critical to our ongoing health. Don’t continue to ignore your symptoms, or attempt to self-diagnose. Get the professional help that you need so that you can heal your gut once and for all.