When our gut and digestion are on track, most of us feel pretty darn good. When they’re not, a range of gut troubles can make us feel miserable for days, weeks, or even years at a time. While your primary care doc might be eager to issue an assortment of drugs to “control” or, more likely, camouflage the symptoms, chances are, you won’t get well and may wind up feeling worse from their side effects. Kind of a vicious circle, eh? Here’s some key intel on how you can start turning the health of your gut–home to roughly 70 percent of your immune system–around:
Your Belly’s Got Something to Say
Got constipation, bloating, diarrhea, gas, IBS, heartburn, food sensitivities, skin issues, brain fog, or autoimmune problems? That’s likely your gut telling you that something is seriously out of whack. Don’t blame Mom and Dad–it’s probably not about being dealt a bad genetic hand, but more likely, what we in the integrative health world refer to as “leaky gut.”
Wait, You’re Telling Me I Have Holes in My Belly?
Yes, in a manner of speaking. If you’re plagued by one or more of the ills mentioned above, it’s often an indication of an imbalanced microbiome or that some of the foods you’re eating may be compromising the integrity of your gut wall. When that happens, incompletely digested food particles and microscopic irritants can escape through tiny holes in the delicate, one-cell-thick lining of your gut or slip between those cells. From there, they pass into the bloodstream, triggering an immune response and causing the inflammation that is making you feel lousy now, and potentially very sick later in life.
Don’t Feed Gut Trouble
But how does the gut lining become so permeable? Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways to undermine the integrity of the gut lining. Not eating enough fiber, which starves the good bacteria responsible for repairing and maintaining the gut wall lining. Eating too much sugar, which feeds bad bacteria growth. Overdoing it on foods loaded with gluten, the protein found in many grains, which can be a real gut-basher for people with allergies (e.g. celiac disease) or those who are sensitive to it.
Know the Leaky Gut Triggers
- Over-the-counter (OCT) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like Advil, Aleve, Motrin, etc.
- OTC products for acid reflux, like Maalox, Mylanta, Rolaids, etc.
- Prescription meds (proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs) for acid reflux/GERD, like Nexium, Prilosec, etc.
- Antibiotic use (take them as rarely as possible or as a last resort—not when you have the sniffles!)
- Habitual alcohol use or overuse
- Food sensitivities to things like gluten and dairy
- Low-fiber and/or diets high in processed foods
- Low-grade gut infections, like yeast, bacteria, and parasites
- Chronic stress
Any or all of these cause damage to the lining of the gut, letting undigested food particles and bits of bacteria into the bloodstream, setting off an inflammatory response throughout the body. These inflammatory molecules, called cytokines, run amok throughout the system, setting off a variety of responses that may include everything from skin disorders, digestive problems, and migraines to fatigue, anxiety, and mood swings.
Stop the Leaks; Stop the Symptoms
Taking the troublesome issue of gluten a step further is a leading celiac disease researcher and gastroenterologist, Dr. Alessio Fasano of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who discovered a mechanism driving leaky gut–an inflammatory protein called zonulin. (Sounds very “outer space,” I know.) His research shows it plays a key role in opening and closing the spaces, or “junctions,” between cells in the lining of the digestive tract. And guess what? Fasano has found that in some people, gluten is a strong trigger of zonulin. So, a gluten-rich diet may be making our guts even more permeable, enabling inflammation to flourish system-wide and setting the stage for far more serious problems like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more down the road. With this in mind, when you add in a daily diet of OTC meds, a glass or two of wine at night, plus chronic stress, it’s easy to see why so many struggle with gastrointestinal effects of leaky gut, including bloating, IBS, food sensitivities, skin issues, brain fog, fatigue, and autoimmune problems.
Get Started on Those Repairs
How to turn it around? You’ll need to embrace the healthy habits that will help heal the gut, repair the gut lining, and plug the holes. Your mission is optimal gut function, so start with the following:
1. Start the healing process with a two-week elimination diet or cleanse.
A leaky gut is an unbalanced and inflamed one, so the first order of business is to tame the flames and restore bacterial balance. A gut-calming elimination diet or cleanse is a great, healthy way to do that, as either method will eliminate virtually all of the usual leaky gut triggers from your diet and enable the helpful bacteria in your gut to thrive.
2. Eat whole foods.
Purge your pantry of processed foods. They offer few nutrients, lots of extra sugar, and chemical additives, as well as plenty of genetically modified ingredients, all of which can wreak havoc on your gut lining, making leaky gut and inflammation matters worse. Healthy, whole foods, however, have the opposite effect. If your gut is still in a particularly delicate state (for example, recovering from IBS), work with a health coach on slowly introducing (or reintroducing) more fiber into your diet in a healthy, healing way.
3. Get a lot greener.
Care for a no-brainer, easy fix? Then eat or drink your greens. Add leafy greens at breakfast, lunch, and dinner as often as you can, and supplement with a green juice on those days when you fall short. Greens–and all the nutrients and chlorophyll that go along with them–are great gut-healing helpers.
4. Shovel in some tasty good bacteria and probiotics.
Another gut-fortifying no-brainer that also happens to be a tasty one is fermented foods. Add a daily serving to help feed your good gut bacteria, so they can keep immunity strong, fend off pathogens, and help protect the gut lining. For extra fortification, also add a probiotic, preferably a high-quality one with at least 30 billion active cultures.
5. Get to know glutamine.
Another easy way to support your gut health and help keep leaks at bay is with the amino acid L-glutamine, which is plentiful in sources like bone broth, grass-fed beef, asparagus, and broccoli, or it can be taken as a supplement.
6. Don’t irritate yourself.
Gluten and dairy (and possibly genetically modified foods) are heavy contributors to gut flora imbalances and can trigger allergic responses in some people. If your gut reacts badly to them, avoid them.
7. Break free of OTCs, NSAIDs, and antibiotics.
Instead of taking pills at the drop of a hat, use as few drugs as possible, as they undermine your gut health, promoting imbalances in gut bacteria and weakening the gut wall, which in turn sets the stage for leaky gut and chronic inflammation.
8. Hold the highballs.
Will a glass or two of wine a week kill you? Probably not, but it may increase the gut’s permeability, which again, leads to inflammation, and in general does little good for your health. And as for the resveratrol-in-wine-is-good-for-you argument, the jury’s out on the appropriate “dosage,” so for now, go easy on all types of alcohol or quit altogether if you’re plagued by gut troubles.
9. Cut stress.
Easier said than done for many of us, but even a few minutes of meditation, or simply sitting quietly a couple of times a week, can also help quiet, calm, and ultimately help heal your gut.
10. Remove any low-grade infections.
Very often, low-grade infections like yeast, bacteria, and parasites are present and need to be treated. One can start with a general antimicrobial supplement, but it is always better to work with a functional medicine practitioner who can help you determine the cause and treat it accordingly.