Improving gut health: what’s eating your gut?
Gut health is at the heart of a healthy immune system because 70% of our immune system is in the gut. A lot of modern day illnesses occur as a result of a malfunctioning immune system – and I believe poor gut health underlies this in many cases.
Some patients think they can improve gut health by popping probiotics, but I like to think of improving gut health as a two-pronged approach: damage limitation and healing. Because you really can’t achieve optimum gut health without both. If you focus on the healing, but something is damaging your gut constantly, it cannot recover. Imagine a shower that’s been left on which has flooded your bathroom. There is no point mopping up the water on the floor – you have to turn the shower off!!
I will go as far as saying that removing the harmful assailants on your gut might be MORE important because your body has the ability to heal itself if only the damages stopped. So let’s look at how to turn that shower off shall we?
- remove any food culprits: This is trickier than it sounds. Because allergies and intolerances can be subtle and difficult to tell. A problem food will cause inflammation and damage in the gut lining, and therefore lead to a disruption of the gut barrier. The usual culprits are dairy and gluten but it can be anything… This may then lead to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and a breakdown in gut health. If you are cutting out foods already but still suffering from symptoms after a few months, it might be helpful to do an elimination diet removing the common allergens whilst keeping a food diary. Once you have achieved optimal gut health then you can reintroduce them one by one to see what the culprit may be. Make sure you eliminate foods after consultation with a dietician so you don’t become deficient in essential nutrients.
- reduce toxin load: we are surrounded by toxins – these may have a direct toxic impact on cells lining the gut, and also kill the friendly gut bacteria which we need to maintain gut health. Cleaning products, weed killers, detergents may all harmful chemicals so it may be an idea to look for natural cleaning methods e.g. vinegar and baking soda and chemical-free products.
- filter your water: depending on where you live, the water may contain heavy metals and toxins which can all affect gut health so ensure your drinking water is clean
- avoid inappropriate use of medications which damage the gut: NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) like ibuprofen (Motrin) can damage the gut lining, and antibiotics kill off the friendly bacteria which help to build a healthy gut. Note I put ‘inappropriate’ – these medications are often necessary and can be life-saving so it is not always possible to avoid them. However, make sure they are used judicially for the right indications. Antibiotics for the common cold is a definite no-no!
- is your food toxic? – It is not always possible to buy grass fed and finished organic beef because they are expensive, however, it is worth looking into how your food is farmed and where it came from. Conventionally farmed meat often contains high concentrations of pesticides because they are at the top of the food chain (pesticides increase and accumulate up the food chain) – these are toxic to the human cells. Also, animals are often fed and injected with antibiotics so you may be inadvertently ingesting antibiotics when you eat meat. This applies to farmed fish too with farmed salmon showing high concentrations of antibiotics. Equally GMO crops can be damaging to the gut – they are engineered to withstand pesticides (so the weeds and pests die but the crops remain) these pesticides stay on the crops, so they usually contain high amounts of pesticides which can damage the gut. GMO also alters the proteins in the food which can be difficult for the gut to digest it, causing inflammation.
- reduce inflammation – this ties in with the food above – because a lot of inflammation in our body actually comes from food, unfortunately. We now know that omega 6 can cause inflammation in the body, for example, and this is found in common cooking oils like canola and vegetable oils. For some people gluten and dairy can cause inflammation too (and I think this is mainly to do with the way it is farmed. Livestock that are fed GMO grains and foods they wouldn’t normally be eating (e.g.cattle eating soy or corn) causes inflammation in the body and the meat that you consume.
- reduce refined sugar – sugar feeds bad bacteria in the gut and tips the balance of a healthy microbiome. There are many other harmful effects of sugar which I won’t go into here… sugar should really be re-labelled as a toxin in my opinion but who doesn’t love the sweet taste! Once in a while, I do allow some indulgence and it’s hard to be totally sugar free but when I can I use alternatives (monk fruit, stevia, honey) and I don’t keep any packaged junk food in the house.
- reduce stress – this may not apply to your kids but for allergy moms, I think we have our fair share of stress! Stress can actually shift your gut bacteria and change them so it is important that you manage your stress better (easier said than done) in order to improve your gut health. If you have older children who are under pressure from school/friends, it might be good to go through some meditation techniques with them for stress reduction.
So now that we’ve looked at ways to minimize harm on our gut, what’s next?
Well, we need to look at ways in which we can help it heal – stay tuned for my next article on how we can help our gut to heal.