Our modern lifestyles are really hard on our guts. A quick Google search, and you can come across article after article about how “modern diseases” (cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndromes, digestive disorders, autoimmune conditions, and depression, just to name a few) have been steadily on the rise in the last 50 years. Just in the last few years, researchers have really begun to pay attention to how our gut health is connected to our overall health. Basically, if you want to be healthy, you need to have a healthy gut “micro biome.”
Most of our digestion, and a great deal of our immune system and nervous system, lie in our intestines. So, problems in the intestines lead to problems all over the body. Even issues that are not digestive can often be traced back to the gut. As I explained in this post about Natalie, harm to the gut can wreak havoc all over our bodies. Our digestive tracts can be damaged by emotional stress and trauma, toxins, processed foods, GMO foods, too much sugar, alcohol, and medications like NSAIDs and antibiotics, as well as bacteria imbalances. Chronic irritation can lead to tiny tears in the thin wall of the intestines, causing leaks. Even the tiniest of leaks can cause HUGE problems. A “leaky gut” can let undigested food particles, bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream. The immune system then reacts to these foreign invaders, as it is designed to do, by using inflammation as a way to begin the healing process. But our bodies are not designed to be under assault for extended periods of time, and this continuous immune response can lead to chronic inflammation throughout the body. The damage can also contribute to nutrient malabsorbtion, which leads to even more problems. This is NOT a good thing.
Remember the saying “you are what you eat”? That’s really not true. The correct way to say that is “you are what you can digest and absorb.” When you heal your gut (or just take care of it in the first place), you can increase immunity, improve your mood, reverse disease (or at least greatly improve your symptoms), balance hormones, sleep better and improve your weight.
The list of conditions associated with leaky gut syndrome (a.k.a. increased intestinal permeability) is long. Just because you don’t have digestive issues doesn’t mean you don’t have a leaky gut. There are over 11,000 articles on PubMed in which intestinal permeability is discussed. Leaky gut has been associated with the following:
1. Digestive issues such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
2. Seasonal allergies, asthma, and sinus issues
3. Hormonal imbalances such as PMS or PCOS
4. Diagnosis of an autoimmune disease such as, but not limited to, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, psoriasis, or celiac disease
5. Diagnosis of chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
6. Mood and mind issues such as depression, anxiety, ADD, or ADHD
7. Skin issues such as acne, rosacea, or eczema
8. Diagnosis of candida overgrowth
9. Food allergies or food intolerances
Traditional medicine attempts to cover up or reduce symptoms of disease with drugs, but from a holistic/functional medicine standpoint, we should be working to find the root cause of disease and try to repair it. We should be treating the cause, not the symptoms. That takes huge lifestyle and diet modifications.
Don’t think that it’s possible to treat disease through diet? Watch Dr. Terry Wahl’s TedX talk about how she is fighting her Multiple Sclerosis with diet. Danielle Walker’s account of how she saved her own life after her Ulcerative Colitis diagnosis by changing her diet is chronicled on her blog, Against All Grain. There is this account of a patient treating Graves’ disease on Chris Kresser’s website. And then there is my current favorite book, Brain Maker, by David Perlmutter, which discusses the link between intestinal health and brain diseases such as autism, Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis, just to name a few. Dr. Perlmutter states that a leaky gut leads to a leaky brain.
These are just a few of the many examples and resources that are beginning to show that YES, your diet DOES matter that much in healing disease.
So, how DO you heal a leaky gut? Everyone’s situation is going to be different, and everyone’s body is different. This bioindividuality means that what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work exactly the same way for another. In general, however, the steps you can take to begin to heal your body from the inside out are referred to as the Five R’s–remove, replace, reinoculate, repair, and rebalance.
The first thing you have to do is remove whatever is causing the irritation and inflammation to begin with.
Start an elimination diet. Removing common irritants like sugar, dairy, gluten, soy, and the chemical additives found in many processed foods can be a game changer, even for people who aren’t suffering from a diagnosed disease. A properly conducted elimination diet, followed by food challenges, can help you pinpoint which foods are causing trouble for you. The Whole 30 is an excellent elimination diet framework, but there are several others, such as the GAPS Diet, the Maker’s Diet and the Virgin Diet that you may wish to try. In our experience with Natalie, it was very beneficial to take her to a Naturopathic doctor who food sensitivity tested her, but we also keep a very close eye on how all foods affect her very sensitive system. I know that I feel so much better the closer we stick to Paleo eating, and Craig has pretty much determined on his own that he is also has a gluten intolerance.
Start a food journal. Write down what you eat and how it affects you. If you feel bloated, fatigued, anxious, “foggy,” or gassy, pay attention to those cues. Your body is trying to tell you what’s not working for you.
Limit use of alcohol and NSAIDs. Alcohol is terrible for your gut, damaging the lining in very small quantities. If you have a healthy gut, occasional consumption is fine, but if you are trying to heal, it is best to avoid it. NSAIDs inhibit the body’s production of prostaglandins, substances needed to rebuild the intestines’ lining. So, if you have to take them, try to get your dose down to the very smallest amount needed to control your symptoms.
Fight infections. If after eliminating common irritating foods for a few weeks, you aren’t feeling better, you could have a parasite or an infection, such as Candidia. All the nutrition in the world won’t help you if you don’t get rid of the infection, also.
Eat Whole Foods. You have to give your body what it needs to heal itself, so eating unprocessed, whole foods should be the priority. The focus should be on nutrient density to provide the vitamins and minerals your gut needs to repair itself and also to replenish nutrients you may not have been absorbing properly. This is another good reason to work with a doctor during this process, because your doctor can test for nutrient deficiencies. When we finally found a doctor to help us in January, 2015, through blood work, we found out Natalie’s vitamin D and iron levels were really low. If you have reading this blog, you realize by now that we lean in the direction of Paleo around our house, which means avoiding dairy, grains and legumes, because these are all potentially inflammatory foods. We DO focus on nutrient density, and as boring as that sounds, it’s NOT! I promise!
Take digestive enzymes. We have never used digestive enzymes, but many experts recommend them if you are having digestive issues. Taking supplemental enzymes before you eat gives the GI tract a jump-start on digestion, making food easier to break down and nutrients easier to assimilate. They basically help give your body a break from digestion while it is healing.
Supplement with glutamine. Glutamine acts as a bandaid for the gut lining. It is a crucial amino acid that helps heal and repair the small intestine. Craig regularly takes it as part of his supplementation for Crossfit, and he can tell a huge difference in his digestion with and without it. We haven’t ever supplemented Natalie with glutamine, however, I regularly make homemade bone broth with our chicken and beef bones. Bone broth contains proline, lysine and glutamine, and all three help heal the gut. Sometimes our kids will just drink it, but I also use it to make soups and in as many recipes as I can sneak it into.
Get more omega-3 fatty acids. The gut uses them to calm inflammation and rebuild healthy cell walls. It has been shown in animal studies, adding essential fatty acids improves the tight junctions between the gut lining’s cells and enabled the gut to fend off additional injury. If you can get more servings of cold water fish or nuts, like walnuts, that would be ideal. But taking a good quality fish-oil supplement will really help.
Add a probiotic. Taking a probiotic supplement helps add good bacteria to your damaged microbiome. Natalie’s Naturopath put her on this probiotic, so this is the one we all take now. However, before we started seeing her, I was taking this probiotic with great results. Taking the probiotic is helping heal Natalie’s gut, but one of the biggest differences I notice in the rest of our family is that we hardly ever get sick. When we do get sick, it is much milder than it used to be and/or doesn’t last nearly as long. When looking for a probiotic, look for one with at least 50 billion active cultures and contains a variety of bacteria.
Eat fermented foods. Traditionally fermented foods are filled with beneficial bacteria and have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. Only in the last 100 or so years have fermented foods fallen out of fashion. So, what is a fermented food? Any kind of “soured” milk product was traditionally fermented-yogurt, milk kefir, and buttermilk. But there are plenty of non-dairy fermented foods, too. Kombucha and water kefir are two fermented drinks, and just about any vegetable can be fermented. We make and regularly consume water kefir, sour pickles and fermented salsa that I make at home.
REPAIR AND REBALANCE
De-stress as much as possible. If you have a leaky gut, now is not the time to train for a marathon or take on a new, stressful project. When you are trying to heal, it is better to take a yoga class and do a lot of walking to get your movement in. Be gentle with yourself. Our stress levels really do affect our digestion and overall health. Stress causes us to switch into “fight or flight” mode, and what you want to be in is “rest and digest” mode.
Eat mindfully. Many of us rush through our meals just like we rush through our busy, hectic lives. As much as you can, slow down, pay attention to your food and enjoy your meals.
It takes TIME. Natalie has been strictly dairy and gluten-free for 9 months. Part of that time she has been egg-free, too. Most of the time she has eaten a Paleo diet, which is by definition dairy and gluten-free. But even now, if she ingests even the slightest amount of food coloring, which she is incredibly sensitive to, we can tell almost immediately. It is possible we just haven’t given her gut enough time to heal, and it is also possible she will never be able to have certain foods without feeling some effects. Many people can work at repairing their guts, and then add back in some of the foods they have avoided; sometimes permanently, sometimes only occasionally. But you also might find that a food bothers you so much, it’s just not worth it to eat anymore. But trust me, once you figure out how good you can feel, giving up a certain food might be totally worth it!