Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Have you ever heard this phrase? It is accredited to Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who noticed this correlation more than 2,000 years ago. The health of your “gut”, your gastrointestinal system, it critical to the health of your entire body. It contains 10 times more health-determining bacteria than the rest of your body…over 100 trillion organisms! (1) These bacterial colonies make up 75% of your immune system. They not only promote healthy digestion and elimination, they support your metabolism, protect you from infection, create certain B vitamins and support the immune system's synthesis of neurotransmitters (like feel-good-serotonin).
While modern medicine has discovered other root causes of disease (including genetics and environmental factors) there is strong evidence that many chronic metabolic conditions are caused or influenced by chronic gut inflammation. When the gut lining becomes irritated, gaps develop between the junction of cells, which allows larger food particles and bacterial products (called endotoxins) to leak through the gut lining and enter the bloodstream (1)…AKA “Leaky Gut”. The foreign molecules that leak through are detected by the immune system which then launches an attack. This battle results in chronic inflammation, which is the root cause of many serious medical conditions. The immune system, when repeatedly activated, can end up damaging the body’s own organs and tissues…AKA Auto-Immune Diseases. The scary thing about leaky gut is that for many people, it can present itself as relatively harmless like bloating, heartburn, IBS and excess gas, while for others it can turn into something more serious like a chronic inflammatory condition of the joints, skin, bowel or brain and nervous system.
The latest research (2) clearly shows that leaky gut is connected to hundreds of untreatable and often unexplainable medical conditions including Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, Parkinson’s, Chronic Kidney Disease, Dermatitis and other skin disorders, Depression and Social Anxiety, Schizophrenia and other mental health disorders, ADHD, Tourette’s and Autism, Asthma and Allergies.
Ugh, reading a list of conditions like that feels like a dark storm cloud but here’s the silver lining: When we shift our focus to the improving the health of our gut and optimizing our digestion, we can discover dramatic improvements in our health. There are many ways we can improve the integrity of our gut lining, encourage a positive bacterial environment, and optimize the overall function of our GI-systems.
First, let’s look at what factors cause our gut lining to become irritated. The good news is that most of these factors can be prevented by making changes in how we eat and live.
1) Eating a poor diet = high sugar, poor-quality fats, low intake of fruits and vegetables
2) Over-medicating = with antibiotics, birth control, NSAIDs, anti-depressants, antacids, etc.
3) Chronic Stress = which can alter digestive secretion, change gut-permeability, blood flow and gut sensitivity, and even change bacterial composition
4) Current Health & Body Composition = poor overall health leads to poor functioning organs
5) Exposure to Environmental Toxins = notably pesticides, herbicides, arsenic, BPA, PCBs
6) Inadequate Bacterial Acquisition at Birth = C-section, parents gut health and mothers diet during pregnancy, lack of breast milk or early transition from breast milk to adult food, etc.
All these factors contribute to inadequate beneficial bacteria, excessive damaging bacteria and lack of bacterial diversity (3). While we can’t change how we were born and raised, nor change anything that has happened to us in the past, we can learn from our history and begin making changes today that will improve the health of our gut.
Looking back on my life, I experienced a number of these factors that led to me developing a Leaky Gut: too many rounds of antibiotics and chronic stress in my 20s, years of birth-control, eating a vegetarian diet for 20 years with too many carbs and sugar, suffering food poisoning which damaged my GI lining further...over the course of 18 months, I lost 20 pounds due to poor absorption and got so weak I not only had to stop exercising but would get light-headed just standing up. My body felt “bubbly” in a weird way, I had a twitchy eye that flared up when my stomach was upset and felt like I was on an emotional rollercoaster most of the time. I was eventually diagnosed with SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) but the underlying issue was having a Leaky Gut. This experience inspired me to learn as much as I could about how nutrition affects digestive issues, how to use Food-As-Medicine and make lifestyle changes to improve the health of my gut. I feel impassioned to share what I’ve learned to help others prevent Leaky Gut! I foresee writing many blog posts about this topic, but I'd like to start with FOOD.
Here are my top Therapeutic Foods to improve Digestion:
1) Apple Cider Vinegar: drink a “shot” of 1-2 Tablespoons about 10 minutes before a meal. The high acid of the vinegar helps to increase stomach acid (lowering the stomach pH) which is important for the proper breakdown of proteins. https://amzn.to/2P2NT5P
2) Beets: these red and golden nuggets have high levels of folate and manganese which support gallbladder function. We need a healthy gallbladder to secrete enough bile for the breakdown of fats, so they won’t go rancid inside of us.
3) Bone Broth: soothes the digestive tract and supports the integrity of the gut lining
4) Cabbage Juice: contains vitamin U and sulfur, which helps to kills parasites, to remedy and prevent stomach and duodenum ulcers. https://amzn.to/2SRwoqb
5) Chard/Kale/Spinach: contain fiber which feeds good bacteria
6) Dandelion Root: enhances the flow of bile from the liver to the gallbladder, and helps the gallbladder contract and release stored bile. Dandelion tea is dark and savory like coffee: https://amzn.to/2SRwoqb
7) Fennel: excellent source of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, trace minerals and the anti-cancer coumarin compound. Fennel is a truly healing food when dealing with digestive dysfunction.
8) Fermented Foods: Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi. These add beneficial bacteria to our systems! Start with just 1-2 Tablespoons and slowly increase to a ½ cup daily.
9) Garlic: contains allicin, which is anti-parasitic. While I was dealing with SIBO, I couldn’t eat straight garlic but I could eat garlic-infused olive oil.
10) Ginger: promotes elimination of intestinal gas, relaxes and soothes the intestinal tractc, inhibits the formulation of inflammatory compounds and stimulates digestion.
11) Jerusalem Artichoke: rich source of inulin which promotes healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract.
12) Lemon Water: stimulates stomach acid production. The pH of lemon is alkaline but it is acidic in the stomach.
13) Okra: mucilaginous fiber that soothes the digestive tract. Ok, to be honest, I tried to like Okra but it is rather slimy! Maybe I should try blending it up in a smoothie...
14) Papaya: contains the enzyme papain which helps digest protein
15) Pineapple: contains bromelain which is an anti-inflammatory enzyme. It helps support small intestine and pancreas function.
16) Psyllium Husk: high fiber content which retains water in the stool and stimulates intestinal peristalsis (movement). https://amzn.to/2P2NT5P
17) Radish: contains Sulphur which helps remove deposits and stones from the gallbladder, improves bile flow. High vitamin C contact can calm gastric discomfort and act as a laxative.
18) Relish made from Apples/Beets/Carrots and lemon juice: supports gallbladder function and aids in digestion. Also known as ABC salad.
Well now, that is a long list of foods but please don't be overwhelmed. Start by choosing 1 or 2 that sound good to you and begin to incorporate them into your diet. Notice how your belly feels and how things flow...for the better!
1) Gunnar, K. “Does All Disease Begin In Your Gut? The Surprising Truth”. 2019, Feb. 27, Healthline.com
2) Fasano, A. “Leaky Gut and AutoImmune Diseases”. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2012 Feb; 42(1): 71-8. Abstract on NCBI PubMed.gov
3) Sheridan, M. “Go With Your Gut: The 5-Part Plan For Healing Gastrointestinal Issues & Preventing The Diseases That Come With Them”. 2017, April 21. Excerpt from book on HuffPost.com.
4) Therapeutic Foods For Digestion. Nutritional Therapy Association.