Digestion is a mysterious thing. Temperamental. Sensitive.
This is old news if you’ve ever dealt with bloating, indigestion, heartburn, constipation, even brain fog or fatigue after consuming certain foods, due to the intimate interaction between your brain and your gut.
Digestive issues not only disrupt your day, they can mess up your whole body. Your gastrointestinal tract and the bacteria therein affect your body’s nutrient absorption, vitamin production, hormone regulation, immune response, detoxification systems, skin health and overall mental wellness.
Clearly, taking care of your gastrointestinal tract should be a top priority for optimal health and longevity. If you abuse or neglect your gut, a part of your body that is in some ways more exposed to external compounds than your skin, you’re setting yourself up for sub-par performance in all areas of life.
So if you want to spend less time on the toilet, if you want to be done with embarrassing and uncomfortable gas and bloating, if you want to get rid of cravings and mood issues, and if you want clear and blemish-free skin, keep reading.
There are three common, but unsuspecting causes of digestive (and thus, overall health) problems. In this article, you'll find out what those gut-disruptors are and how to eliminate them. You’ll also discover one game-changing, free tip that will dramatically improve your digestion and gut health.
Gut Health 101
You’re not alone if you think of your gut as one long, twisting garden hose that extends from your mouth to your butt. Heck, even the classic Gray’s Anatomy – a go-to manual for every aspiring medical student – describes the gut as:
“A musculo-membranous tube, about thirty feet in length, extending from your mouth to the anus, and lined throughout its entire extent by mucous membrane.”
But the truth is, the gut is way more complex and intertwined with the rest of your body than most people think.
In fact, we now know that the gut is directly connected to the brain via the Gut-Brain Axis. Dr. Jordan Rubin describes how this connection forms in his book “Patient, Heal Thyself”:
“Early in our embryogenesis, a collection of tissue called the ‘neural crest’ appears and divides during fetal development. One part turns into the central nervous system, and the other migrates to become the enteric nervous system. Both ‘thinking machines’ form simultaneously and independently of one another until a later stage of development… Then the two nervous systems link through a neural cable called the ‘vagus nerve,’ the longest of all cranial nerves. The vagus nerve ‘wanders’ from the brain stem through the organs in the neck and thorax and finally terminates in the abdomen. This is your vital brain-gut connection.”
It might seem weird to think that your stomach is physically connected to your brain, but it certainly explains physical phenomena you've probably already experienced, like:
- Getting butterflies in your stomach before going on stage.
- Nerve-induced stomach cramps (more fondly referred to as “nervous poos”) before a presentation or competition.
- Antidepressants cause nausea and stomach upset, and stomach upset can depress you.
- Particular foods cause brain fog or sleepiness.
- And why overeating when you’re anxious helps you produce extra “feel good” chemicals.
This is also why poor gut health has been linked to mental health disorders, anxiety, depression, and other brain-related issues.
And that's why it's so important to take care of the gut: Not only to improve your quality of life and physical health, but also protect the health of your brain!
Three Common Gut Issues and How To Fix Them
Even though the implications of poor gut health can be numerous, there are actually just three common causes of most of the gut-related problems people experience: bacterial imbalances, intestinal permeability, and dietary gut irritants. Keep reading to discover what causes them, and how to deal with them (naturally).
Gut Issue No. 1: Bacterial Imbalances
Wanna know something weird? Your gut is very much alive and crawling with critters: 500 species, over 100 trillion cells, and three pounds of bacteria in your digestive tract form a giant ecosystem called the gut microbiome. A balanced microbiome is vital, and its inhabitant bacteria help you digest food, manufacture hormones, excrete toxins, produce vitamins and regulate many other important functions in the body.
In healthy individuals, these gut bugs coexist peacefully and digestion and other bodily systems function properly. However, in certain unfavorable conditions caused by poor diet, stress, infections, antibiotics, or other environmental assailants, negative bacteria are able to overpower beneficial bacteria, leading to bacterial imbalances.
One fairly common condition that arises from bacterial imbalances is called SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. SIBO occurs when certain bacteria, which are normally found in your colon and large intestine, mobilize and move up towards your small intestine. Once established there, the bacteria feed on the food passing through your small intestine which can lead to poor nutrient absorption, particularly that of fat-soluble vitamins and iron. The feasting also bacteria produce gases that contribute to SIBO symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating.
Because the gut is so intertwined with other systems in the body, symptoms of an imbalance vary greatly. However, the most common include:
- Gas and bloating
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Undigested food in stool
- Frequent sickness
- Skin problems
- Brain fog
- Weight gain
- Thyroid issues
- And even autoimmune diseases, to name a few.
How to Balance Gut Bacteria
Feed beneficial bacteria. Some people may benefit from taking probiotics or consuming foods that naturally feed bacteria such as fermented and fiber-rich foods. However, if you're experiencing SIBO-like symptoms, bacteria-feeding foods might make your symptoms worse. In that case, it's best to limit fermentable carbohydrates and fermented foods until the SIBO is under control.
Support stomach acid levels. Drink warm water with lemon or a splash of apple cider vinegar before meals. You can also supplement with digestive enzymes and betaine HCL to increase stomach acid levels.
Gut Issue No. 2: Intestinal Permeability
The lining of the intestines are only one cell thick, held together in what's referred to as “junctions”. These junctions are normally tightly sealed; just permeable enough to let vitamins and minerals pass through to the bloodstream to be carried to various organs.
However, when the intestines become abnormally hyper-permeable, a condition commonly referred to as “leaky gut”, it's essentially like having a water filter installed in your house that has big holes in it. Stuff you don’t want to be drinking ends up getting through those holes and into your drinking water instead of getting filtered out.
In the case of a leaky gut, undigested food proteins, toxins, and pathogenic substances can pass through the intestinal barrier and into the bloodstream, resulting in an immune response in the blood and an enormous amount of stress as your body tries to fight off these foreign invaders.
Therefore, a hyper-permeable gut can result in digestive issues, nutrient deficiencies, food intolerances, immune system dysfunction, and much more serious health issues.
Leaky gut can be caused by:
- Lectins found in grains, legumes and nuts
- High-intensity, long duration exercise
- Gut microbiome dysbiosis (see above)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- And possibly the number one offender: Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup
How to Seal Up a Leaky Gut
To seal up a leaky gut, introduce compounds into your body that help the gut to heal, and be careful to avoid things that cause inflammation or punch holes in the lining of the digestive tract.
Drink bone broth. Bone broth provides gut-repairing gelatin, glycine, and glutamine, along with a whole host of other beneficial compounds. If you decide to make your own bone broth, go with the knuckle, patella, femur, or feet bones of grass-fed or pastured animals. Those bones contain the highest concentration of white and red stem-cell marrow, and the highest levels of collagen, one of bone broth’s major benefits.
Supplement with glutamine. Glutamine is an amino acid that supports intestinal and whole body growth that is important for restoring and maintaining your intestinal barrier integrity. Your body is actually capable of producing it with one study suggesting that you can actually stimulate the natural, homeostatic release of glutamine from skeletal muscle to help repair the gut and restore immunologic responses to full capacity. However, the study also concluded that “severe injury or prolonged glutamine deficits do not adequately support intestinal recovery and allow this cycle to become self-perpetuating.” Which means that you might need to turn to supplementation. The addition of glutamine to your diet will help prevent deterioration of gut permeability and preserve the mucosal structure, which is basically the lining of your gut.
Take a high-quality Colostrum supplement. Colostrum, known as “first milk”, is produced by all mammals (including humans) in the first few days after giving birth. Colostrum has been shown to inhibit zonulin proteins from binding to zonulin receptors in your intestinal cells. Once the proteins bind to the receptors, your intestinal wall loosens and opens up, so by preventing that, colostrum helps to prevent leaky gut. Colostrum also encourages the growth of probiotics so they may better colonize your gut, rather than pass right through your digestive tract.
Avoid gut-killers like antibiotics, NSAIDs, pesticides, improperly prepared plant foods, and high levels of stress. Instead, take natural bacteria balancing and immune-boosting supplements, natural joint-support supplements, opt for organic produce and animal products, find ways to deal with stress, and prepare your grains and plants to reduce lectins (keep reading for more).
Gut Issue No. 3: Intestinal Irritation From Plants
Plants, although they appear quite harmless, actually have natural defense mechanisms.
Take quinoa, a perfect example of a grain that is somewhat healthy, high in amino acids, and full of essential minerals. Quinoa is coated with what are called saponins, an indigestible soapy coating that helps protect the quinoa as it passes through a mammal’s digestive tract so that it will be excreted intact and thus be spread and planted. Unfortunately, in passing through the gut, saponins have been shown to cause an inflammatory reaction in the intestine, increase gut permeability, and inhibit normal active nutrient transport.
Other gut irritants and plant anti-nutrients you should be aware of include:
- Protease Inhibitors
How to Make Plants More Digestible
Lucky for you quinoa-lovers, despite these plant anti-nutrients, most people don't need to go completely plant-free.
While there are some potential therapeutic benefits to something like a lectin-free diet such as Carnivore or Plant Paradox, they aren't necessary – or even healthy – for everyone (read here to find out why there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet).
For most people, plants can be part of a healthy, balanced diet; They just need to be prepared properly. Here's how to make your plants more gut-friendly.
Soak. Soaking legumes, like beans, in water overnight can help reduce gut-irritating phytates and lectins.
Sprout. Sprouting is the process of germination in plants. When grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are sprouted over several days, they show increased availability of nutrients, and decreased levels of lectins.
Ferment. Fermentation of grains, such as in sourdough bread, and legumes highly decreases phytate and lectin levels.
Summary & A Quick Tip For Improving Digestion
In summary, the three most common gut issues are bacterial imbalances, intestinal permeability, and gut irritation from plants.
Follow the recommendations to care for your gut, and always be sure to eat a balanced diet high in gut-supportive, nutrient-dense foods. Avoid refined carbohydrates, non-organic produce and animal products, NSAIDs, and antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
And finally, here's a simple tip for improving your digestion today:
For every meal that you eat, starting right now, chew every bite of food 25 times. Your mouth, like your stomach, is full of digestive enzymes like salivary alpha-amylase, so by taking your time and chewing properly, you’re giving those enzymes the chance to do their job. This will also activate hormones that will make you feel fuller faster and stimulate hydrochloric acid to begin breaking down proteins. All sorts of cool things happen when you slow down and chew your food, including a deeper appreciation for what's supporting your wellness.