Have you experienced any of these symptoms?
Low energy levels
Weight gain/trouble losing weight
Getting sick often
Not able to think clearly (brain fog)
Rashes or other skin issues
If so, gut health is worth considering.
Gut health? What’s that?
Believe it or not, your gut (a term that refers to your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine) directly impacts many of the functions of your body. That is why there is such a wide array of symptoms associated with gut issues!
Your gut is host to around 100 trillion micro-organisms, and it is important for health that the beneficial ones keep the harmful ones under control. When the balance is skewed in favor of the bad guys, that’s when we start to have issues like the ones above.
(Just a note that there can be other causes for these symptoms, but more often than not the gut microbiome is a part of puzzle in one way or another.)
In our modern world, there are many things that can throw off this balance like antibiotics (they don’t just kill the bad bacteria!), the standard American diet with refined carbohydrates, sugars, and highly processed foods and oils, chronic stress, and viral infections.
Once our good gut flora are outnumbered, that is referred to as gut dysbiosis – meaning that there is an imbalance. From there, it can grow out of control and develop into a full-blown infection like SIBO, candida, C. diff, h. pylori, etc.
You can also develop increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which has now been linked and identified as one of the major factors in the development of many disease states including autoimmune disease.
As weird as it may seem, the stuff that goes through your digestive tract is actually considered to be OUTSIDE of your body – it just travels through a system of tubes running from your mouth to the other end! One of your digestive tract’s main jobs is to keep the stuff inside of it contained as it goes through the digestion process, only allowing nutrients to be absorbed. When leaky gut develops, the tight junctions on the intestinal walls become loose and allow things that shouldn’t get through to pass through the intestinal wall into the body and the bloodstream, causing an immune response (inflammation).
Both dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability affect how you digest food and how well the nutrients are absorbed. Without proper digestion and absorption, nutrient deficiency can become an issue.
The topic of gut health is so huge that I can’t possibly cover everything in one post, so I’ll touch on the main points.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The gut and the brain are intimately connected. Thoughts can cause knots in your stomach, and your gut microbiome can cause you to feel emotions. This communication goes both ways and is referred to as the gut-brain axis. There are also studies pointing to leaky gut syndrome having an effect on the blood-brain barrier.
An estimated 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are created in the gut, along with many other neurochemicals and neurotransmitters. Multiple studies have linked limited gut flora, dysbiosis, and leaky gut to a number of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and even Alzheimer’s. The microbiomes of people with these disorders have been shown to have very different microbiomes than people without them.
Certain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been shown to improve anxiety and depression symptoms. You can read more in these studies: (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6882070/) (https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/omi.2017.0077)
Chronic stress is also important to consider here. Periods of acute stress can be beneficial, but when it is ongoing it can wreak havoc on your gut. Not only can stress influence your microbiome, but your microbiome can also influence your stress response. It is a vicious cycle! Extended periods of intense stress has also been shown to bring on disease states, especially those centered in the gut.
This is why stress management and self care is such an important part of a holistic health approach. Our modern world is built on stress, but it just isn’t sustainable for us long term – as the high numbers of people who suffer burnout and health breakdowns show.
If you suffer with any of these issues, there may be other factors contributing to them but improving your gut health can ONLY benefit your overall health.
Gut Health and the Immune System
The immune system is your body’s defense against harmful intruders. An estimated 70-80% of your immune system is based in your gut, and it needs an abundance of nutrients in order to do its job properly. If you are not able to digest and absorb the nutrients you need from your food due to gut issues, then your immune system won’t be able to get what it needs. This leads to immune system dysregulation and when paired with our modern lifestyle, out of control inflammation.
When our immune system loses the ability to control itself, a few things can happen. It can become underactive, leading to frequent illness. It can also become overactive and begin to attack things indiscriminately, leading to development of severe allergies and autoimmune disorders. In some cases, it may fluctuate between the two.
This is one reason that many healing diets focus on nutrient density and healing the gut – the concept is to get as many nutrients as possible so your immune system can regulate and your body can have all the basic building blocks that it needs in order to function properly.
Our immune system has two parts – the innate (non-specific) and the adaptive immune response. The innate is our first line of defense when we are injured or get sick. Immediately it kicks into action and does what it knows to do – stop the spread of what is has deemed as a threat. The adaptive immune response is more targeted. It communicates with the innate immune system and activates certain types of immune cells to address specific threats. In the case of autoimmune disease, it is dysregulated adaptive immunity that has incorrectly targeted the body’s own cells and marked them as an intruder to attack.
Inflammation is the body’s immune response to a threat or injury. Similar to the two types of immune response, inflammation has two types – acute and chronic. Acute is what happens immediately when you injure yourself or become sick – redness, swelling, fever, etc. Chronic inflammation sets in when the innate immune response or acute inflammation wasn’t able to clear the threat, and tends to be lower in intensity but ongoing which is devastating to our health. Some studies seem to show that acute inflammation is tied to the innate immune response and chronic inflammation is tied to the adaptive immune response.
Focusing on gut health and healing intestinal permeability can help to bring the vicious cycle of dysregulated immunity and chronic inflammation back under control.
Gut Health and Your Energy Levels
Gut dysbiosis and leaky gut both contribute to your body not being able to properly digest, break down, and absorb the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that you eat. If this process is inhibited, the necessary building blocks are not available for your body to be able to do the many elegant processes that are required in order to function at a high level - include creating energy.
It has been said that you are what you eat. But recently many scientists and researchers have rephrased that as You are what you eat and absorb.
The Krebs cycle is how your body produces ATP (energy). There are several vitamins and minerals that have been shown to be vital to this process, especially the various B vitamins. This is why a B vitamin complex is often recommended for fatigue and energy issues!
When you have gut issues, your body is not able to process the food you eat into the form it needs to be able to absorb and use these vitamins and minerals. Even if you take a vitamin supplement, you may not be absorbing it!
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms experienced among people in our current time. It is also one of the primary complaints with autoimmune disease or other chronic illnesses - which as previously mentioned, have been linked to dysbiosis and/or leaky gut.
What This Means For Your Health
If you suffer with any of the symptoms mentioned in the beginning of this article, there is a good chance that your gut health is in some way contributing – most commonly through inflammation, immune system dysregulation, or malabsorption of nutrients leading to deficiencies. Dysbiosis or leaky gut is also tied to many chronic health issues that are plaguing our nation today. This is often a key piece of the puzzle that is missed in the conventional medical system, but it has been scientifically proven over and over again that gut health affects just about everything.
The good news is that you can begin taking steps today to heal your gut! While there may be certain issues that will require different types of approaches (such as SIBO or other dysbiosis), just about everyone can benefit from these basic steps:
Eat a diverse diet of real, whole foods.
Add ferments to your diet like sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, kefir (if you tolerate dairy).
Limit your intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates and sugars.
Avoid industrial seed and vegetable oils – instead use avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil, or high-quality ghee, butter, or animal fat.
Take steps to manage your stress. Meditate, spend time in nature, exercise, invest time in self care, create and maintain boundaries, etc.
Work with a functional medicine practitioner to test for underlying issues, especially if you don’t find improvement with these steps.
The gut truly is the foundation of health – physical, mental, and spiritual. Tending to it will allow us to find our best version of health.