In this final installment of this 4-part blog series by Dr. Blessing Anyatonwu, she will share about the ways to heal the gut. Late joining this series? Catch up from Part 1.
Welcome to part four of the gut health series. In week one we discussed the importance of the gut in digesting our food, week two covered the harmful effects of chronic stress on the gut, and week three covered the damaging effects of prescription medications on our gut flora and how it affects our health. This week we will discuss the ways to heal your gut.
Disruption of gut microbiome and chronic disease
The gut is intricately connected to the brain and other organ systems; to live a healthy life, we must first guard the health of our gut. Many chronic diseases have been linked to a disruption of the gut microbiome and a decrease in the diversity of the bacteria in the gut. Decreased bacterial diversity in the gut has been linked to poor diet, medication overuse, smoking the use of antibacterial soaps and unmanaged stress.
Inflammation and the gut
Under normal circumstances, acute inflammation is one of the ways the body starts the healing process. Short-term inflammation is the immune systems way of attacking viruses and bacteria that have breached the body’s defenses and helping it heal. On the other hand, chronic inflammation puts the body at a greater risk for lowered immunity and an increased risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
There are a variety of different stressors that can trigger the fight or flight and inflammatory response in the gut. The most important thing you can do is to reduce the impact and effects of stress by eating whole, unprocessed foods, managing stress, exercising, getting enough sleep and using foods to combat the effects of prescription medications.
The best way to decrease stress is to activate the parasympathetic system, and that is done best by relaxing. A quick and easy way you can do this is to practice deep breathing, exercising, talking with a friend, getting a massage or just carving out some quiet time for yourself.
Exercise is one of the most cost-effective ways to manage stress by decreasing cortisol levels, reducing inflammation in the body and secreting endorphins. It helps balance mood by increasing the production of serotonin, the feel-good hormone.
Did you know that exercise may change the behavior of the bacteria in your gut?
According to an animal study conducted by Choi et al., the gut bacteria of mice were tested in sedentary and physically active mice. The mice that exercised had increased levels of Lactobacillales and 24 times more Enterococcus calcium than mice that were sedentary.
Another study performed on rats showed an increase in gut diversity in mice that exercised when compared to sedentary mice.
Although these studies were conducted on animals, the results are still promising for humans and this is just one of many reasons to fit exercise into your day.
Getting quality sleep is essential for helping the brain, gut, and body rejuvenate and repair after a long day. Lack of sleep leads to changes in the balance of the bacteria in the gut, hormone imbalances and decreased immunity. The best way to get quality sleep is to avoid electronics at least 3 hours before bed and caffeine at least 6 hours before bed.
Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels are high early in the morning (to keep you alert and awake), and levels fall in the afternoon as melatonin secretion starts to ramp up and prepare the body for bed. Light stops the secretion of melatonin and increases the secretion of cortisol. Many electronic devices emit blue light that enters our eyes and stops the secretion of melatonin in the pineal gland.
Did you know that the gut has 400 times more melatonin than the pineal gland and is produced by cells in the gut? Melatonin in the gut decreases inflammation and helps keep the beneficial bacteria healthy so they can keep you healthy; any disruption caused by sleep deprivation, unmanaged stress or poor diet can lead to hormonal imbalances and an increased risk of chronic disease.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
Leaky gut syndrome has been linked to joint pain, brain fog, fatigue, food allergies, eczema, bloating and headaches.
Our busy lifestyles, the overuse of prescription drugs and over the counter medications, diets high in refined sugars and trans fats create holes in the gut lining and allow large proteins to get through.
Think of the gut lining like a bouncer at a club; the bouncer’s only job is to keep undigested foods, bacteria and large proteins from leaving the gut and entering the blood.
Leaky gut syndrome is used to refer to a condition where the gut lining is hyperpermeable. Increased gut permeability increases inflammation in the gut, and allows foreign substances like proteins to get out of the gut and enter the blood. It decreases your ability to absorb nutrients from food by destroying the brush border and decreasing digestive enzymes.
The best way to treat leaky gut syndrome is by healing the gut lining, removing foods that trigger inflammation and managing stress.
One way to decrease inflammation is to eliminate foods that are triggering chronic inflammation; some foods that trigger inflammation include gluten, sugar, processed foods, trans fats, dairy, soy or alcohol.
Eat more whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, root plants, and resistant starches. Add healthy plant-based fats found in avocados, flaxseed and chia seeds and swap inflammatory oils (like canola oil) for coconut, and olive oils. Omega 3 fatty acids tone down inflammation in the body, and you can eat fish or take a fish oil or algal-based supplement.
Eating antioxidant rich, anti-inflammatory herbs and spices help counteract the effects of oxidative stress caused by chronic stress, poor diet, and medication use. The most antioxidant-rich herbs and spices include turmeric, cayenne, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sage, and rosemary have been shown to decrease the inflammation in the gut by acting on genes that trigger inflammation in the body.
Glutamine has been shown to protect the mucosa in the gut by helping rebuild and repair the gut lining that has been damaged from chronic stress, medication use, and an inflammatory diet.
Chronic stress decreases levels of glutamine in the digestive system.
Glutamine is used as fuel by enterocytes, cells that make up the intestinal lining; these cells form a barrier between the gut and the blood and help prevent foreign molecules from leaving the gut and entering the bloodstream. The enterocytes are responsible for absorbing nutrients from food and helping the immune system filter out harmful bacteria and toxins that enter the gut.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Probiotics are beneficial organisms that help maintain the balance of microorganism in the gut. Too many harmful bacteria in the gut make us sick and have been linked to chronic diseases, and poor digestive, cognitive and skin health.
The beneficial bacteria help the gut mucosa form a physical barrier that keeps other bacteria and viruses out. We need a very diverse number of organisms in our body to help protect our immune, gut and brain function.
A decrease in gut bacterial diversity leaves you more acceptable to develop chronic diseases and infection. Our gut help helps our bodies absorb, digest and break down the nutrients in our food, produce vitamins, minerals and other chemicals that help keep the gut healthy.
Probiotic foods include fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kvass and fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut. Prebiotic foods help replenish your gut with beneficial bacteria after periods or chronic stress, and especially antibiotic and drug therapy.
The best way to restore your gut health is to educate yourself on the effects of stress, medication use and poor diet on your gut. The next step would be to take the steps needed to eliminate foods that trigger inflammation; then add whole, unprocessed foods that feed the beneficial bacteria; and then add probiotic and prebiotic foods that will help restore and replenish your gut flora.
If you are interested in learning more about gut health, please register for my upcoming Gut Health Webinar on February 17th.
Heal Your Gut Citations
- Choi J. J., Eum S. Y., Rampersaud E., Daunert S., Abreu M. T., Toborek M. (2013). Exercise attenuates PCB-induced changes in the mouse gut microbiome. Environ. Health Perspect. 121, 725–730. 10.1289/ehp.1306534
- Cerdá, Begoña et al. “Gut Microbiota Modification: Another Piece in the Puzzle of the Benefits of Physical Exercise in Health?” Frontiers in Physiology 7 (2016): 51. PMC. Web. 3 Feb. 2017.