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Here’s Why and How to Improve Your Gut Health

A happy, healthy gut

A healthy (and as we say, “happy”) gut is the foundation for good health.

But, first, what even is the gut? In the most simple terms, when we mention “gut”, we’re talking about the entire body’s  gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

“Gut health” describes the function and balance of billions of tiny microorganisms known as the microbiota, gut flora or gut bacteria in the many parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Ideally, organs such as the esophagus, stomach and intestines all work together to not only allow us to eat and digest food without discomfort but also absorb essential nutrients.

Your gut plays an extremely important role in regulating your body’s health including:

  • Digestion
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Mental health
  • Skin conditions
  • Energy
  • Sleep quality
  • Heart health
  • Weight
  • Food intolerances

This short list gives you an idea of the impact your gut health has on the rest of your body.  If we are not properly breaking down foods, absorbing the nutrients and eliminating the wastes, then problems will develop in digestion or other systems of the body.

When your digestive system isn’t working properly, it can clearly affect every single system in your body, from your heart to immune system.

The key to happy gut health is maintaining the balance between the good and bad bacteria in the microbiome.

If your gut is acting differently than normal, it could be unbalanced. An unbalanced gut can lead to any number of health issues.

Some common digestion disruptors include:

Poor food choices: Processed foods laden with chemical additives, dyes, preservatives, cheap fats, pesticide residues & excessive salt and sugar.

Pesticides & Herbicides: Eating conventionally grown food will increase your risk of adverse effects from the many chemicals used in production and harvesting. Many popular fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and dairy are heavily contaminated.

Food allergens: Wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, citrus, shellfish, eggs or others

Eating habits: Eating too fast or while multitasking; not chewing well; eating too late in the evening; eating with poor posture; eating in the car; stress eating; eating too much in one sitting

Chronic Stress: constant worry; rushing every day; no time to rest and relax; not enough sleep; chaotic lifestyle; taking care of everyone but yourself; poor self-esteem / negative self-talk

Stomach flu or food poisoning: Bugs disrupt the balance of bacterial flora

Antibiotic therapy: How many courses of antibiotics have you had this year? In your lifetime? How have you sought to rebuild the gut flora?

Your birth & health history: Were you born by caesarean section? Were you bottle fed as a baby? How old were you when you were fed solid foods? Did you have infections or illnesses?

Medications: Have you had chemotherapy or been on medications that disrupt digestive processes?

Common or everyday occurrences, like gas and bloating, may have become a new normal over time but these are symptoms –  your body is trying to tell you that something needs to be addressed.

Some common symptoms of digestive dysfunction:

  • Bloating/excessive gas
  • Acid reflux
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Nasal congestion or allergies
  • Skin conditions (acne , eczema, dermatitis)
  • Food sensitivities
  • Joint pain and/or muscle aches
  • Brain fog
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Mood swings/irritability
  • Sugar cravings

To support balance and diversity among your gut, consider the 5-R Approach, a systematic and comprehensive approach to heal digestive conditions.

REMOVE:

Stressors – stress is more than a feeling, it causes a biochemical reaction by releasing a hormone called cortisone into your bloodstream. Too much cortisol can cause inflammation in the digestive tract.

Any type of gut irritant such as alcohol, caffeine, processed food, high fat foods, and food additives.

Infections, overgrowth of bacteria and yeast, parasites and pathogens that may require treatment.

REPLACE

Part of your gut-healing plan may include supplements to replace the missing elements hydrochloric acid, pancreatic enzymes, and bile acids that help digest fat, lactose, carbohydrates and protein. You’ll want to replace your diet with foods containing nutrients that help the body produce these elements. For instance, bitter foods can help stimulate stomach acid and digestive enzymes.

Also look for foods and/or supplements to address nutrient deficiencies. Digestive conditions can affect the absorption of nutrients such as B12, iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. A registered dietitian can help you identify these foods and even create a custom, physician guided plan for you.

REPOPULATE

Put simply, eat whole foods. This means lots of veggies and fruit. Remember, elimination diets are not forever. Once symptoms improve significantly, it’s time to reintroduce foods that will help rebalance the microbiome, the collection of good gut bacteria that play a role with immune, digestive, and metabolic health. Keep these bugs happy!

Consider introducing the following types of food to repopulate:

Prebiotic foods – type of food that gut bacteria love to eat. They include fiber-rich carbohydrates such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, apples and bananas. Reintroduce or increase the variety of grains like oats, barley and flax seeds.

Probiotic foods – foods that are rich in bacteria beneficial for your digestive system. You can take probiotics as a supplement, but you may want to reintroduce fermented foods too, like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.

At this stage we want to create an environment that supports gut-healing and long-term relief. Repair of the intestinal tract; the cells and mucosa, is encouraged to reduce inflammation and help our microbiome find a happy home within our digestive tract.

  We may include:

  • Foods high in vitamins A, C, D, & E as well as the mineral zinc
  • Foods rich in amino acids such as bone broth
  • Supplements such as L-glutamine, collagen, aloe vera, marshmallow or slippery elm

REBALANCE: THE BODY & MIND

It’s no surprise that our lifestyle habits have a major influence on our digestive system and overall health.

During this phase of the 5R’s, we want to address:

Stress management
We know it’s easier said than done but reducing stress can help balance your gut. Small changes like taking a walk, meditation, breath work can reduce stress hormones allowing the gut to produce more serotonin and dopamine.

Improving sleep
Poor sleep or sleep deprivation can lead to a decrease in beneficial gut bacteria. In turn, a lack of beneficial bacteria in the gut can lead to more sleep issues. It’s a vicious cycle.

Move
Daily movement and exercise can stimulate your digestive tract to contract, allowing the passage of food and waste through your intestines. This makes for more regular bowel movements and less gas and bloating throughout your gastrointestinal tract.

Relational Health
A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being.

Join Dr. Jennifer Lyon, Carol Bell, RD and Kathleen Wainwright OT in our January Happy Gut workshop on Thursday, January 20 at 6p.m. as they share basic strategies for healing digestive disorders and the digestive symptoms that often precede or accompany inflammatory conditions.

Dr. Lyon will share how the gut is at the foundation of health, offering insights on how to get the best diagnosis, and various testing methods.

Carol Bell, RD, LMT will aim to answer the question: “What should I eat to help heal my digestion?” Sharing specific foods that soothe and calm the digestive tract, strategies for addressing constipation, loose stools, diarrhea, gas and bloating as well as provide some gut friendly food demonstrations so you can begin creating a meal plan to restore and heal your digestion.

Kathleen Wainwright, OT will explore the relationship between digestion and stress levels and how our daily lives, habits can affect digestion. She will also lead the group in a mindful eating exercise as well as address how body posture affects digestion.

Health, Nutrition, & the Role of the Microbiome