12 Ways You’re Damaging Your Gut And How To Nurture It For Optimal Health
What Is The Gut And Why Is It Important?
The gut, also known as your digestive tract or gastro intestinal system, is a hugely underrated organ. It is home to more than two-thirds of your immune system. It absorbs the nutrients from the foods you eat and turns them into fuel for your body and creates more than twenty unique hormones, including up to 90% of the body’s serotonin production.
It even has it’s own nervous system, the enteric nervous system. This diverse network of nerves is called the second brain or the ‘gut brain’ and it is just a big and chemically complex as the grey matter in our heads. Julia Enders explains this in great detail in her book “Gut”. Our gut sends messages to our brain via the Vagus nerve and Gut-Brain Axis, it conveys messages about what is going on in the digestive system and can even influence our food desires and cravings based on what the bacteria in our gut wish to feast on.
“The gut is right in the thick of it. It knows all the molecules in the last meal we ate, inquisitively intercepts hormones as they swim around in the blood, enquires of immune cells what kind of day they’re having and listens attentively to the hum of the bacteria in the gut. It is able to tell the brain things about us it would never otherwise have had an inkling of. ” Julia Enders
We Are More Bacteria Than Human
Dr Graham Phillips in his interview for Catalyst’s Gut Reaction program comments that: “We are home to trillions of bugs. Living on us and inside of us are an enormous number of bacteria. In fact, the bacterial cells outnumber ours 10 to 1. So when you think about it, they're not really OUR bacteria, we're THEIR human.” These bacteria are referred to as our Microbiome, the majority of which exist in our gut. The diversity and balance of our Microbiome determines our health, immune system function and influences our behaviour. The Gut-Brain-Microbiota Axis is a bidirectional communication network, signals from the brain can influence the motor, sensory and secretory modalities of the gut and messages from the gut can influence brain function. In the case of persistent stress this can signal our gut to decrease the blood supply to the digestive system and decrease mucous production, weakening the gut walls.
Leaky Gut And Too Much Of The Wrong Bacteria
The digestive tract is a vital immune barrier that protects us from disease and contamination. If your gut is unbalanced, overpopulated with bad bacteria or otherwise damaged, your immune system will not be functioning optimally and your health will suffer on many levels. These conditions are referred to as Gut Dysbiosis (overpopulation of bad bacteria) in the cases of Candida (yeast overgrowth), Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or Small Intestine Fungal Overgrowth (SIFO) and also Increased Intestinal Permeability (Leaky Gut). These cause a multitude of symptoms including:
12 Causes Of Gut Damage
* GMOs are widely debated as to their potential harm vs. perceived benefits, for me artificial gene modification of food that crosses it with non food kingdom organisms is concerning. Very high amounts of GMO foods are present in processed foods therefore by eating a diet predominantly home-grown, organic and plant-based you will avoid many of these. Dr. Mercola discusses this in far greater detail here.
Any one of these factors can damage the gut wall causing increased intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut) or an over-population of bad bacteria. When Leaky Gut occurs undigested food particles, toxins and microbes leak through the gut walls into the bloodstream and into the body. Most people will experience Leaky Gut at some point in their lives and not be aware. Dr Axe further explains in his book “Eat Dirt”.
“When those microbes sneak out our immune system releases antibodies that neutralise the invaders and that’s that. But when leaky guy becomes chronic, the toxic potential of those roaming microbes means leaky gut is no longer a localised, fleeting digestive issue-it becomes a systemic syndrome that can have significant, wide spread and even deadly ramifications. The body’s inflammatory response-a result of your immune system trying to protect you- can get locked in the “on” position and start attacking everything and anything in its path. When this happens you become at risk of developing a lifelong, debilitating autoimmune condition.”
With your immune system fighting everything little that comes into your body it can miss the real enemies- the viruses and bacteria that will make you unwell- and allow them to take hold.
However, if you have diverse gut bacteria and the right balance of good, neutral and bad bacteria any pathogens will be swiftly dealt with, food will be digested, nutrients absorbed and the immune system will be working sufficiently to keep you healthy.
So How Do You Achieve This?
Reduce Antibiotic Use
Only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary, this does not include the common cold or flu virus.
Help Out The Good Bacteria
If you are regularly catching colds and viruses this is a sign that your gut is unbalanced and immune system defences are not working optimally, using antibiotics regularly will only obliterate the only remaining good bacteria and in some cases allow the bad bacteria to proliferate.
Avoid Excessive Alcohol
The high amount of sugars and yeasts in alcohol can disrupt the balance of the bacteria in your gut. Excessive alcohol intake (or any alcohol intake in some people) can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut.
Be Aware of Long Term Contraceptive Pill Use
Long-term use of the oral contraceptive pill can disrupt the bacterial balance of your gut, particularly when combined with antibiotic or other medication use and insufficient efforts to repopulate the gut bacteria (pre and probiotic use). It also supresses and affects your natural hormone production, which can have seriously detrimental effects long term.
Reduce Chemical Exposure in Household and Body Products
Look at the products you are using in your home, on your hair, skin and body, if the ingredients are a mix of chemicals rather than common kitchen ingredients they too will be harming your gut, health and immune system. Very effective household cleaners can be made with ingredients from your kitchen, baking/bicarb soda, vinegar, lemon juice and essential oils. These are the strongest chemicals you should be using for the healthiest home and gut.
Reduce Hand Sanitiser Use
Hand santitiser is not your gut’s friend. A thorough hand washing will be enough to remove most harmful bacteria. You absorb the alcohol and chemical ingredients you put onto your skin. These are absorbed into your bloodstream and stored in your body if they cannot be naturally eliminated.
Reduce And Eliminate Processed Food Consumption
Apart from being nutrient deficient, processed, fibre-less foods contain excess sugar, table salt and empty carbohydrates. Many processed foods also contain MSG, genetically modified ingredients and preservatives. These ingredients deaden your tastebuds and stop you from enjoying the incredible depth of flavour of real whole foods. They also make you crave more of those same ingredients as they feed the bad bacteria in your gut, they can cause bacterial imbalance and systemic candida (thrush).
Eat More Wholefoods
Eating high amounts of fibrous foods, mainly plants, beans, legumes and sprouted seeds, nuts and wholegrains, will cleanse and sweep out the digestive tract, allowing proper absorption and digestion of nutrients and optimal immune system functioning. A.k.a. a wholefoods and minimally processed plant-based diet!
Decrease Gluten Consumption
You don’t have to be a Coeliac (Celiac) for gluten to cause you problems. Gluten consumption (wheat, barley, oats and rye and their by-products) as well as stress causes the protein ‘zonulin’ to increase the permeability of the intestinal walls. This allows food particles and toxins that would otherwise pass through the digestive system to reach the bloodstream and organs, turning on the immune system’s “under constant attack” mode.
Try An Elimination Diet
You will not know if a food truly suits you or not unless you cut it out for a while and see how your body reacts to the re-introduction. Consume less or no gluten, dairy and sugars if your immune system is not functioning optimally. Try cutting them out for a period of time (ideally at least 30 days and see if you notice a difference).
Manage Your Stress
Set up stress management routines and rituals and practice them, every single day. Try; exercising in nature, speaking to a psychologist or counsellor, writing it down, mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, breath work, connecting with your spirituality and belief in something bigger than you, whatever you call that God, the universe, mother earth, the divine, talking to your friends and listening to their experiences and advice too, reading and purposeful relaxation time that you gift to yourself.
Soak and Sprout Grains, Seeds and Nuts
Grains, like seeds and nuts are covered in phytic acid, which is an anti-nutrient designed to allow them to pass through us undigested, prolonging the survival of the species. This can be highly irritating to the lining of the gut. This phytic acid makes it very difficult to absorb the nutrients from those foods, unless they are soaked and the sprouting process is begun. This process is also called activation. See my recipe for Activated Seeds and Nuts for more info.
Cut Out The Refined Sugar
Refined sugar is hidden in the majority of pre-made, canned and packaged goods and added to most of the foods we eat. We already know that sugar makes us sick, sad and fat but excess sugar also depresses our immune system by causing inflammation.
Say No To GMO
Genetically modified foods kill off the good bacteria in our guts, another great reason to avoid corn and soy products unless organic and non-GMO.
You Are What You Eat And Absorb
Be aware of how your food has been grown and what has been put on it and fed to it. Anything your food is exposed to, you absorb. Pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilisers, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, vaccinations and unnatural diets fed to animals (GMO & grain stuffed poultry and livestock). The soil your vegetables are grown in directly affects how beneficial (or not) their nutrients are for you. Wherever possible grow your own (organically), buy farmer direct and ask questions about your food. It is important.
Probiotics Are The Way
Eat foods rich in probiotics and take probiotic supplements if you need a boost. Naturally probiotic- rich foods are fermented foods, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir and vegetables pickled in salt and water (brine) not vinegar. They add diverse good bacteria to your gut and help to maintain balance, improving your immune system function, health and your mood.
Include Active Cultures and Lacto-Fermentation
Eat active culture yoghurts if you tolerate dairy well, ensure there are no added sugars, preservatives, artificial colours or sweeteners. Better yet make your own from organic (ideally raw/minimally processed) dairy. Or try coconut yoghurt. Eat lacto-fermented foods such as some mayonnaises, mustards, horseradish, sauces and chutneys with live cultures and real lacto-fermented sourdough. Making your own milk kefir is a great way to add more probiotics to your diet it is understood that homemade milk kefir can contain up to 50 different strains of beneficial bacteria (probiotic supplements may contain 10-15).
Eat Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotics enhance the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Eat prebiotic foods- bananas, raw Jerusalem artichoke, raw dandelion greens, raw garlic, raw or cooked onions, raw leek, chicory root, acacia gum and raw asparagus. More good bacteria equals a healthier, happier and more balanced you!
Lee Holmes the Author of the Supercharged Foods books and blog by the same name urges us to “think of your gut as a garden that can only thrive when the soil is healthy. Healthy soil requires healthy foods and nutrients that will allow the ‘good guys’ to flourish. By feeding our bodies all-natural, easily digestible foods, we can help our gut to function optimally, without the need to resort to dietary supplements.”
This may initially seem very difficult and daunting to overhaul your diet to include these foods and cut out others. Think instead that you are choosing real, whole, nourishing foods that improve your health with every bite and decreasing the amount of overly processed, sugary foods you eat. Start with one food, meal or snack at a time, you will be on the path to greater health if you continue to do this consistently.
A wholefoods, plant-based diet is the ideal basis for healthy, balanced gut bacteria, improved immune function and optimal digestive function. It provides the fibre to feed the good gut bacteria, can prevent and reverse the overgrowth of bad bacteria and fungi and helps us to encourage the growth of more of the good guys. But diet is only part of the equation, your lifestyle, sleep quality and quantity, stress levels and management and exercise all contribute to the health of your gut and function of your whole body.
Kris Carr the Author of the Crazy, Sexy Diet books and kriscarr.com recounts the response of a Doctor of hers when she asked which one is the most important of diet, exercise, rest or stress management and meditation, he said “the one you’re not doing”. Neglecting of any of these factors will impact your health, recovery and overall wellbeing. As we know a holistic approach is the best way to optimize your health. For help with taking a holistic approach to your health and lifestyle book a Wellness Consultation for yourself and/or your family with me. As an Occupational Therapist I assess holistically and find solutions to the aspects of your life that are out of balance and require a different approach.
We can work together to improve your diet, lifestyle, stress management, rest, exercise and relaxation and get you on track to your best health yet. I can’t wait to help you to improve your wellbeing holistically!
Here’s to you being Happy, Well and Fed (delicious, healthy, inspiring wholefoods)
Sources and more information:
Gut: The inside story of our body's most underrated organ by Giulia Enders
Grain Brain Dr David Perlmutter
Lee Holmes Author Supercharged Food and Heal You Gut
Dr Kelly Brogan A Mind Of Your Own
Dr Joseph Mercola
Dr Josh Axe author of Eat Dirt
Dr Libby Weaver Nutritional Biochemist