How to heal gut health to help develop the immune system and protect against pathogens, among other benefits?
Gut health has long been one of those subjects that people haven’t paid attention to. It has gained popularity as people become more familiar with its importance. But we can’t over-stress how big of a role the gut plays in health. Everyone knows that the digestive system is critical to sustaining life. If you don’t eat, you don’t live. But recent research has shown that the GI tract does more than just digest and nourish the body.
What is gut health?
We’re starting with this topic because when people hear the word gut, they think about the stomach — which is correct — but gut health spans more than just the stomach. The health of the entire gastrointestinal system is encompassed under the umbrella of gut health.
The human microbiome is composed of trillions of symbiotic microbial cells that live primarily in the gut and maintain the health of your GI tract and your entire body. It is composed of all the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses — that live on and inside the body. Gut microbiota modulates the expression of many genes in the human intestinal tract, which includes genes involved in immunity, nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, and intestinal barrier function.
Here are some of the ways the microbiome contributes to your health:
- Protects against pathogens
- Synthesizes vitamins
- Development of the immune system
- Promotes intestinal angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels)
- Promotes fat storage
- Produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)
- Modulates the central nervous system (CNS)
As you can see, having a healthy gut microbiome doesn’t just mean you digest and absorb your food properly. But it means that your body functions as optimally as possible. There is an increasing availability of research showing that many diseases, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia, are all linked to microbiome dysfunction. Disease-causing microbes accumulate over time, which causes changes in gene activity and metabolic processes, resulting in abnormal immune responses against substances and tissues that are normally present in the body.
Symptoms of an unhealthy gut
While you may think eating poorly contributes to poor gut health — which is correct. Here are some other signs to look out for that signify your gut may not be in optimal condition:
Autoimmune conditions are those whereby your body attacks its own cells. Research has shown a link between the gut and the immune system’s health in that intestinal microbiota play a role in metabolism and directing immune system development. Dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance) is also observed in many inflammatory diseases of the GI tract. It’s therefore thought that an unhealthy gut contributes to increased systemic inflammation and changes in the function of the immune system, which can lead to autoimmune disorders.
Digestive disturbances like bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn are all signs that your gut may not be in the best shape. A healthy gut with a healthy balance of bacteria is more capable of processing food and eliminating waste.
A diet that’s high in processed foods and refined sugar tends to feed unhealthy bacteria and can cause dysbiosis. High sugar intake has also been linked to the development of inflammation, which is the precursor to many health conditions.
Skin irritations like eczema are essentially the result of an autoimmune condition and are signs of a damaged gut. Inflammation in the gut can be caused by a number of different factors, namely a poor diet and food allergies or intolerances. This causes proteins to “leak” into the body and mounts an immune response, which causes conditions like eczema to arise.
If you experience difficulty digesting certain foods. Or you probably experience associated symptoms like gas, bloating, and skin issues, chances are you have some food intolerances. While intolerances don’t involve the immune system. It’s thought that gut bacteria do play a role. Bacterial and viral infections have the potential to suppress immune responses by triggering inflammation and altering gut permeability, therefore driving the development of food sensitivity.
Sleep disturbances and fatigue
If you’re having sleep troubles, your gut bacteria may be partially to blame. The majority of serotonin — the precursor hormone to melatonin, which controls sleep — is produced in the gut. The gut damage can cause changes in serotonin production and therefore changes in sleeping patterns.
How to heal gut health?
Eat the right foods
A diet rich in colorful fruits and veggies is important to ensure sufficient nutrient intake and obtain adequate fiber to support gut health. Dietary fibers are crucial to any balanced diet as they interact directly with gut microbes but also lead to the production of key metabolites like short-chain fatty acids.
Inflammatory foods like refined sugar, gluten, dairy, and industrial seed oils are huge contributors to poor gut health and allow bad bacteria to thrive. We recommend following the paleo diet as it advocates for a high intake of fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean meats. Try omitting all of the unhealthy foods we mentioned above.
Introducing fermented foods like natto, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir is all great for supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria. The process of lacto-fermentation can also add nutritional value to your food through the production of B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes. If you think your gut is having a little trouble, adding digestive enzymes or taking some apple cider vinegar before a meal can help.
Get enough sleep
Recent research has discovered that the gut plays a significant role in our sleep patterns and circadian rhythm. A 2016 study found that gut microbes move according to a rhythm, influencing other organs’ circadian rhythms. As well sleep rhythms are controlled partly by gut microbes. A 2014 study of humans and rodents on the effects of jet lag found that sleep disruption affected the efficacy of gut microbes. When the microbes of jet-lagged humans were implanted in mice, their guts started showing signs of malfunction.
One of the more common things we hear about is shift work and how detrimental it can be for the body, especially our sleep cycle. A study published by Washington State University in 2018 found that just three days of shift work was enough to shift the body clocks in both the gut and pancreas. It causes metabolic issues as well as a disconnect from the ‘master’ clock that is found in the brain.
If you need help getting your sleep back on track and don’t have the time to sleep under the stars for a few nights, supplements like 5-HTP, L-theanine, and melatonin can be beneficial.
Surprisingly, collagen can also be helpful in promoting a deeper, more restorative sleep due to high amounts of glycine.
Control your stress
Managing stress levels isn’t just important for general health but for gut health as well. It’s well known that stress modulates the gut microbiota community structure and activity and may also be one of the causal factors associated with dysbiosis. Stress is any sort of disruption in homeostasis as a result of environmental, physical, or psychological stimuli (i.e., stressors) that cause a stress response — an adaptive physiological and behavioral response to restore homeostasis.
While you may only think of stress in a certain facet, it can come in many forms:
- Psychological (anxiety, fear, cognitive demands)
- Environmental (toxins, pollutants, noise, pathogens)
- Physical (overtraining, undernutrition, sleep deprivation)
- Emotional (sadness, grief, anger)
Need some ideas on how to de-stress? Try meditation, yoga, going for a walk, getting a massage, spending time with friends and getting a mani/pedi, diffusing essential oils, decreasing your caffeine intake, or simply just laughing.
Avoid over-the-counter medications
Prescription drugs are notorious for killing your gut. While many people know about the side effects of taking antibiotics, it may be a surprise how common they are. These side effects occur because, in addition to targeting ‘bad’ bacteria present in the body, they also target the beneficial bacteria living in the gut, which causes a disruption in the balance.
What’s more, these effects were thought to be short-term. However, recent research suggests that the effects of antibiotics may be more long-term.
With all of that said, you should understand that the gut isn’t just important for digesting and absorbing food, but it plays a much bigger role in how the body functions. From digestion and immunity to the synthesis of vitamins and control of the CNS, the gut is imperative to optimal body function, and it’s imperative that you make a concerted effort to maintain its health.