A Healthier Gut, A Healthier Life
This is the second post in a series. For the first post, read here. In today’s post, I want to share strategies to heal the gut. Science is connecting our digestive system to many chronic conditions, including:
- Weight gain
- Depression, anxiety, and mood swings
- Insulin resistance – pediabetes, diabetes
- Thyroid problems – hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s, and Graves disease
- Menstrual cycle problems
- Autoimmune problems
- Frequent infections
- Skin conditions:
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (gluten rash)
There is a lot more going on in our digestive system than the breaking down of food and absorbing nutrients. And even if we do not have the typical symptoms of constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion, our gut health may be compromised.
Certainly there are treatments and medications for all of these conditions, but our medical system frequently addresses the symptoms, not the causes. All of the above conditions are symptoms of deeper issues, and by addressing the health of our digestive system, we are addressing the root cause.
I am not suggesting you stop taking your metformin or antidepressant. What I am suggesting is making changes that support a healthy digestive system.
We are taught to believe that our health problems can only be fixed by “the experts”. Or with complicated treatments, and sophisticated prescription medications. But we can see significant improvements in our health!
Many of these strategies are simple things you can do today.
I am no expert on gut health, but I do want people to live their best, most healthy, vibrant lives. I learn best through reading and research, then applying what I learn using a realistic, practical approach. We are all on a different journey. My hope is to educate and inspire. And so I share the following to offer encouragement.
Eczema and Probiotics
Two of my children developed eczema last year, not something either I or my husband had ever experienced. My oldest started treatment from a dermatologist, using expensive topical creams, and still his eczema was sometimes so severe his skin would bleed. We were experimenting with diet strategies and we added a probiotic to his daily routine. Within a short time, he saw significant improvements. But when he ran out for several weeks, his eczema flared again. We restarted the probiotic and the eczema improved.
My youngest also experienced a dramatic improvement in her eczema when we added probiotic-rich food sources to her diet. The itchy eczema used to be over both eyes with large, thick patches on her elbows. Now she regularly eats raw sauekrauts, kefir, and other fermented foods, and her eczema is almost completely resolved.
Gluten, Inflammation, and Acne
I have suffered from adult acne off and on for over twelve years, and I have been unable to find anything to offer significant relief.
Last year I attended a seminar with Dr. Patricia Powers, functional medicine specialist and endocrinologist. Her topic was about Leaky Gut, which sparked my interest and research. Eventually I decided to experiment with avoiding gluten in my diet. Immediately my acne began clearing, and as long as I avoided the gluten, my face was blemish-free. Within two days of consuming gluten, the acne would return. Now I am in the process of shifting to a completely gluten-free existence. Acne is merely a symptom of the deeper condition of compromised gut health, and I am learning to appreciate the message my body so clearly sends.
Simple Skin Care Science has some excellent resources on How to Get Rid of Acne and Acne Diet: A Free Comprehensive Guide to Nutrition and Skin.
Fermented Foods, Probiotics, and Mood
Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder are part of my history. On three separate occasions during my adult life I experienced a deep depression, and found relief through anti-depressants. Although I have been happily medication-free for several years, I still keep a watch out for the signs and symptoms, especially during the dark months of winter. Last year, I started including a variety of raw fermented foods in my daily diet. Although I had eaten fermented foods before, they had never been a consistent part of my diet.
Not long after I started including them daily, I noticed a shift in my mood. It was later, when researching the connections between the gut microflora and their influence on neurotransmitters, that I understood the link between fermented foods mood.
These are my experiences, and although the changes I made were small, the results were noticeable.
I am confident others can experience similar changes. What can you do to improve your health?
Strategies for Improving Gut Health
I offer two main strategies for improving the health of your gut. First, focus on Reducing Harm. This involves some dietary and lifestyle changes.
The second strategy is to Increase Beneficials. This means adding more of what supports the health of our digestive system.
All of these strategies benefit not only the health of your gut, but your overall health and well-being. In other words, what’s good for the gut is good for you!
Of course, making lifestyle and diet changes can be difficult and challenging. If this seems overwhelming to you, try not to do too much at once. Pick a few things to start with and work on those, gradually adding more changes over time. I can tell you from personal experience, even small changes can make a big difference.
- Reduce as much as possible over the counter medications that damage your gut microflora and the integrity of your intestinal barrier – antacids and NSAIDs
- Reduce your intake of Inflammatory foods – refined sugars, corn, rancid oils (found in fast foods and packaged foods), trans fats, alcohol, artificial sweeteners
- Reduce your intake of Gluten – if you think you may be sensitive, start reducing your gluten intake and see if you notice a difference
- Reduce exposure to dietary toxins – food dyes, chemical preservatives, herbicides, pesticides, and hormones in your food – buy organic as much as possible
- Reduce exposure to BPA and other endocrine disruptors (For more information on endocrine disruptors)
- Reduce Stress – staying mindful, slowing down, evaluating your priorities, avoiding toxic people and relationships, and learning to let go without guilt
- Increase anti-inflammatory foods (see below for more information)
- Increase intake of probiotic-rich foods (Make your own delicious probiotic foods at home, check out Corina’s class for easy recipes and demonstration videos)
- Increase intake of prebiotic foods that feed the healthy bacteria (garlic, onion, banana, leeks, asparagus, and bitters)
- Use bitter foods and herbs to stimulate digestion and the parasympathetic response to help us “rest and digest”
- If life is too overwhelming, seek help through family, friends, church, or work-supported assistance programs
- Spend time in nature
Above all, remember to treat yourself with love and compassion.
I want to give you more detail on the anti-inflammatory foods, probiotics, and bitters.
While some foods promote the body’s inflammatory response, (rancid oils, refined sugars, and trans fats), other foods help reduce the inflammatory response. These foods are closest to their natural form and include:
– Green leafy vegetables
– Flax seeds
– Many culinary spices including ginger, tumeric, cinnamon, and clove
* See Dr. Mercola’s article on anti-inflammatory foods and spices
Fermented Foods and Prebiotics
The highly convenient, processed foods that have taken over our lives are part of a sterile food system. Unfortunately, as we abandoned the traditional foods our ancestors enjoyed regularly, we gave up many living foods that offer beneficial enzymes, bacteria, and yeasts.
Before refrigeration, fermentation was one process of preserving foods, and was used throughout the world. Fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, kombucha and more all contain living organisms that become a part of our microflora. As I wrote about in Part One of this series, these microorganisms benefit us in many ways including:
- improved digestion and nutrient absorption
- nutrient synthesis (like vitamin K)
- improving symptoms of depression
- reducing inflammation
- influences on our immune system
- preventing pathogens from colonizing the digestive tract
- a role in metabolic diseases, including diabetes and obesity
Fermented foods can be bought at most grocery stores, but you can also enjoy making your own ferments at home. My friend Corina, from Marblemount Homestead offers a self-paced fermentation class with ebooks, recipes, and great videos to help you start fermenting at home. Here’s her short introductory video:
There is one more subject I want to share about digestive health. The idea of using bitters – bitter foods like arugula, watercress, endive and mustard greens, or bitter herbs like dandelion, gentian root, and yellow dock to support digestive health.
Bitters offer many health benefits, including their ability to stimulate the digestive process. Bitters are best when taken just before or at the start of a meal, and help us by increasing the digestive secretions – saliva, bile production in the liver (supporting fat digestion and absorption), digestive acid and digestive enzyme secretion, and insulin from the pancreas.
In addition to supporting digestion, bitters stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system response. The parasympathetic system allows us to recover from stress, relax, and digest.
And finally, bitters are typically high in a polysaccharide called inulin. Inulin is an excellent food source for the healthy bacteria in our guts.
Bitters can be part of a healthy diet. If the bitter flavor is not a part of your current diet, start slowly. Once you grow accustomed to the bitter taste, you might start to enjoy it. Another way to enjoy the benefits of bitters is to make your own bitter tincture. Tinctures can be taken in drop doses before or after a meal, and offer the same benefits as the bitter foods. Rosalee de la Foret has a great recipe you can see here. I make my own bitter formula using ingredients from my garden and kitchen – dandelion and burdock roots, dried orange peel, cinnamon, vanilla and clove.
Our bodies are amazingly sophisticated. Modern medicine has for decades been deconstructing the body systems in order to better understand their functions. But now we are moving toward a more holistic view. Everything in nature is connected, and so it is within our bodies.
Over time, our food choices and habits can make us sick, or make us well. As the wise and great Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed, “All disease begins in the gut.”