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All About Nutrition & Gut Health

Our gastrointestinal tracts work hard to keep us healthy and happy. When gut health is
compromised, we can face major health consequences. Heres how to use good
nutrition to keep your digestion humming along.

Heal the gut and you heal yourself. Gerard E. Mullin, MD

At least 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from some sort of digestive illness (not
including heartburn), and digestive problems account for nearly 10% of all healthcare
The hard-working gut allows nutrients and water to enter the body while preventing the
entry of toxins/antigens. Its a selective barrier between us and the outside world. But a
distressed gut cant act in our defense. Instead, it allows dangerous compounds to enter
the body.
Thats where nutrition can come in. The right diet strengthens the gut in its guardian
role, improving overall health and well-being.

What can go wrong

If Mama aint happy, aint nobody happy. Substitute gut for mama and
you pretty much get the picture.
If your gut is distressed, it wont perform well and you wont feel good.
A trip to your doctor might end with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),
inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), leaky gut (LG), celiac disease, food sensitivities,
bacterial imbalances or no specific diagnosis at all, since symptoms often overlap and
it can be tricky to untangle the root causes of digestive disorders. For more on
diagnostic criteria

Whats unquestionable is that a healthy gut barrier depends on:

balanced intestinal bacteria (our gut contains about 3-4 pounds of


intact mucosa (our gut lining replaces itself every 3-7 days); and
a healthy immune system (almost 70% of our immune system cells live in

or around the gut).

If any of these are unstable, your gut wont be happy and neither will you.

Our gut bacteria: Hard-working cells

Factoid: You have more bacteria in your gut than cells in your body!
Bacteria can be classed as harmful or helpful. Beneficial bacteria are like busy tourists
in our guts. They come and go. We dont have a permanent supply, so for a vibrant gut
economy, we need to continually replenish them via diet.
Our gut bacteria vary depending on age, gender, diet, geography, hygiene, stress and
medication use. Birthing method (C-section vs. vaginal delivery) and first foods (breast
milk vs. formula) can also determine what bacteria colonize our gut, with breast milk
being an immunological asset, because it generally increases the number of friendly
Beneficial gut bacteria help manufacture vitamins (B12, K, B6, B5, B3, folate and biotin),
enhance absorption of minerals, fight off pathogens, digest food, and metabolize drugs.
They even influence total body metabolism!

Balancing beneficial bacteria

Using antibiotics can eliminate beneficial bacteria in our gut, creating a prime
environment for yeast (Candida

albicans) growth.

Candida, in turn, can provoke

inflammation and symptoms associated with IBS. (However, as contradictory as this

may seem, antibiotics are sometimes used to treat IBS symptoms.)

Reduced beneficial bacteria can also occur with low iron levels and/or a low
carbohydrate diet. At the same time, excessive carbohydrate consumption can
contribute to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (the bad kind), aka SIBO. So for folks
who suffer from SIBO, a limited carbohydrate and higher protein/fat diet can be useful.
Eating enough fibre may play a significant role in gut health. Fibre resists digestion in
the small intestine, then makes its way to the large intestine and ferments, creating short
chain fatty acids, an important source of fuel for the body.
Fibre also adds bulk and improves regularity, reducing our exposure to potentially
dangerous compounds. Finally, the breakdown of fibre regulates pH balance, promoting
the optimal environment for beneficial bacteria.

Intact mucosa & healthy immune system

Much of what we consume today was unknown to our bodies just 100 years ago. Some
experts speculate that the introduction of these new compounds explains the increase in
food intolerance and allergies. Our gut simply cant handle them!
When the gut wall is irritated or inflamed, the tight junctions between its cells loosen up
and we get increased permeability (or leaky gut syndrome). Inflammation, stress,
pharmaceuticals, bacterial balance, malnutrition, compounds in food (gluten, casein,
lectins, fructose, etc), and food additives (including MSG) can all influence the junctions
in our gut and weaken their bonds.
A leaky gut isnt very selective. It might slam the door on beneficial nutrients while
welcoming dangerous bacteria inside. This is called bacterial translocation, or BT. It can
stimulate an immune response or inflammation, and it burdens the brain and liver.

This is an illustration of what might happen in the body when gut health is compromised

A leaky gut often goes along with conditions such as:

Type 1 diabetes;
mental illnesses (including depression and schizophrenia);
skin inflammation such as acne, rosacea, and eczema;
diminished insulin signaling; and

Although causal relationships arent established, researchers hypothesize that certain

compounds (e.g., gluten, casein) cross the leaky gut and provoke an antigenic
response, leading to central nervous system dysfunctions.

What causes a leaky gut?

Contributors include:

the long term use of pharmaceuticals (most notably non-steroidal anti-inflammatory

drugs [NSAIDs], birth control, and corticosteroids);
excessive sugar/refined carbohydrate consumption;
excessive alcohol consumption (although red wine in moderation seems to improve gut
pathogenic bacteria (e.g. infections from H.

pylori and E. coli), which can

compromise gut health for up to three years;

parasites, yeast, stress (acute & chronic); and
environmental contaminants.

Gut feelings

Our gut communicates with all cells in the body, which means that disturbances in the
gut can show up as disturbances in the brain (and vice versa). As a matter of fact, the
brain actually kicks off digestion

before the gut we secrete acids and digestive

enzymes before even swallowing the first bite of a meal!

In addition, our emotions influence gut health.
When youre afraid, your brain and gut know, and your digestion slows down. Ever had
the experience of not being able to eat when youre feeling especially anxious? Thats
because blood flow and enzyme production in the gut are limited during stress.
At rest, the gut receives over half of all organ blood flow, but during exercise, blood flow
to the gut can drop to less than 20% of this resting value. Lack of blood flow to the gut
during digestion can lead to increased intestinal permeability.
Ironically, both endurance exercisers and people with heart failure are susceptible to
leaky gut syndrome; in each case (though for entirely different reasons) not enough
blood is making it to the gut.

Its important to note that symptoms of a disturbed gut can show up

outside the gut

itself, manifesting as seemingly unrelated symptoms such as:

joint pain;
sleep disturbances;
rheumatoid arthritis;
restless leg syndrome;
skin irritation;
night sweats;
headache and so on.

Serious gut pathologies often result in weight loss and nutrient deficiencies (since
malabsorption is occurring).

What causes gut distress?

Often, its the foods we eat. Foods that are healthful for some people might not be
healthful for you. Four common offenders:

Lectins: particular types of proteins. The most irritating type is found in seeds such
as grains, beans/legumes, and nuts.

Gluten and other similar prolamine proteins (such as hordein in barley, secalin in rye,

or zein in corn), found in grains.

Casein, lactose, and other immunoglobulins in dairy.

Fructose, aka fruit sugar. People who struggle to digest fructose also often have
trouble with other complex carbohydrates known as FODMAPs(fermentable
oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols).

For some, these compounds can induce mast cells to produce histamine,
mimicking a food allergy and increasing intestinal permeability and inflammation.
Or they can mimic symptoms of respiratory allergies, such as sneezing, sniffles,
and throat irritation.

For others, these foods stimulate an immune system T-cell response and create
or exacerbate autoimmune symptoms such as joint pain or skin rashes
(particularly eczema).

Other people simply lack the appropriate digestive enzymes to process one or
more of these compounds. In this case, you might just get a general stomach
upset, gas and bloating, nausea, and constipation or diarrhea.

Interestingly, some of the foods that contain these compounds can have addictive
properties, creating an immediate feeling of well-being. So, while your gut might
not be suited to digest casein, right after you drink milk you get a rush of feel
good time, only to soon be reminded of the gut upset that follows.

How to improve your gut health

The intestinal barrier operates as the biological door to

inflammation, autoimmunity and cancer. Allesio Fasano, MD
Get to the root cause. While there can be many causes of gut troubles, there
is always a cause. Identify it before you mask symptoms with medications.

Eliminate any foods/drinks you know to be problematic .

this on your own or set up an elimination diet with a professional.


Balance your bacteria.

Beneficial bacteria strengthen the intestinal barrier.

Choose 1-2 probiotic/prebiotic rich foods/drinks and consume them regularly.

Eat when hungry, stop when satisfied.

If someone is having gut

problems (and still gaining body fat), the first place to look is overconsumption of sugars,
processed grains, processed meats, dairy, and rich meals.

Sugar alcohols can wreak havoc in the gut. If you are struggling
with bloating and cramping, eliminating sugar alcohols might be a wise place to start
(think sugar free desserts, gum, protein powders, protein bars, etc).

Slow down.

The process of slowing down and chewing is important for enzyme

release and breaking food down into particles that are manageable for the gut.

Consider glutamine.

Glutamine can help reverse excessive intestinal

permeability, act as fuel for intestinal cells, and might attenuate the allergic response.

Consider digestive enzyme supplements. Look for a broad-based

multi-enzyme formula. Many of us produce less hydrochloric acid a key digestive
component of our stomachs as we age; look for a formula that includes betaine HCl.
(However, if this type of formula gives you heartburn, stick to the regular enzyme
supplements without betaine.)

Check vitamin D levels.

Low vitamin D status might decrease immune

function and is associated with IBD.

Check iron levels.

Decreased iron status is associated with poor gut function.

This can result from gut malabsorption with the consumption of mineral-binding foods
such as grains and legumes, or simply a low iron intake. Vegetarians/vegans and
endurance athletes are especially prone to this.

Supplement wisely. Natural compounds that might help gut health include St.
Johns Wort, melatonin, curcumin (turmeric), Iberis amara, chamomile, arrowroot,
peppermint, Boswellia carterii, artichoke leaf, clove, zinc, quercetin, gamma oryzanol,
licorice root, CoQ10, phosphatidylcholine, aloe vera and psyllium. But ideally, solve the
underlying problem (e.g. digestive intolerance) first.

Eat plenty of omega-3s (flax, walnuts, hemp, chia, fish,

algae) and other whole food fats (olives, avocado, coconut,
nuts, seeds, etc) to help moderate inflammation.

Also note that

medium chain fats, found in coconut, can also help with gut health.

Flavonoids (this includes isoflavones, anthocyanidins,

flavones, flavonols, flavan-3-ols and flavonones) can help
improve gut health.

Fruits, vegetables, beans (including soy), tea and coffee

are the major sources of flavonoids in the human diet. Foods in the cabbage family and
vegetable broths can also help here. On the other hand, if FODMAPs are a problem for
you, choose carefully, as some of these foods may cause more trouble.

Recover well. Sleep, stress management (e.g., meditation, yoga) and exercise are
necessary for renewal of the body and controlling inflammation. Improving these areas
may improve gut health. Remember that excessive exercise can lead to poor gut
health. Avoid big meals before exercise.

Eat real food. Our bodies have a longstanding relationship with whole/real foods.
Food preservatives and additives, on the other hand, present a new (and perhaps
impossible) challenge for our bodies.

Get fibre. Nutrient-dense, high-fibre carbohydrates like vegetables are important in

the diet. Eat your veggies! And if youre like most Westerners, you probably need more
fibre. Try beans, peas, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits and whole grains.


Children who are breast-fed tend to have less gastrointestinal

infections and inflammatory disorders.

Avoid common triggers such as:

added sugars;
refined grains;

NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen or naproxen drugs);

acid blockers; and
alcohol (except red wine in moderate amounts).

These harm our healthy bacteria, disrupt the delicate chemical ecosystem of our GI
tracts, and/or cause additional gut damage (e.g. NSAIDs can cause GI bleeding).

Reduce your chemical burden.

Choose organic when possible, avoid

heating foods in plastics, use clean body products, avoid food colorings/preservatives
and avoid fish high in toxins.

When ya gotta go, ya gotta go. If you need to evacuate your colon, do it.
Avoid waiting. One to three bowel movements per day = good.

Extra credit
If the vagus nerve (which connects brain to gut) is cut, the gut functions fine on its own.
You have more nerve cells in your bowel than in your spine.
80-90% of serotonin is made in the gut.
AGEs may enter the body more readily if someone has a LG.
Gerd Gigerenzer (German psychologist) said the enteric nervous system is the
intelligence of the unconscious.

Eat, move, and live better.

Yep, we know the health and fitness world can sometimes be a confusing place. But it
doesnt have to be.

In it youll learn the best eating, exercise, and lifestyle strategies

unique and personal for you.