Gut health continues to be on the forefront of conversation, and rightly so considering its growing correlation to the functionality of almost every system in the body. While many are aware of the buzz gut health has created, of the estimated 60-70 million people who are affected by digestive diseases in the U.S., a large majority of people in this group continue to go undiagnosed. If you’ve become accustomed to indigestion, poor energy, immune health, bloating, stubborn weight loss, skin problems, inconsistent bowel patterns and mood issues as a regular part of life, there’s a chance your digestion is at the root of the problem. If gone unchecked, it can manifest into a slow-moving metabolism, hormonal imbalance, difficulty losing body fat and other health issues.
The gut, which is made up of our mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine and colon, plays a crucial role in helping the body maintain and accomplish basic functions like:
- Breaking down food and absorbing nutrients into the body to fuel metabolism and energy.
- Supplies over 70% of our immune system.
- Houses a “barrier” to defend against foreign invaders, allowing the “good guys” in and keeping the “bad guys” out.
- Provides its own nervous system (enteric nervous system), which produces important neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin (the feel-good chemical) and melatonin (the sleep hormone). The gut actually acts as your second brain, so when you say you have a “gut feeling,” you are absolutely right!
- Coordinates the process of detoxification. The first exposure to toxins occurs in the gut, and if you’re constipated, you’re more apt to re-absorb these toxins back into your body.
When it comes to pinpointing what can contribute to digestive dysfunction, frequent use of antibiotics, birth control, environmental toxins, chronic stress, high sugar diets and alcohol can all play a part. If these things aren’t managed properly, it can lead to a variety of metabolic challenges and common health issues.
Our small intestine lining plays a big role in determining what gets absorbed and what passes through. When the lining is compromised by chronic, unmanaged stress, processed food products, underlying food sensitivities, or chronic use of certain medications, it can become too permeable, or “leaky” and allow undigested food particles, pathogens and toxins to pass onto places they shouldn’t be. Think of it as a bouncer at a nightclub; it should let “in” (absorb) the nutrients needed for us to feel good and function well, while keeping “out” (retaining in the GI tract) undigested food particles, pathogens and toxins. Our bodies have trouble running an optimal metabolism when their defenses against toxins and pathogens are compromised, and this can lead to the presence of low-grade inflammation. As a result, metabolism has to take a back seat as the body turns its focus onto fighting that inflammatory response.
Another way that a leaky gut can compromise metabolism is through poor nutrient absorption. There are many essential nutrients that are necessary for oxygen delivery, sex hormone production, blood sugar regulation, and thyroid health. That means if the gut lining is having difficulty bringing things in and keeping others out, nutrient absorption and therefore nutrient utilization may suffer.
This is particularly important when it comes to Thyroid health. Selenium and zinc are vital for thyroid hormone production and the conversion of our less active thyroid hormone (T4) to our more active thyroid hormone (T3). Not only are these nutrients (that we absorb via the small intestine lining) necessary to keep our metabolism powerhouse functioning optimally, but the conversion of T4 to T3 takes place due to the presence of an enzyme found in the digestive tract. If there is an imbalance of gut bacteria, this conversion is reduced. With an estimated 20 million Americanshaving thyroid disease2, it’s important to check in on gut health, specifically an intact intestinal lining and healthy gut microbes (the good guys living in the digestive tract!). All this to say, if someone has a sluggish thyroid, the problem may have something to do with poor gut health.
Metabolic function can also be impacted through hormone imbalances that are associated with the gut. Gut microbes also support healthy hormone balance – and we want to ensure there is a lot of diversity with these good guys. Having more diverse gut microbes is shown to support estrogen clearance via bowel movements3. In relation to metabolism, having excess estrogen can promote more fat accumulation in both men and women. Plus, estrogen being elevated can make it more challenging to build lean muscle mass. And building muscle is one of the best metabolism-boosters out there! When gut function is compromised, estrogen goes back into circulation in the body and can lead to more of those PMS-like symptoms such as irritability, bloating, and cramping. If more prone to constipation, irregularity or there is the imbalance of good and not-so-good guys in the digestive tract, estrogen is present longer we need. Lab testing can give both men and women insight into such hormonal imbalance, but there are some symptoms to take notice of that may indicate estrogen clearance issues. Men may notice building muscle is more difficult or even holding excess weight in their chest and/or midsection. Women may notice mood changes and tend to hold weight more in their hips and lower body.
Breaking down IBS and other gut problems:
Beyond a compromised metabolism, poor gut health can lead to digestive issues and uncomfortable symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, abdominal bloating and gas. These types of symptoms can be indication that it’s time to investigate, and with proper assessment and testing, results can reveal whether or not there is an underlying digestive issue that needs correcting.
IBS is considered a “functional gastrointestinal disorder,” which means there is not necessarily physical damage to the GI tract, but it clearly isn’t behaving like it should be. Finding relief can be an exhausting journey and frustrating at times when medications or laxatives can’t seem to do the trick. While this can feel like a dead end to many of my clients, I love to ensure them it’s not the end of the road when I make a few more recommendations. Because high-inflammatory foods can set the stage for IBS-related symptoms, including wheat, dairy, soy, corn, peanut and eggs, adopting an elimination diet and doing a food sensitivity test can help confirm potential sensitivities or intolerances that may be contributing to the problem. And what may not be inflammatory to one individual may create lots of digestive stress for another. Another area to prioritize is stress management – our guts are heavily linked to our adrenal system (glands that control our response to stress) and nervous system, so, when stress hormones are high, you can be sure to experience some of those gut-related symptoms. While initial testing and assessment can lead someone to an IBS diagnosis, it can also unveil other potential issues and bacteria imbalances going on in the digestive system.
Gut Dysbiosis is one example and can occur when there are too few beneficial bacteria or an overgrowth of pathogenic or harmful bacteria. As general rule of thumb, a healthy individual should have lots of diversity with the species of microbes and minimal to nonexistent levels of pathogenic bacteria. These harmful pathogens have the ability to affect the gut lining (here comes leaky gut!) and cause an imbalance of gut bacteria that can trigger low grade inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease (Ulcerative Colitis, Crohns), SIBO, nutrient deficiencies and digestive stress. Overuse of antibiotics, a processed diet, decreased immunity, slow motility and stress can all contribute to a gut dysbiosis diagnosis.
Small Intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which can sometimes be a byproduct of gut dysbiosis, is when bacteria migrates upwards into the small intestine. While there are nerves, neurotransmitters and muscles that play a role in moving food along the digestive tract, there are many situations and habits that can impair motility and increase the change of developing SIBO. Some of these include: diabetes, medications, antibiotic overuse, low stomach acid and a processed diet. When this type of bacteria is in a place where it doesn’t belong, it starts to break down food earlier and releases gas as a byproduct and can cause lots of bloating, cramping, and bowel movement changes. If this seems like it could be an issue for you, SIBO is something that can be determined via a breath test that is ordered by physicians and functional medicine practitioners. From a nutrition standpoint, certain diet changes like limiting fermentable carbs and types of fiber can help relieve some of these symptoms, though often times herbal or conventional antibiotics are used to remove the bacteria.
Healthy Gut Protocol
No matter where you are on the spectrum of your gut health, whether you’ve been struggling with digestive issues for a while, you’re newly diagnosed or you just want to establish better habits, consider following the protocol steps below to support a healthier gut.
1) Re-establish effective dining habits.
Digestion functions most optimally when our bodies recognize the food we eat (real rather than artificial, processed foods), when we’re less stressed (sitting down without distraction), and when we slowly chew our food. When eating, aim to chew 15-20 times per bite. This will process will support the digestive enzymes in our saliva that are meant to help break down food for optimal nutrient absorption.
2) Adopt a stress management plan.
Stress is one of the main contributing factors to subpar gut function, increasing inflammation, and heightened risk for chronic conditions and disease. Although there are some stressors we can’t control, we can always better gauge and ameliorate our stress. Go for short walks throughout your day to get away from your desk. Minimize screen time. Enjoy a yoga class or try Pilates. Indulge in a massage or fit in a daily mini-meditation session. These practices will make a world of a difference!
3) Identify and eliminate gut-irritant foods.
Begin to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods and fiber (veggies!) and identify your own specific gut irritants – gluten, dairy, FODMAPS (a group of fermentable carbs), nuts/seeds, sugar alcohols, artificial fibers, etc. A food sensitivity test can help identify foods that may be inflammatory to your body (ours also looks at your nutrient status which can affect gut health and vice versa). An elimination of these foods followed by a slow introduction will help to determine which foods can be brought back in and which foods should stay out on a daily basis.
4) Feed the good gut bacteria and fill in the gaps.
Reintroduce sources of healthy bacteria into the gut to support an optimal balance of the microflora. To do so:
(1) Add in a probiotic to support diverse gut bacteria and your immune system.
(2) Incorporate digestive enzymes to support production of stomach acid + enzymes to efficiently break down food and absorb nutrients.
(3) Consider adding in L-glutamine to repair the gut lining and “leakiness” (this is an amino acid that is the preferred fuel source for intestinal cells).
If you’re someone who has learned to live with and normalize some of the gut-related symptoms and setbacks we went over, know that you can email our team of nutrition experts with any questions regarding gut health and steps you can take to help optimize your digestive health.
– Amy Crees, Registered Dietitian, Life Time Lab Testing
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.