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Your Gut Health Probably Needs Attention

Hippocrates once said that all disease begins in the gut. And the more I study it, the more I see how ahead of his time he truly was. While not all disease begins in the gut, a host of chronic illnesses can be traced back to beginnings in your belly. Here’s a crash course on what you need to know about optimizing your gut health.  

Why We Have to Defend Our Gut

But first, why? As I mentioned in my last posts about epigenetics, I found this breakdown to be so helpful when it came to grasping the giant concept of disease. In order for one to develop, 3 conditions must be present:

  1. Genetic predisposition
  2. Chronic inflammation
  3. A Triggering Event (such as infection or trauma)

So of the 3, number 2 is in my opinion most in our control. Chronic inflammation is often the result of lifestyle choices such as:

  • Eating a diet high in sugar and poor-quality fats
  • Sitting all day
  • Not enough exercise
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Constant stress 
  • Food sensitivities
  • Medication overuse
  • Eating too frequently
  • Overtraining

I can probably guess that you’re guilty of at least one of these. I know I go through seasons where I check off a few of them! And the health of our gut is often a pretty good reflection of these choices, with chronic inflammation causing damage to the lining and gut permeability. This means we won’t absorb the nutrients in our food as well, leaving us tired and deficient in micronutrients. Plus, undigested food and harmful bacteria can actually “leak” out into our bloodstream and cause an immune response. A leaky and inflamed gut has been linked with dozens of other health conditions, so keeping it in optimal function is crucial. That’s why we have to be proactive with taking care of our gut, because as with most things, if you’re not moving forward you’re probably moving backward. 

Before I go further, I must say that a majority of what I know about gut health comes from Dr. Liz Lipski’s book, Digestive Wellness, and the course I took by her earlier this year. I’ll be quoting her throughout this post as my authority on the topic as well as helping to break it down by adding my own context. 

How The Gut Microbiome Affects the Body

The microbiome is the foundation of both health and disease, so if there’s one thing I could emphasize in nutrition, it’s the importance of taking care of your gut. 

The microbiome is responsible for the following functions:

  • Digestion
  • Nutrient absorption
  • Immunity
  • Metabolism of food and drugs
  • Mood & Cognitive Function
  • Hormone & Neurotransmitter Secretion

You probably already knew that gut bacteria helps with digestion, but were you aware of these other functions? Your gut can actually powerfully affect your mood and cognitive function via the enteric nervous system, a.k.a your “gut brain.” This is why you hear of people improving their diet or eliminating certain foods and experiencing a lifting of brain fog, better focus, better mood, balanced hormones, lower stress, etc. And a topic for another day, your gut can affect your hunger and satiety hormones, for better or worse, and therefore your body weight. This study is particularly noteworthy in showing the how diet affects microbiome which perpetuates tendency toward weight gain. 

This is where probiotics come in. You’ve heard of them by now, right? You may even take them in a supplement or buy the foods that boast a boost of them. But today I want to help you understand that WHY gut health is so important and why it has to be more than taking a supplement. Prioritizing good gut health practices and feeding your gut good bacteria should be central to the way you make decisions about the foods you eat, the medicine you take, and the way you manage stress.

Why Diversity is Better, Including in Your Gut

Your gut is made up of trillions of microbes, and just like your DNA, every individual has a different composition of bacteria species. This composition determines how your body reacts to inputs and your external environment (food sensitivities, detoxification, etc). Furthermore, research has found that different species of bacteria have special roles in certain functions of the body. So think about it this way: if you are building a football team and you only have receivers and line-backers, you’re not going to play a very good game. Or if your symphony is just cello players, it will be pretty but not as pretty as when you add some violinists and pianists. You get the point. You need a diverse set of skilled players that can cover all the positions in football or instruments in an orchestra. In the same way, you need a diverse gut microbiome with a variety of different species to cover the vast needs of the body. This is why you may have seen probiotics advertise about their number of different strains. More diversity = good. So eating a wide range of probiotic-rich foods and avoiding antibiotics as much as possible can keep your gut diverse and ready to tackle anything (get it?).  

In fact, we’ve just begun doing research on isolated strains, and finding that certain species are good for certain functions. So for example, lactobacillus plantarum is especially healing to the small intestine. Lactobacillus bulgaricus is effective at preventing and reversing bacterial infection (Lipski, 2005). As research unfolds, it seems likely that we will be able to “prescribe” certain strains of probiotics as potential therapeutic supplements for different diseases, which I eagerly anticipate implementing into my practice one day. 

What You Can Do Today for Better Gut Health

In addition to considering a probiotic supplement, which is generally helpful for most people*, it’s most important to get probiotics naturally from your diet. I’m a firm believer that supplements can be helpful, but God carefully designed food to contain certain nutrients packed together for a reason, so going to the source is usually best. Start incorporating these fermented/pickled foods into your diet now to set your body up for better health:

  • Kefir – I will drink a half cup of low-fat plain kefir several times a week. If you don’t like it straight, add it to smoothies or use it for chia pudding)
  • Fermented or pickled foods
  • Sauerkraut or kimchee 
  • Pickles – brine cured, any type of vegetable, even includes olives!
  • Miso – it’s delicious – don’t let the soy scare you here
  • Tempeh
  • Kombucha- try to keep serving at 6 grams of sugar or less
  • Yogurt – greek is my preference because of high protein levels, but if you’re dairy-free try fermented coconut milk yogurt. Cocoyo is one of my favorite brands. 
  • Raw vinegar
  • Wine – 1 glass of red wine made with organic grapes and low/no sulfites
  • Cheese – in moderation
  • Cottage cheese – bonus, good source of protein
  • Chocolate
  • Coconut
  • Coffee (this surprised me too)

In addition, here are some gut-healthy habits to support an optimal microbiome:

  • Reducing stress
  • Eating slowly, in a calm and focused environment (studies show that eating while stressed can impair digestion)
  • Minimizing use of medications such as Advil, Motrin, aspirin. There are even studies on the negative affects of birth control and steroid pills on gut health
  • Keeping alcohol intake moderate
  • Addressing food sensitivities through an elimination diet or MRT testing (I recommend working with Taylor)
  • Supplementing with L-glutamine, bone broths, slippery elm tea, okra, marshmallow root tea, zinc carnosine, quercetin, aloe vera, digestive enzymes
  • Consuming foods rich in antioxidants

Anything I missed that you’re curious about regarding gut health? Leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to address it in a future blog post!

*more to come on how to choose a probiotic supplement, and who may not benefit from a probiotic supplement. 

Sources:

Lipski, E. (2005). Digestive wellness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

All, Nutrition

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10/22/2021

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Your Gut Health Probably Needs Attention

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