How to Heal Your Gut (and why)
Believe it or not, the “gut” (also called digestive tract, intestinal tract, digestive system) is where your health and immunity begins. It is also tied in with the mind in a big way; the mind and gut together determine how well you break down food into the nutrients that fuel your cells. For this reason, gut health is the first priority of my wellness programs. If it’s not doing its job effectively and efficiently, your body won’t have the tools it needs to heal. So let’s start from the ground up as we discuss how to heal your gut.
First thing’s first: Plenty of water
Water has the ability to flush waste products through the system and out of the body. Without enough water, toxins and byproducts of everyday living can build up, creating an unhealthy environment throughout the digestive tract. Drinking about eight 8-ounce glasses of filtered water daily is something to shoot for. You’ll likely feel like you have more energy just from this simple change. MORE ABOUT WATER . . .
Next up, mindful eating.
The bottom line: stress and healthy digestion simply cannot go together! For efficient digestion and metabolism, it’s very important to sit down, relax, and become focused on your meal while you’re eating. These days it’s more common than not to eat on the run or while multi-tasking, which is more of a problem than folks realize. This triggers your stress response, meaning your body mistakes eating for some sort of fight-or-flight emergency. So your adrenal glands release stress hormones that order the shutting down of all bodily functions that “aren’t necessary” to get away from the “threat” (including digestion!) The thing is, there is no “threat”. But that’s your body’s way of assuring you have enough energy stored up for your own survival.
Have you ever felt guilty about eating something because you think it’s bad for your health or maybe it goes against your self-proclaimed effort to lose weight? The same physiological response will happen in this situation. Your body will slow down metabolism and digestion because of your stress, which, in turn, will make it more likely that you’ll gain weight from that delicious piece of cake! So whatever you happen to be eating at the moment, love it, be grateful for the experience, and breathe deeply between bites!
Chew, chew, chew!
Something that goes hand-in-hand with mindful eating is chewing. The importance of chewing likely goes well beyond simply grinding up your food. Chewing, along with the mind’s anticipation of the food, triggers the release of a digestive enzyme called “amylase” from the salivary glands in the mouth. Amylase can take the burden off of the rest of the digestive tract because it begins to break down carbohydrates, right then and there in the mouth, into sugar.
Chew a solid until it becomes liquid. There are incredible benefits to the whole body when food particles are broken down into a manageable size early on in the digestive process. It helps to assure that you’re going to get all of the possible nutrients out of that bite of food.
Stomach acid. Is it evil?
As we age and with increased stress, levels of stomach acid (HCl) go down. Often, backward as it may sound, symptoms like acid reflux or heartburn are the result of too little stomach acid rather than too much. A deficiency of stomach acid prevents certain nutrients from being absorbed, which, in turn, can lead to their depletion. Vitamin B12 is one very important nutrient that needs plenty of something called “intrinsic factor”, a substance found in stomach acid, to be absorbed. So it’s not uncommon for me to recommend supplemental HCl for those folks that are low in certain vitamins or minerals.
Plenty of digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzymes are substances that help break down food into smaller, more absorbable, components. As mentioned earlier, chewing is the first action of the digestive process that triggers the release of digestive enzymes. Additional enzymes are then released in the stomach and intestines as the digestive process continues.
Digestive discomfort often can be caused by a lack of digestive enzymes. Age, or health of organs like the pancreas, can play a role in the body’s insufficient enzyme secretion. Fortunately, we can also obtain helpful digestive enzymes from the foods we eat. Lightly steamed or raw fruits and vegetables hold within them the enzymes necessary for their own breakdown! This is one of the wonders of “whole foods” – they have been designed by nature to provide the whole package of what is necessary to get their nutrition into our cells. Unfortunately, processed food isn’t made with the same benefit. So what happens if we don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables? Well, the body still does its best to handle things, but it takes a lot more work further down in the digestive tract because it hasn’t received any help.
So, when your body is deficient in enzymes, food isn’t sufficiently broken down by the time it reaches the intestines. This results in the fermentation of food particles. In other words, gas and an intestinal environment prone to the growth of bad bacteria.
How to heal your gut with good bacteria
It may seem strange but we all have bacteria in our digestive system. In fact, we couldn’t survive without these living organisms. In order to have healthy digestion and a strong immune system, you need to have a healthy balance of gut flora (bacteria), meaning more good bacteria than bad bacteria. That can be hard to achieve today because so many things that are relatively common to our lives like processed food, antibiotics and stress can cause quite an imbalance of bacteria, leaning more towards the bad stuff. The unfortunate part about this is, once this imbalance occurs, a downward spiral begins. You see, it becomes difficult for you to absorb nutrients from supplements and food which will make you prone to infection, hormone imbalance, malnutrition (not for lack of food, but for lack of absorbed nutrients) and all kinds of chronic disorders. So it’s critically important to be proactive and assure that the bad guys don’t outnumber the good guys.
While this balance in gut bacteria can be achieved by eating a diet that includes significant amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables and fermented foods, while eliminating things like processed food, sugar, environmental toxins and stress, that’s a tough order given our modern lifestyles. So just about everyone could use additional support in the form of a probiotic supplement. When your gut flora is in healthy balance, not only will digestive discomfort improve, but you’ll also notice that you have less of a tendency to pick up colds and other illnesses going around. Immunity begins in the gut, after all. It’s pretty amazing.
Functions of probiotics (good bacteria):
- Digestive enzyme production to help break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Movement of minerals, vitamins and water through the colon wall into the bloodstream.
- Specific types (termed “strains”) of bacteria are capable of making nutrients, including B vitamins, Vitamin K2, folic acid and certain amino acids.
- The bacteria feed those cells of the intestinal wall that are responsible for the breakdown and absorption of your food. Without good bacteria, these cells would malfunction and become unable to meet the demands of this significant duty. So if your gut flora become imbalanced, you will become malnourished no matter how much you eat or how many supplements you take! This often manifests as intolerance to certain foods.
- Some health professionals actually consider our good gut bacteria to be an “organ” because, if you’re healthy, you have an entire layer of this bacteria covering your digestive tract. This bacterial layer acts as a barricade that protects you from viruses, parasites, toxins, and partially-digested food. It does this by creating acid that lowers the pH of the intestinal wall, making it a totally undesirable environment for disease-causing pathogens
- If unwanted toxins or cancer-causing carcinogens do happen to make it into the body, the gut bacteria can neutralize or inactivate these substances, rendering them harmless. Research has determined that gut flora can actually suppress the growth and development of cancer cells!
- Certain tissues of the lymph system (a filtering system that helps our immune function) are located in the gut wall and are stimulated by gut bacteria to produce white blood cells that fight infection. These cells produce antibodies that will inactivate and destroy harmful invaders that cross their path.
- Finally, your gut bacteria assists with the creation and function of a whole host of other immune system cells with far-reaching, body-wide implications. In fact, autoimmune disorders may very well be a result of insufficient numbers of good gut bacteria, as these disorders result from an imbalance of regulatory T-cells, a type of white blood cell that continuously scans the body for invading pathogens. The makeup of the gut bacteria directly affects the types, amounts and balance of these T-cells.
So having a less than adequate population of good bacteria in the gut is not only detrimental to digestive health, but to the health of the entire body. In order to assure that your gut flora is balanced and primed to absorb nutrients, I recommend a high-quality probiotic supplement. MORE ABOUT GUT BACTERIA . . .
How to heal your gut: summing it all up.
Digestion is the gateway to our overall health. You could be doing all of the “right” things to support your health, like eating a nutrient-dense diet, however if your gut is not able to absorb the nutrients, your body will not reap the benefits. So, first and foremost, be sure to do what it takes to support your digestive system so all of those other good things that you do for yourself really make a difference!
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