First off, why does gut health even matter?
It’s important to understand why there’s such a buzz in the medical community at large about understanding how our gut health plays into our health overall as human beings. Maybe you’ve heard this quote from Hippocrates (who’s coined as the father of modern medicine):
“All disease begins in the gut.”
It’s important because it’s now known to be a big part of the root cause of LOTS of stuff like:
- Compromised immunity (up to 80% of your immune system is in your gut)
- Inability to absorb nutrients (B and K vitamins as well as calcium and iron to name a few)
- Stunted metabolism (metabolic activity in the gut flora allows utilization of otherwise non-digestible food)
- Obesity (gut bacteria differs signficantly between obese and normal individuals)
- Inflammation (systemic inflammation is at the heart of everything that goes wrong in the body – think IBD, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s, etc.)
- Autism (recent research suggests a link between autism and decreased gut bacterial diversity)
- Brain disorders like depression, anxiety & ADHD
- Thyroid disorders such as Hashimotos, hypothyroidism & Graves disease
- Skin issues including acne, rosacea, eczema & psoriasis
- And a host of other conditions such as HPA Axis Dysfunction (aka “adrenal fatigue”), food allergies/sensitivity, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, headaches, Celiac disease and much more but you get the point!
What actions can you start taking today to restore your gut health?
Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s talk about solutions. While the overall topic of gut health can be extremely nuanced, don’t allow analysis paralysis. What I’m going to lay out will get the majority of the population back in great shape. Of course there are edge cases that will take more time and effort to get to the bottom of. The main thing to remember is that all of these things are healthy lifestyle choices for everyone to incorporate with a few exceptions. I won’t be getting into the weeds in this article but will definitely do so in the future.
1. Do a 30 day “strict Paleo” reset (whole food, nutrient dense, low inflammation).
I adopted a Paleo template for diet quite a while ago. That said, I am fully aware that it has developed quite the stigma in some circles these days. So let me define some terms here so we’re all on the same page. When I say “strict Paleo”, this is what I mean:
“A whole foods, nutrient dense, low inflammation diet consisting of grassfed meat, wild fish & shellfish, free range pastured fowl, pastured pork, local organically grown fresh fruits and veggies, roots, tubers, nuts and seeds.”
Within this 30 day window, don’t eat refined grains, sugar, or soy. No processed foods. No refined industrial seed oils (safflower, soybean, canola/rapeseed, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, rice bran, peanut). Don’t make a bunch of “Paleo” desserts and think you’re doing yourself any favors. Most “Paleo” desserts are loaded with sugar and omega 6.
If it was easy, everyone would eat clean all the time. For the sake of healing your gut, just stick this out. The first 3 days are bad, not gonna lie. You might have another tough craving day on days 4-7. After the first week, it truly does get a lot easier and on top of that, you’ll be feeling amazing!
2. Begin incorporating fermented foods into your diet.
This is super important because for a lot of people the amount of beneficial microbes in their guts is super limited because of prolonged antibiotic use, birth control, NSAIDs (Aleve, etc.), chlorine from drinking tap water and showering without a filter, etc. (There’s more, I’ll cover them in #5)
Here’s a quick list of amazing and common probiotic foods:
- Raw sauerkraut
- Raw milk, coconut or water kefir
- Kombucha or preferably Jun Tea (instead of black tea and sugar, Jun uses green tea and honey)
- Traditional Japanese Miso (I’m seriously going to write an entire article about this stuff)
- Beet Kvaas
- You can kinda ferment anything (please refrain from being ridiculous, you know what I mean 😉 )
Do yourself a favor and just get into fermenting stuff. It’s fun. It’s not dangerous. Wild ferments are way higher in probiotic content and diversity than probiotics. Hands down the easiest thing to ferment at home if you have access to raw milk is kefir. Here’s the directions:
- Get some kefir grains (just Google it in your area or order some online)
- Put said grains in a jar and pour some milk in it
- Cover with a paper towel and a rubber band and set it on your kitchen counter
- Wait 24-48 hours (depending on how sour you like it)
- Strain out the kefir and start over at step 2
One last thing with fermented foods. Digestive enzymes are in abundance in them. I realize there’s a temptation to supplement with digestive enzymes. While I agree that in some circumstances this might be a good idea under the supervision of a functional medicine practitioner, I’d encourage whole food sources. Relying on supplements isn’t a sustainable approach to nutrition and whole food is always better. If you want to know why, check out my article on nutrient deficiency where I talk about bioavailability.
A Quick Note on Histamine and Glutamate.
Ok, I lied. One more thing. As promised, I’m not going to get into the proverbial weeds in this article. I just wanted to point out that I realize fermented foods are high in histamines and glutamate. Some people with specific conditions are histamine and glutamate intolerant. Again, this will be covered in a future article about the differing layers of complexity with gut health and the microbiome.
3. Eat prebiotic foods in abundance.
As an analogy, if probiotics are the seeds you plant in a garden, then prebiotics are the fertilizer that feeds those seeds. Again, I know we can get off into the weeds on FODMAPs here but I’m not going to. This article is already going to be long.
So this step isn’t super hard, you just need to eat a variety of this kind of stuff:
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Dandelion Greens
- Coconut meat & flour
- Green bananas
- Chicory Root
- Sweet potatoes
- Bell Peppers
- Raw Apple Cider Vinegar
- There’s more, I’m sick of writing, look it up
Essentially these foods can be fermented by the healthy bacteria in your gut. When they ferment certain types of fiber, they create a fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate is awesome. Just a couple noteworthy highlights:
- It’s powerfully anti-inflammatory (and as result, is famous for protecting against colon cancer)
- Increases immunity and decreases autoimmunity (not necessarily mutually exclusive but in some cases a distinction should be drawn between the two)
- Fights against diet-induced insulin resistance
4. Do a 24-48 Hour Fast, A Functional Medicine Detox or Both
I’m not going recommend any specific detox but if that’s something you think you should do, Google a local functional medicine practitioner near you and talk to them about it. If you’re not sure about whether you need a detox, check out my article about toxicity and take the toxicity quiz to see where you stand.
After around 18 hours of fasting, your body will start what’s called autophagy. Essentially your body will start to clean out damaged cells, toxins, bacteria, viruses, fungus, phages and other microorganisms that aren’t making the cut. It’s a normal function of homeostasis (balanced cellular function). The longer you fast, the more cleaning autophagy is able to do. If you can do a full 2 days with water and electrolytes only, good on you. If you can only muster a day, still awesome. I wrote 3 articles on fasting that I would recommend you read before getting started if you decide to go this route.
By giving your digestive system a rest, you’re giving it time to regenerate new cells, clean out the bad stuff and overall reduce the amount of microorganism activity (especially bad ones) in your gut. I’d say this might be the best first step for those of you willing to give it a try. Again, I covered this in my articles about fasting but just to recap; fasting has tons of amazing health benefits and turbo charging your gut health restoration is one of them.
5. Reduce exposure to toxins and mitigate environmental exposure.
For a lot of people this step will go a LONG way! If you’ve never thought about the idea that a lot of household and personal care products are wreaking havoc on your body, you’re welcome. If you think it’s an over reaction to think it matters, do your own homework. There are piles upon piles of peer reviewed scientific white papers and journals detailing the effects that tons of common chemicals have on our bodies.
Doing a detox and reducing your exposure to are two different things. Relying on semi-regular detoxes and not reducing toxic load will turn in to an uphill battle you will eventually lose. You need both. Do your own research and take inventory in your own life but here’s the low hanging fruit that can go a long way in this regard:
- Drink filtered water. Yes, you’ll have to buy a water filter or buy filtered water at the store. It’s better than drinking chlorine. Chlorine indiscriminately kills all bacteria, good and bad.
- Get a shower filter. Same reason as above but in the shower the chlorine becomes a vapor and gets absorbed through your skin and lungs and directly into your blood stream much faster.
- Avoid antibiotics as much as possible. I realize sometimes you have to use antibiotics in life threatening situations. But stop taking them for headaches and stuff. A single round of antibiotics alters your entire microbiome FOR LIFE. Let that sink in. Not saying it can’t be rebuilt, but it will never be the same as it once was after 1 treatment.
- Avoid NSAIDs live Aleve, Advil, Tylenol, etc.
- Get off of birth control pills. Gut health is one of many reasons these aren’t a great idea.
- Start paying attention to the personal care products you use and begin moving towards more natural ingredients. Do your own research and find out what’s in the stuff you currently use. There are lots of great alternatives that don’t jack you up.
- Same as above with household cleaners.
Glyphosate, GMOs and Restore
- Don’t eat GMO foods and avoid foods sprayed with the pesticides they’re designed to survive being sprayed with. I’ll do an entire article on glyphosate and GMO foods later but for now, here’s a peer reviewed journal article by Dr. Zach Bush (one of the few triple board certified doctors in the country) if you want to know a little bit about why.
Speaking of Dr. Zach Bush, him and his team have created a soil based, humic acid mineral supplement called Restore that I would highly recommend. It helps to seal up the tight junctions in your epithelial gut wall that regulates what gets in and out of your blood stream. It also stimulates the communication network within your microbiome and enables healthy, beneficial microbes to get organized and mount an attack on pathogenic microbes. This is obviously an oversimplification of the mechanisms taking place but I think an effective illustration. For the record, Restore is one of the very few supplements I recommend at all.
A few more important things that’ll help.
Increase zinc intake. On that note, while I’m not a big proponent of supplements, I realize that some nutrients are tough to get from diet and one of them is zinc. If you have access to wild, local oysters then try to incorporate them into your diet once a week if you can. If not, use a mineral supplement with all the necessary co-factors for best absorption. But zinc is definitely something that helps big time.
Start making your own bone broth. This is also uber important for restoring and maintaining gut health. It’s rich in minerals and collagen which anecdotally has been shown to improve gut health for thousands of years. Seriously, who cares if there’s not a bunch of “scientific studies” to prove it. People have been making broths out of bones and algae forever. *Sigh* I need to write an article about bone broth too.
Try not to be such a germ-a-phobe. Get dirty. Don’t be silly and skip washing your hands after handling raw, factory raised, battery cage chicken or pumping gas during cold and flu season. That’s not what I mean. What I DO mean is that we’ve adopted a culture where we’re limiting our exposure to all kinds of beneficial microorganisms because of fear. The more we learn about the microbiome and how microorganisms play into our overall health, the less we have to fear. Start a garden. Eat a fresh carrot pulled out from said garden. Pet a dog. Get out in nature and breathe deeply. Expose yourself to the outside world – soil, grime, dust, dirt and all as often as possible. I still use the 5 second rule when I drop food on my floor at home!
What about probiotic supplements?
I intentionally left out the ubiquitous probiotic supplementation as a solution for improving gut health. They do have their place in acute treatment for chronic gut health issues under the direction of a licensed functional health practitioner. That said, the main downside to probiotics is that they are very limited in the diversity of bacterial strains introduced. Most store bought probiotics contain 8-12 different strains. Sound like a lot right? The problem with this is that you get a lot of the same, over and over. With wild ferments you get much more diversity based on the climate you live in, the environment, the varying veggies you use plus all the beneficial yeasts, organic acids and fungi. All things a healthy microbiome needs to thrive. Plus there’s a much more effective matrix for delivery because, as is the case with eating whole foods, all the necessary co-factors are present.
So I know this is a LOT of information. But it all needed to be in this article. It’s something you’ll probably need to reference often. Especially at first. Gut health is a HUGE topic but one we all need to learn about.
Just to reiterate, this is a general recommendation for most people. In order to keep this article to a manageable length I didn’t cover SIBO, Candida, low FODMAP diets, etc. There will always be exceptions. As a general rule, try not to form dogmas on edge cases.
I’d recommend you start with everything outlined here first. As always, this information is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical conditions and if you suspect anything like this is going on, always defer to a licensed functional health practitioner. What’s your biggest struggle with the information I’ve presented here? What have you tried before? What’s worked for you in the past? Let us know in the comments what you think!