Brain fog, eczema, acne, irregular cycles, depression, anxiety and fatigue are all related to poor gut health.
The gut consists of your internal digestive system and the bacteria that live inside it. There are roughly 100 trillion bacteria species that set up camp. That is more bacteria inside your gut than there are stars in a galaxy. Good bacteria aids your digestion and optimizes proper function, but the problem arises when there is an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. These bacteria can cause inflammation in the body, decrease immune function, ignite sugar cravings and alter your brain chemistry.
The gut interacts with every system of the body. Without it functioning properly, you cannot digest your food, thereby hindering the ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients — meaning, even if you eat the cleanest of diets, you could be missing out on the benefits of those foods. Conversely, if you are eating foods that your body is sensitive to, it can cause leaky gut.
Leaky gut describes the excess inflammation on the intestinal walls. It occurs when a person is consistently consuming foods they have sensitivities toward. Think of a healthy intestinal environment as a scene from Finding Nemo. The sea plants are flowing back and forth with vibrancy and life, just like the microvilli in an intestinal wall. Microvilli are fingerlike projections that come off of the intestinal wall to grab and absorb nutrients. Now, imagine an oil spill in that underwater scene. This is essentially what an unhealthy gut will look like. The microvilli cannot function due to inflammation. Over time, this causes the intestinal barriers to weaken.
Undigested molecules then slip out of the intestinal walls and into the body. This can manifest as joint pain, brain fog, skin disorders, fatigue and, if not appropriately treated, chronic conditions like autoimmune disease. Inflammation in the gut also disrupts immune function.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 70% of the immune system is housed in the gut, so if the gut is not nurtured, your risk for catching colds and viruses dramatically increases.
The gut is also referred to as the “second brain,” because there is direct communication between the gut and the brain. Nearly 90% of your serotonin and 50% of your dopamine are produced in the gut. These neurotransmitters play a critical role in feelings and mood.
Stress can significantly hinder the gut’s performance. If a person is overly stressed and chronically in fight-or-flight mode, their risk for adverse gut health symptoms rise. Biologically, this happens because the body is perceiving something as a stress and, in turn, shuts down systems that require a relaxed, calm state to operate. Consequently, if you are stressed, the body focuses on safety over digesting your food. This is why people often report losing their appetite during high-stress times at work or running to the bathroom before a large presentation.
With consistent work in nutrition, you can cultivate a thriving environment for healthy gut bacteria and optimize overall gut function.
Where to start:
(Note from Shannon: Look at AFM’s September issue where I break down how to detect food sensitivities!)
Once you decipher which foods are causing issues, eliminate them as you start the journey of healing and repairing your gut. Ditch all refined, processed foods, added sugars and alcohol, and limit caffeine consumption to just 1/2-1 cup per day. Replace these items with nutrient-dense foods like grass-fed meats, veggies, herbal teas and plenty of water.
Supplements to assist healing:
(Note from Shannon: Consult with your health practitioner before starting any supplemental protocol)
Not all probiotics are created equal. Most of them are a giant waste of money, because the bacteria do not survive digestion. I recommend spore-based probiotics, because the spores survive digestion and can flourish when they get to the intestine.
Zinc is not only a huge player in immune support, but it also plays a critical role in digestion. First, opt for food sources of zinc such as wild-caught fish, grass-fed meats and pumpkin seeds. Supplementing with roughly 30-40mg of zinc can be beneficial during the healing process.
Magnesium is another critical player, not only in digestion but in all aspects of the body. Magnesium supplementation can decrease inflammation, muscle soreness and lower menstrual pain. Supplementation of about 100g of magnesium glycinate or citrate (the most bioavailable forms) can be beneficial, as most Americans are deficient in this nutrient.
There are other supplements that may be valuable during the process, however, you cannot out-supplement a poor diet. Focus on the food first! Choose a variety of real, whole foods, with emphasis on nutrient density to create a thriving environment for your gut, which leads to improved immune and cognitive function.
Shannon Dolan is a nutritional therapy practitioner, personal trainer and owner of Health With Shannon.