“All disease begins in the gut.” – Hippocrates
More and more research shows that our digestive system has a bigger role in many diseases than we used to think. And we’re not only talking about the things you might connect to digestion such as heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, IBS, IBD, etc. But also other issues like allergies, inflammation & pain, mood disorders, weight gain, fatigue, skin conditions, hormone issues, autoimmune diseases, and nutrient deficiencies.
There are many reasons for this. Our gut is our body’s connection to the outside world. It’s where our body decides what gets in and what doesn’t. The good news is that the nutrients we ingest and absorb are the building blocks of every single part of our body. However, we can also take in disease-causing bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins.
We’re just learning the connections between our gut (or rather its friendly microbiome) and other areas of our body, like our brain. So, let’s talk about the roles that our gut and our gut microbes play in our overall health. Then I’ll give you tips to improve your gut health naturally.
FUN FACT: About 70-80% of our immune system lives in and around our gut.
Roles of the Gut
Our gut acts as a barrier to let things in that should get in, and to keep things out that should stay out.
We want to absorb nutrients and keep out or eliminate toxins and waste products. This seemingly simple role is complex and dysfunction can manifest in many ways.
For one thing, our gut can become hyper-permeable (aka "leaky gut"). When this happens, it can allow things (bacteria, incompletely broken down food, or toxins) to get into our bloodstream and travel around the body. This can cause symptoms in places that may be located far away from the gut itself, making the connection hard to visualize.
How does this happen? When your gut wall gets irritated, it can cause inflammation, and the tight junctions in the gut lining open up and don't make the best decisions as to what should be absorbed and what should pass through and get eliminated.
The gut is home to billions of friendly health-promoting microbes.
Gut microbes help us digest and absorb nutrients. They fight off disease-causing microbes, make some vitamins for us, and have all kinds of other health benefits, like mental health benefits, reducing inflammation, and stabilizing blood sugar.
When we consume too many foods with refined sugar or flour, it can feed the "bad" microbes and throw off this delicate balance. Want to get started improving your gut with a delicious sugar-free meal plan and guide?
Tips to Improve Gut Health Naturally
Maintain a healthy gut barrier
There are a lot of natural ways to improve gut health. Let’s start with avoiding what overwhelms our digestion in the first place. Added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol are a few of the common foods and beverages that cause gut imbalances. Try avoiding them for a few weeks, and you may be amazed at how much better you feel.
You may also want to eliminate dairy and grains (particularly gluten) as they contain common compounds known to irritate some people’s guts. Sometimes you only need to eliminate them for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference for your health.
Then add in nutrient-dense foods. These nutrients help our bodies build and repair our gut, and every other body part as well. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, colourful fruits and veggies, liver, and fish.
Nurture our microbes.
By ingesting probiotic-rich foods and drinks, we can help to replenish our gut microbes. These are found in fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Make these a part of your daily diet.
Whole foods are full of gut-friendly fiber. Inadequate fiber intake increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Fiber plays important roles in our gut, including removing bad bacteria and toxins and feeding the friendly microbes that help us absorb and digest our food better. What foods have a lot of fiber? Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even cacao.
And don’t forget important lifestyle factors such as getting enough sleep, stressing less, and getting the right amount (and intensity) of exercise for you. It’s easy to forget some of the simple, but key connections there are between what we do with our bodies and how well they function.
The function of your gut is key to your overall health. The main way to optimize your gut barrier integrity and a balanced microbiome is by eating nutrient-dense whole foods filled with nutrition, probiotics, and fiber. And, by eliminating common gut irritants like added sugar, processed foods, and alcohol.
If you would like help in getting started, download my 5-day meal plan here. Your gut will thank you!
Bonnie Flemington, MBA, CNP, MRWP is a Functional Certified Nutritionist who specializes in optimizing metabolism, inflammation, gut health, and hormones. She lives in Oakville with her husband, 3 kids, and Silver Lab.