For centuries, scientists paid almost no attention to the tiny guys behind the curtain of the human body: the gut microbiome. Today, we recognize the gut microbiome is made up of trillions of belly bugs working hard around the clock to keep everything in balance. From breaking down food into absorbable nutrient, to protecting us against harmful pathogens, the digestive tract directly affects our overall health.
When a Good Gut Goes Bad: "Leaky Gut"
At a basic level, too much gut permeability leads to increased inflammation and the malabsorption of nutrients. Picture this: zoom into the intestinal lining and you’ll find tiny “tight junctions” that act as gatekeepers. Welcome guests (like nutrients) are permitted through, but intruders (partially digested food, disease-causing pathogens, bacteria, and toxins) are blocked. But when the gut is compromised, this security system is breached, making the body more susceptible to inflammation. Cue the cycle of chronic gut dysfunction coined as “leaky gut syndrome.” Leaky gut fuels a constant state of low-grade inflammation that research suggests is implicated with the development of several pathological conditions, including allergic, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases.
Common symptoms of a leaky gut include:
- Food sensitivities
- Chronic diarrhea
- Skin issues like acne and eczema
“We now recognize that a variety of factors increase gut permeability,” says best-selling author David Perlmutter MD in The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain — for Life, “including certain medications, pathogenic bacteria, stress, environmental toxins, elevated blood sugar, and ingredients like gluten.” As Dr. Perlmutter suggests, building a balanced gut comes down to creating an environment where your good bacteria can thrive. Read on for key factors and foods that can affect the gut health.
1. Cut Back on Sugar and Unhealthy Fats
Let’s keep this short and sweet: avoiding sugary foods that cause blood sugar to spike will help keep inflammation at bay in the gut and the body. Not only is consuming a diet rich in sugar linked to chronic inflammation, but recent research shows that excess sugar keeps good microbes from colonizing your gut.
Researchers also point to diets high in saturated fat, fried foods, and processed foods as a big gut health no-no. Diets high in unhealthy fats had significantly altered gut flora and were associated with cognitive dysfunction, according to a 2017 study from Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
2. Add Gut-Friendly Foods to Your Diet
Dark leafy greens
Be nice to your gut by throwing some spinach or kale into a daily smoothie or salad. Both nutrient and fiber-rich, leafy greens like spinach and kale help fuel the growth of beneficial bacteria. Leafy greens are crucial for feeding good gut bacteria and limiting the ability of bad bacteria to colonize the gut, according to research published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.
Cruciferous veggies get a bad rep, but their protective benefits on the gut should be cause for a rebrand. A new study exploring broccoli and gut health in the Journal of Functional Foods discovered that a receptor present in broccoli (and higher in brussels sprouts) helps to “manage the gut’s response to environmental contaminants” and “triggers a reaction when the gut is exposed to toxins,” Medical News Today reported.
Famous for promoting good gut health, fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, kombucha, and yogurt are loaded with probiotic bacteria.
People have been using zinc to aid the body’s healing process for years (think: diaper rash cream, sunscreen). But many don’t know that a unique form of zinc, called zinc-carnosine, has the unique ability to deliver powerful stabilization into the cells of the stomach lining. Zinc-carnosine became a product in Japan as a pharmaceutical to treat stomach ulcers in the 1990s.
Later approved in the USA in 2001, zinc-carnosine is today one of the top gastric healing supplements available. In a placebo-controlled double blind study, the zinc-carnosine formula called Pepzin GI (FDA approved) helped relieve occasional discomfort in patients suffering with symptoms of gastric discomfort.
Taking a zinc-carnosine product like Pepzin when you must take NSAIDs can even help diffuse the harsh effects of painkillers on the stomach lining. For some people, zinc-carnosine can be a crucial aid while taking NSAIDS while recovering from injury, saving them from a world of stomach discomfort.
4. Ramp Up Gut Hygiene During and After
Of the estimated 154 million prescriptions for antibiotics written in doctor’s offices and emergency departments each year, 30 percent are unnecessary, according to the CDC. While we’re grateful for antibiotics when we need them, these medications can be harsh on the gut, wiping out both bad and good bacteria with each dose. It’s a good idea to take probiotics two hours before or after your antibiotic dose to help restore your gut bacteria.
When taking medications that disrupt your microbiome, it’s also important to cut sugar. Harmful bacteria, like Candida, feed on sugar and refined carbs. Without good bacteria present, it’s the perfect storm to take over and cause problems. (Not today, yeast infection!)
5. Watch Out For Food Intolerances, Sensitivities
and Celiac Disease
Food intolerances are estimated to affect 20% of the world’s population. From reflux, bloating, rashes, indigestion and mental fog, the uncomfortable side effects of food allergies and intolerances can linger for more than 48 hours. Though mild symptoms can be ignored, the gut may still get inflamed. Common food triggers include dairy, gluten, caffeine, sulfites, sugar alcohols, food coloring, and FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine). If you suspect a food is consistently causing you GI problems, try an elimination diet to discover the culprit.
A Word About Gluten
Wheat gluten can be a powerful trigger impairing the intestinal barrier function, especially for those with celiac disease. Celiac disease is when the body reacts to gluten with an autoimmune response, causing it to attack the small intestine and not absorb nutrients. Although only 1% of the population is estimated to have celiac disease, the prevalence of undiagnosed Celiac Disease seems to have increased dramatically in the United States during the past 50 years. In a 2009 study, undiagnosed Celiac disease was associated with a nearly 4-fold increased risk of death.
But any negative response to gluten — whether a sensitivity, allergy, intolerance, or celiac disease — should not be ignored. Regardless of whether someone experiences side effects after eating gluten (some people have no symptoms) inflammation will continue, inflicting real damage on the person’s digestive system and health.
6. Manage Stress
Anyone who has experienced a “nervous stomach” before a big interview or event wouldn't be surprised to know that the gut and brain are connected. The emotional centers of the brain communicate with the gut via the gut-brain axis. For this reason, poor gut health can affect our mood, and vice versa. Keeping stress levels from spiking unnecessarily is a good idea, so try incorporating meditation or exercise daily and clean up your sleep routine as well.
7. Raise Mood and Energy with B-12
Unfortunately, fatigue is a common consequence for people with both poor gut health and a high-stress lifestyle. Feeling low can make it even harder to manage stress and mood. In this case, B-12 supplementation can help support your body’s energy production while you work on improving your gut health.
“Although vitamin B-12 can be obtained from the diet, mostly from animal foods including fish, meat, poultry, and eggs, some of the B-12 that gets absorbed in the gut to meet your daily requirements come from those bacterial factories,” Dr. David Perlmutter explains in his book. B-12 deficiency also affects 10 to 15% of the elderly, which Dr. Perlmutter attributes to negative changes in the gut bacteria caused by an unvaried diet in addition to medications taken over the years in an attempt to remain healthy.
The effects of taking care of your gut can be truly transformative for overall health. Avoiding key dietary mistakes, adding specific gut nourishing foods, and making supplements a part of your life will keep those beneficial bacteria happy. Remember: when your gut thrives, you thrive.