In a recent breakthrough study, U.S. scientists discovered that gut microorganisms not only influence immune cell function, but actually support the production of immune cells that form the first line of defense against infection. Your gut is your immune system—two-thirds of your immune system, to be exact.
In fact, the gut is so complex and regulates so many bodily functions it’s often called the body’s “second brain.” About 80% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract—not the brain. Since large quantities of neurotransmitters are manufactured in the gut, that means your GI tract is largely responsible for your general physical and mental wellbeing.
“The bacteria that are in our gut help regulate metabolism, they talk to our genes,” explains Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, CCN, academic director of nutrition and integrative health programs at Maryland University of Integrative Health. “When that’s in balance, we have energy and our brain works better.”
A few other fun gut health facts:
- –We have 10 times more bacteria in our digestive system than cells in our body.
- –99% of the DNA our bodies are made of bacterial DNA.
- –As a result of the Human Genome Project, scientists discovered we have fewer genes than a fruit fly, carrot, or pineapple! Instead, the genes we have are always talking to the microbes in our gut
- –Your gut lining is only one cell thick—much thinner than your eyelid—and replaces itself every few days.
It’s clear a healthy gut is essential for happiness and health. But as it stands, about one-third of people today have some sort of digestive problem on a weekly or monthly basis. As it turns out, a lot of conveniences associated with modern date life are actually killing gut health.
New to Nature Foods
Foods developed in labs, like denatured, industrialized fats and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), are still somewhat of a mystery to our bodies. “Food is information. These new-to-nature foods give different information to our cells and microbiome,” says Lipski, also author of Digestion Connection. “Intuitively, we know that different foods have different effects on us; some make us feel energized, some drain us.”
HFCS has been shown to require more energy for gut absorption, leading to possible gut leakage and widespread inflammation. Natural oils are important to build the structure of our cells, but denatured, industrial fats stripped of antioxidants and vitamins don’t give cells the nutrients they need. “It’s the life in food giving us life,” Lipski says. “Most people are eating mostly dead foods.”
Expert tip: Eat organic to avoid HFCS, avoid industrial oils by avoiding processed and fast food as much as possible.
Carrageenan seems innocent enough. Derived from seaweed, it’s commonly used as a thickening agent in ice cream, yogurt, soymilk, and sour cream—even organic versions. It’s completely unnecessary for use in food and dietary doses have reliably caused inflammation in the GI tract, triggering an immune response similar to that your body has when invaded by pathogens like Salmonella.
Expert tip: Carrageenan must, by law, appear on the ingredients list. Avoid it in both organic and nonorganic foods.
There’s emerging research suggesting that wheat is bad, especially for susceptible people. But even if you don’t suffer from celiac disease, wheat could be triggering acid reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, and other ailments. Why? We’re not eating the same wheat our grandmothers did.
Wheat has been so intensely and unnaturally crossbred in the last 40 years that significant changes in amino acids and gliadin protein, which could be making you hungry and damaging your gut health.
Expert tip: Try the elimination diet to see if wheat’s bothering you. Try replacing pasta with quinoa, which is technically protein-rich seed, not grain.
A 2013 study published in Journal of Organic Systems found pigs fed genetically engineered food were much more likely to suffer from severely inflamed stomachs. So is that happening to people, too?
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the go-to chemical nonorganic farmers spray on GMO crops. So much is applied and taken up inside of the plant that the U.S. government keeps increasing the limits allowed in our food. That’s bad news for your gut because glyphosate also acts like an antimicrobial, acting like a potent bacteria-killing in the gut, wiping out delicate beneficial microflora that protects us from disease. What’s left? Harmful pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli.
Expert tip: The number one way to avoid GMOs is to eat organic foods. If that’s not possible, avoid nonorganic processed foods—most contain at least one of the most common GMO ingredients made from corn, soy, cotton oil, or canola.
According to Lipski, taking nonsteroidal drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil, aspirin, and Motrin on a regular basis damage the gut lining, allowing microbes, partially digested food particles, and toxins to enter the bloodstream. (This is known as “leaky gut.”)
NSAIDs block pain by blocking eicosanoids and cytokines that promote inflammation. “But they also indiscriminately block the ones that also promote healing,” Lipski says. “By doing this, the body doesn’t allow for the health maintenance, growth, and repair of gut cells.”
Expert tip: Lipski says NSAIDs are OK for occasional pain, but if you’re suffering with chronic pain, look at the root causes. “Interestingly enough, leaky gut often plays a huge role in systemic pain in the body,” she adds. “Many clients who have arthritis or autoimmune conditions, when they improve gut health or go on an elimination diet, often the pain just disappears, and often in just a couple of weeks.”
Alcoholic drinks contain few nutrients but take many nutrients to metabolize. The most noteworthy of these are the B-complex vitamins. In fact, alcoholic beverages contain substances that are toxic to our cells. When alcohol is metabolized in the liver, the toxins are either broken down or stored by the body, according to Digestion Connection.
Alcohol abuse puts a strain on the liver, which affects digestive competency, and also damages the intestinal tract.
Expert tip: Avoid drinking regularly, particularly if you’re suffering from digestive symptoms. If you have trouble quitting, see if you’re showing these signs of addiction and get help.
There’s no denying that antibiotics have saved millions of lives. Still, they don’t give your beneficial microbes a free pass when they enter your GI tract, so the drugs often kill off the “good bugs” in your gut, too, damaging your immune system and gut health.
Expert tip: While you’re on antibiotics, take a product containing saccharomyces Boulardii, like Florastor, and then continue for two weeks after ending antibiotics, Lipski suggests. It’s a cousin to bread yeast and helps prevent yeast overgrown while re-establishing the gut microbiome. The end result? It helps reduce the risk of developing diarrhea and other complications arising from antibiotic use.
If you’d rather take probiotic supplements, make sure you take them in between antibiotic doses, not with them. (The antibiotics will immediately kill them off if you take at the same time.)
Stress really is toxic. Chronic stress causes your body to produce less secretory IgA, one of the first lines of immune defense. It also eases up on producing DHEA, an antiaging, antistress adrenal hormone.
Your body also responds to stress by slowing down digestion, which reduces blood flow to digestive organs and produces toxic metabolites.
Expert tip: Meditation and guided imagery help beat back stress naturally.
Depriving yourself of sleep deprives your body of the repair time it needs. Lack of sleep leads to stress and higher cortisol levels, which has been linked to leaky gut. Getting less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night also deprives us of the parasympathetic/relaxation sleep cycle to fully repair high-energy gut tissue, Lipski says.
Expert Tip: Keep your thermostat below 70° to keep your bedroom at sleep-friendly temperatures. Without a nighttime cool-down process, the release of sleep hormones melatonin and growth hormone is disrupted. Avoid these 9 other common hormone disruptors that could lead to low-quality sleep. According to government surveys, most of us get one hour less sleep than is optimal. Add one more hour of sleep per night for 2 weeks and see if it makes a difference in how you feel.