If you're a germ-o-phobe, listen up: All those showers and that incessant use of Purell are killing off your main line of defense. The bacteria that live in and on you are an integral part of your immune system. They protect you from invaders, turning on and off your immune system at just the right time. If you are prone to colds, flu, and other infectious diseases, it could be due either to not having enough bacteria or having the wrong kinds of bacteria living in your gut. And in extreme cases, poor gut health may contribute to immune-related diseases such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease, to name just a few.
If you suffer from a weakened immune system, you may want to consider a gut restoration regimen. As a nutritionist, here are five steps I recommend:
Step 1: Identify your food intolerances.
This means following a temporary elimination diet to remove sugar, wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, peanuts, spicy foods, and anything else that you might be sensitive to.
I usually recommend a 10- to 28-day elimination period followed by reintroduction of one ingredient at a time, every other day. During this time, notice what foods don't work for you. Some of these foods may return to the diet once they have been ruled out as a food demon. Return sugar and processed grains sparingly or not at all.
Step 2: Add in digestion aids.
Consider taking enzymes, which assist the digestion process and lipotropic factors, to help your digestion of fats. Digestion aids should be taken with meals, particularly when eating out or when there is any doubt of food compatibility.
If you have a very sensitive system, you may need to focus on eating foods that are easy to digest such as cooked fruits and vegetables, bone broths, and white rice. Raw produce and complex carbohydrates may be added back to the diet once the gut is recolonized with healthy bacteria and healed (steps 3 and 4!).
Step 3: Enrich your diet with fermented foods.
A poorly colonized gut may originate at birth, or it may be due to a nutrient-poor diet, or repeated courses of antibiotics (that kill off both the bad and the good bacteria).
To re-inoculate the gut, add fermented foods to your diet, or consider taking strain-specific probiotics. Foods with probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, and even pickles. If you're not accustomed to eating probiotic foods, I recommend starting off with one small amount (½ cup) per day and working your way up to a probiotic-containing food with every meal.
Effective probiotic supplements are those that deliver 20 to 50 billion live organisms per dose and contain a combination of different strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Essential oil supplements made from thyme, oregano, and mint are also known for their antifungal properties.
Step 4: Use herbal remedies.
In order for your gut to function properly, it needs to be completely healed in the same way that you'd heal a wound on open skin.
Highly effective, holistic remedies include aloe, licorice root, and glutamine, which supports new growth of the intestinal lining. Omega-3 fatty acids are both restorative and anti-inflammatory, as are herbs like turmeric, rosemary, quercetin, and ginger.
Step 5: Feed the healthy bacteria.
To maintain your healthy gut, you need to feed the good bacteria the food they love. These are referred to as prebiotics, which are nondigestible carbohydrates that help your bacteria flourish. Prebiotics can be found in artichokes, garlic, beans, oats, onions, asparagus, or any green leafy vegetable. To maintain optimal colon health, I recommend consuming between 20 and 30 g of fiber per day.