As a functional medicine specialist, my practicing philosophy is that I must examine the whole person and try to find the root causes of chronic ailments. Often, this course of investigation leads me to the gut. In fact, the gut is being increasingly connected with issues as diverse as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis.
If this surprises you, you're not alone. But it turns out that around 70 percent of the immune system lives in the gut and gut bacteria help your immune system’s T cells develop—teaching them the difference between a foreign substance and the body’s own tissues. This is an extremely important process that determines how and what your immune system responds to, and the success of this critical process is determined, in part, by the health of your gut. When there’s a mistake in the process, for instance, if there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria, it can lead your body’s immune system to start attacking your own cells, the hallmark of autoimmune disorders.
Leaky gut: The connection between your immune system and your gut.
The gut is also important for another reason: It regulates which particles pass through the intestinal lining into the rest of your body. Healthy digestive tracts are designed with small gates that allow digested foods to pass while keeping out larger food particles and other antigens (foreign particles that cause immune reactions). However, many of the patients that I see with arthritis or autoimmune conditions don’t have a healthy gut. Instead, they have a condition we call leaky gut. In leaky gut, the gates in the intestinal lining become damaged, allowing large food particles and unwanted substances to enter the rest of the body. Once inside, they are treated as foreign invaders and cause immune reactions that trigger inflammation and pain.
When leaky gut develops, you can become unwittingly sensitized to foods. For example, you'll eat a piece of cheese or soy, and particles will slip through the intestinal barrier and set off an immune reaction. Continuing to eat these foods can lead to chronic inflammation and pain because the immune system will continue to see these particles as invaders. Suddenly, you are in constant pain and can’t figure out why.
With its roles in training your immune system and acting as a gatekeeper to the rest of your body, the gut is arguably the center of your health. For those with arthritis and other autoimmune conditions whose symptoms are exacerbated or created by poor gut health, healing the gut can reverse their conditions. For everyone else, healing the gut makes developing an autoimmune condition, food sensitivity, and inflammation less likely.
Finding the food culprits behind your symptoms.
To illustrate a basic treatment, let’s continue with the example of arthritis, which is at the front of my mind as the release of my book Healing Arthritis approaches. When people with arthritis eat foods they have a sensitivity to, the subsequent pain and inflammation is likely to be found in the joints. The first step of cutting off this source of pain is to identify the food culprits.
An elimination diet is the best way to do this. For first-timers, I suggest an elimination diet that removes these foods: gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, sugar, processed foods, and especially for arthritis sufferers, the nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers). The second step is to heal the gut, with steps including balancing the microbiome; identifying if your bile acids, pancreatic enzymes, and stomach acid are working correctly; and using supplements like l-glutamine powder to repair the gut lining. These two steps are critical to every treatment case I see as a doctor.
How to improve your immunity by healing your gut.
More steps that you can start today to improve your gut health and reduce and reverse illness include:
1. Take a probiotic.
Probiotics can assist in rebalancing your microbiome.
2. Eat fermented and cultured foods.
Foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and fresh pickles. Not only do these foods contain probiotics, but they are also full of digestive enzymes, which can compensate for your stomach, liver, or gallbladder.
3. Eat sprouted vegetables.
Sprouted veggies contain dramatically increased amounts of enzymes compared to their unsprouted counterparts.
4. Eat radishes, artichokes, dandelion, and chicory.
These foods and other bitter greens stimulate the liver to create bile.
5. Try a demulcent.
Demulcents soothe irritated or inflamed tissues and include foods like almonds, barley, coconut oil, figs, parsley, prunes, and sage.
6. Avoid alcohol and coffee.
These substances can adversely affect your microbiome—the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
7. Try ghee.
Ghee (clarified butter) has been used in India for thousands of years to treat digestive problems. It can reduce inflammation and is high in gut-healing butyrate.
8. Eat more fiber.
Fiber helps regulate your digestive tract and also acts as food for your good bacteria.
Armed with the right information about the triggers of chronic ailments, there will be nothing to stop you from feeling better.