3 Surprising Things That Affect Your Gut Health, From The Father Of Functional Medicine
Your gut influences everything from your digestion to your mood to your immunity—it's the foundation of your health, many would say. But because your gut touches so many functions in your body, it can be difficult to know what exactly triggers any gut issues you may have. Is it inflammation? FODMAPs? A lack of sleep? Yes, your diet can play a huge role, but other less obvious factors can wreak havoc on your gut without you even knowing it.
"Our function is dependent upon and intimately interwoven with the function of our environment," says Bland. Just like you have trillions of bacteria residing in your gut, the ecosystems around you have just as many bugs—if not more. Take soil, for instance: The dirt has tons of microbial life, filled with nutrients and healthy minerals that make the vegetables we love so nutritious. "Just like we have gut microbiomes, a healthy plant in healthy soil has its own unique microbiome," notes Bland.
But because conventional agriculture practices erode the organic matter and life in the soil, those farms aren't producing food that's as nutrient-rich as it could be. In turn, our gut microbiomes aren't receiving the diverse array of nutrients they love, which means your gut health might not be as optimal as it could be.
"When the system is in a state of imbalance, every component of that interconnection is affected. The planet is connected to the organisms, which is connected to the microbes, which is connected to the soil and mycorrhizae, which is connected to the food, which is connected to humans and their health," Bland explains. "When our environment is disturbed, we are disturbed—our genes are disturbed, and they fight back as an alarm reaction called inflammation."
We don't need to tell you how important managing stress is for your overall health. But when it comes to your gut, stress can significantly affect its function—and vice versa. In fact, there's a channel connecting the gut and the brain (also known as the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis1) that allows them to communicate back and forth. Your gut even has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, and when this nervous system absorbs stress hormones, it can affect the speed at which food moves through the digestive tract, resulting in either constipation or diarrhea.
What's more, Bland notes that "living in a distressful environment can alter the gut microbiome." He adds, "There are many studies now showing that when you're under long-term chronic distress, maybe in socially deprived environments, you have an altered microbiome." One 2019 study, for example, found that the greater the difference in participants' socioeconomic status, the more dissimilar their microbiomes were2, which could help explain some of the differences in health outcomes.
On the subject of social environments, Bland says that psychobehavioral aspects can actually send signals to your genes—a concept called socioepigenomics. "It describes why second-generation Holocaust victims can be sick, even though they were not subjected personally to Holocaust; their genes of their parents were marked by the trauma of Holocaust," Bland explains. (He references a study from the journal of Biological Psychiatry that discusses how trauma can be inherited, although more research is needed.)
"Turmoil and challenges to your security can create a change in how your genes are expressed and put you into a state of alarm," Bland notes, which can have trickle-down effects on gut health (thanks to the aforementioned gut-brain axis).
However, it's not all doom and gloom: "These are reversible marks," says Bland, and cultures throughout history have relied on traditional psychobehavioral techniques to get rid of these marks (sweat lodges in Native American cultures, for example). Our opportunity here is to compile those physical, emotional, and spiritual techniques to get rid of those marks and elevate every aspect of your health. As Bland notes, "The white light of good health does reside in almost everyone's genes, if we can just let it radiate through."
According to Bland, it's important to view gut health (and your overall well-being) from multiple angles. Your gut, in particular, may be sensitive to quite a few triggers, including a few you might never expect. To hear more of Bland's robust microbiome knowledge, make sure to tune into the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or check out the full video.