What Is Gut Health? Here's A Complete Guide To Having The Healthiest Digestion Of Your Life
We all have some yeast in our microbiome, including the fungi Candida albicans. A problem happens when this yeast becomes overgrown causing low-grade inflammation and stress on the immune system. Candida overgrowth can contribute to additional health problems in those with autoimmune conditions or already weakened immune systems.
I cannot stress the importance of having a healthy gut more; as I said earlier, research is showing us just how much these various gut problems can affect your health. In fact, studies have linked poor gut health to a multitude of conditions1, including:
What leads to poor gut health?
As I mentioned earlier, gut health is connected in one way or another to almost every aspect of your health. Here are some of the common lifestyle and medical factors that lead to poor gut health:
The hard truth about diet is this: Food can either fuel health or it can fuel disease. If it fuels disease, it most likely does this by damaging a once healthy gut. Processed and sugary foods are the most obvious culprits, but underlying food sensitivities to even so-called healthy foods can lead to inflammation that can damage your gut. Even gluten-free grains contain amylose sugars that contribute to inflammation. This just goes to show the immense power of the foods you put on your plate.
Most medications have side effects, and many people continue to take them without educating themselves on the possible side effects—one of them being compromised gut permeability. And while many antibiotics can be lifesaving, frequent use and overuse of these drugs kill the bacteria in your gut regardless of whether they are actually harmful or not. This can allow for pathogenic bacteria to take over, especially if you are not making efforts to restore the balance through probiotic supplements or fermented foods.
Even certain over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs like ibuprofen can affect your gut health. These drugs work to relieve pain by blocking the enzyme cyclo-oxygenase, which also inhibits it from doing its important job of protecting your stomach from the corrosive effects of its acid, causing an increase in intestinal inflammation and permeability. This permeability can trigger an autoimmune response, and research estimates that 65 percent of people who consistently use NSAIDs have intestinal inflammation and 30 percent have ulcers.
High levels of your primary stress hormone cortisol and decreased oxygen to your gut are two ways that chronic stress can play a role in damaging your gut.
A glass of alcohol every once in a while may not do much to your gut in the grand scheme of things. However, consistent alcohol consumption—or even occasional for those dealing with a severe gut dysfunction—can irritate your intestines and suppress the hormones that protect against inflammation and gut permeability.
5. Autoimmune conditions
Since the majority of your immune system is located in your gut, leaky gut syndrome is both a cause and an effect of autoimmune problems. Autoimmune disease increases levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that destroy your gut lining.
6. Hormone imbalances
Slow intestinal healing time has been linked with hormone imbalances of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones, and cortisol. This can lead to leaky gut syndrome and explain why you may not be able to heal despite your best efforts. You may need to focus on balancing your hormones before you can heal your gut.
7. Blood sugar problems
When blood sugar skyrockets, compounds known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, become elevated as well and can increase the permeability of your gut.
8. Neurological problems
Your gut and brain were formed from the same fetal tissue while you were growing in your mother's womb. They continue this special bond throughout your whole life through what is known as the gut-brain axis. Because of this connection, brain problems can lead to leaky gut syndrome and vice versa.
How to uncover poor gut health.
While you may suspect you have gut problems because of your symptoms, without running any labs you won't know for sure. These are the labs that I typically recommend to determine if any of these gut problems are a factor in your particular health case:
1. Gut permeability labs
I always run tests for Zonulin and occluding antibodies. These two proteins control gut permeability, and the presence of antibodies can indicate damage to your intestinal tight junctions. In addition, I test for actomyosin antibodies, which can show if there was destruction of your gut lining, and lipopolysaccharides (LPS) antibodies, which can indicate leaky gut syndrome.
2. A comprehensive stool analysis
This test will uncover everything from the presence of parasites to bacterial imbalances to conditions like candida overgrowth or SIBO—any of which can affect your gut health.
How to heal your gut.
Once you know where you stand with your gut health, you can begin to take action steps toward true, sustainable healing. For someone without any of these chronic gut problems, inflammation, or autoimmunity, you could heal a not-so-perfect gut in anywhere from two to 12 weeks. This is due to the fact that your gastrointestinal tract is covered in enterocytes that quickly regenerate, giving you an entirely new gut lining in as little as every three weeks.
For those with more severe gut dysfunction, it can take anywhere between 12 and 24 months to see true sustainable healing. While many people see improvements each month, long-term healing can only be achieved after this one- to two-year period of implementing various natural healing tools, including:
1. An elimination diet
An elimination diet is my gold standard for uncovering hidden food intolerances. In order to heal your gut, you need to stop eating foods that continue to damage your gut and increase inflammation. By removing foods for a certain amount of time and slowly reintroducing them, you'll be able to see which foods your body loves and which foods your body hates.
2. Rotating your food
Eating many types of foods will not only give you a wide variety of much-needed nutrients, which will help you heal, but it will also keep your immune system balanced.
3. Taking probiotics
Probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi will reinoculate your microbiome with good bacteria. A probiotic supplement will also give your gut a much-needed boost of essential bacteria.
4. Drinking bone broth regularly
This superfood contains an abundance of collagen and minerals that soothe and repair a damaged gut. Sip it alone or use it as the base for soups and other recipes.
5. Trying intermittent fasting
By going extended periods of time without eating, you're able to give your digestion a much-needed break.
6. Managing your stress
You can eat all the kale in the world, but if you are feeding yourself a giant slice of stress every day it can be just as harmful to your gut. Chronic stress can suppress the immune system, decrease blood and oxygen flow to the intestines, and contribute to gut lining permeability. Making time to de-stress through things like tai chi, yoga, or meditation can make a huge difference in your stress levels.
7. Eating more cooked foods
Cooked foods decrease the amount of work your digestive system needs to do to break down food. This can help reduce bloat and lead to a healthier gut.
8. Using natural supplements
There are a handful of supplements that I often call upon to help my patients with their gut healing. They can help speed healing and make a big difference in symptoms.
L-glutamine: This essential amino acid is used up more quickly by your body during times of physical stress. Since it is the preferred fuel of your gut's enterocyte cells, this is the perfect supplement to support optimal gut health.
Colostrum: Lactoferrin in colostrum works as a prebiotic to stimulate the growth of good bacteria as well as promoting cell growth in the intestines to repair a damaged gut.
Slippery elm: This type of elm tree works as a demulcent to reduce inflammation in the gut. You can find this in tea or supplement form.
Turkey tail: This adaptogenic mushroom works wonders against gut overgrowths like SIBO and candida overgrowth.
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice: Sip on licorice tea to give your gut a boost.
Marshmallow root: This root fights to repair a damaged gut lining from leaky gut syndrome by coating the stomach. You can find this in tea or supplement form as well.
Knowledge is power when it comes to your health, especially the health of your gut. Arming yourself with understanding of what destroys—as well as heals—your gut will put you in a position of control. Reaching out and working with a qualified practitioner can help take your healing journey to the next level through labs and customized care plans to restore your gut and get you back to your thriving self.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.