Hippocrates said this more than 2,000 years ago and we are only now coming to understand the significance. Research over the past two decades has revealed gut health is critical to overall health, and that an unhealthy gut contributes to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autism spectrum disorder, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Many researchers believe that supporting intestinal health and restoring the integrity of the gut barrier will be one of the most important goals for medicine in the 21st century.
Two closely related variables that determine our gut health are: the intestinal microbiota, or’gut flora’, and the gut barrier. Let’s discuss each of them.
A healthy garden needs healthy soil
Our gut is home to approximately (100 trillion) microorganisms. The human gut contains 10 times more bacteria than all the human cells in the body, with over 400 known diverse bacterial species. In fact, one could say that we’re more bacterial than we are human. .
We’ve only recently begun to understand the extent of the gut flora’s role in human health and disease. Among other things, gut flora promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection from infection, regulates metabolism and makes up more than 75% of our immune system. Dysregulated gut flora are being linked to diseases ranging from autism and depression to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s, inflammatory bowel disease and type diabetes.
Alas several features of the modern lifestyle directly contribute to unhealthy gut flora:
- Antibiotics and other medications like birth control and NSAIDs
- Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods
- Diets low in fermentable fibers
- Dietary toxins like glyphosate and industrial seed oils
- Chronic stress and infections
Antibiotics are particularly harmful to the gut flora. Recent studies have shown that antibiotic use causes a profound and rapid loss of diversity and a shift in the composition of the gut flora. This diversity is not recovered after antibiotic use without intervention.
We also know that infants that aren’t breast-fed and are born to mothers with poor gut flora are more likely to develop unhealthy an unhealthy microbiome, and that these early differences in gut flora may predict weightgain, diabetes, eczema/psoriasis, depression and other health problems in the future.
The Gut Barrier:
Gatekeeper that decide what gets in and what stays out
So the contents of the gut are technically outside the body The gut is a hollow tube that passes from the mouth to the anus. Anything that goes in the mouth and isn’t digested will pass right out the other end. This is, in fact, one of the most important functions of the gut: to prevent foreign substances from entering the body and bloodstream.
When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable (leaky gut syndrome), large protein molecules escape into the bloodstream. These proteins do not belong outside of the gut and the body mounts an immune response to attack them. Studies show that these attacks play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and type 1 diabetes. Experts in mucosal biology like Alessio Fasano state that leaky gut is a precondition to developing autoimmunity:
Increasing evidence hows that more intestinal permeability plays a pathogenic role in various autoimmune diseases therefore, we hypothesise that besides genetic and environmental factors, a weak gut barrier function is necessary to develop autoimmunity.
Leaky gut was a phrase which used to be confined to the outer fringes of medicine, employed by early functional and alternative practitioners. It was dismissed by the establishment yet it has been repeatedly seen in several well-designed studies that intestinal barrier integrity is a major factor in autoimmune disease.
The theory holds that the gut barrier in general determines whether we tolerate or react to toxic substances ingested from the environment. The breach of the intestinal barrier by a protein like gluten or chemicals like arsenic or BPA causes an immune response which affects not only the gut but also other organs and tissues. These include the skeletal system, the pancreas, kidney, liver and the brain.
This is a crucial point to understand: you don’t have to show gut symptoms to have a gut permeability. Leaky gut can manifest as skin problems like eczema or psoriasis, heart failure, autoimmune conditions affecting the thyroid (Hashimoto’s) or joints (rheumatoid arthritis), mental illness and more.
Researchers have identified a protein called zonulin that increases intestinal permeability in humans and other animals. This led to a search of the medical literature for illnesses characterised by increased intestinal permeability. Researchers found the majority of autoimmune diseases – including celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease are characterised by abnormally high levels of zonulin. Exposing animals to zonulin induces leaky gut, and they begin producing antibodies to islet cells, responsible for making insulin.
One of the main reasons we don’t want to eat modern wheat and other gluten-containing grains is the fact that they contain a protein called gliadin – shown to increase zonulin production and directly contribute to leaky gut syndrome.
Gut permeability & Leaky gut
= fatigued, inflamed and depressed
Leaky gut and bad gut flora are common because of our modern lifestyles and if you have a leaky gut, you probably have bad gut flora, and vice versa. When your gut flora and gut barrier are impaired, you will suffer from inflammation.
This systemic inflammatory response goes on to develop autoimmunity. While leaky gut and poor gut flora may only manifest as digestive trouble; in many it will show up as problems like diverse as heart failure, depression, brain fog, eczema/psoriasis, metabolic problems or allergies, asthma and other autoimmune conditions.
To adequately address these conditions, you should work to rebuild healthy gut flora and restore the integrity of your intestinal barrier. This is especially important if you have any kind of autoimmune disease, whether digestive issues are experienced or not.
Maintain and restore a healthy gut
The most obvious first step in maintaining a healthy gut is to avoid all of the things listed above that destroy gut flora and damage the intestinal barrier. That is not always possible, especially in the case of chronic stress and infections and we did not have control over whether we were breast-fed or whether our mothers had healthy guts when we were born!
If you’ve been exposed to some of these factors, there are still steps you can take to restore your gut flora:
- Remove all food toxins from your diet
- Eat plenty of fermentable fibers (starches like sweet potato, yam, yucca, etc.)
- Eat fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kim chi, etc., take a high-quality, multi-species probiotic, and/or drink bone broth
- Treat any intestinal pathogens (such as parasites) that may be present
- Practice eating within a 6-8 hour window and take the pressure off your gut
- Take steps to manage your stress
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