Your digestive system is an amazing and wondrous thing. Comprised not only of your stomach and intestines, but also several other ancillary organs, like your pancreas, liver and gallbladder, this system represents the largest surface area in the body that interfaces with the outside world. Think about it: the process of digestion allows us to take food in, break it down into the components our bodies need to thrive and eliminate what is not needed as waste. It allows us to assimilate the world outside and make it a part of ourselves. When you realize how important an optimally functioning digestive system is, it’s not difficult to understand that digestive health is at the root of whole body health and vitality.
Unfortunately, many people living in modern society suffer from digestive ailments like heartburn, IBS, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. These types of issues can have a huge impact on one’s quality of life. They can be fixed, however, with an easy formula for total gut health and wellness. It is based on the functional medicine principle of the three Rs: 1) Remove; 2) Repair; and 3) Reinoculate. Let’s take a closer look at each one so you’ll have a better understanding of what I’m talking about.
Remove. This refers to removing those things from your diet or lifestyle – possibly temporarily or permanently – that can cause big problems in your gut. The number one offender is sugar, in its many forms. Sugar is basically food for bacteria and yeasts that live in your gut. An overabundance of it from things like sweets, sodas, refined carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta, rice, etc.) and alcohol can cause harmful bacteria and yeasts to proliferate and “choke out” the beneficial bacteria, leading to symptoms like gas and bloating, belching, foggy thinking, low energy and more. For anyone trying to rehab a sick gut, this is the first thing I recommend they do.
Another one to watch out for is antibiotics. If you didn’t know, the word antibiotic literally means “against life.” As such, these medications are designed to fight bacterial infection, however, once ingested, they end up wiping out the full spectrum of bacteria in our guts, including the beneficial ones. Why does this matter? Well, those beneficial bacteria help us break down food, fight infections naturally and produce healthy by-products the body needs like B-vitamins, vitamin K and short chain fatty acids which help maintain the integrity of the gut mucosa or lining. If you are suffering from symptoms of a cold or sinus infection, please consider that these issues almost always stem from a viral infection, against which, of course antibiotics will be useless.
The last one I want to mention is NSAIDs or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil (Ibuprofen) and Aleve (Naproxen sodium). These types of medications are very popular for temporary pain relief, but long-term use can leave you with damage to your gut lining and even a bleeding stomach ulcer. Here’s why: in our bodies we have hormone-like substances called prostaglandins that help to mediate inflammation. These prostaglandins also help to form a protective layer of mucus in the stomach and intestines that prevents the highly acidic contents of these structures from essentially burning through. Prostaglandins, however, are also partially responsible for the pain associated with inflammation. Drugs like NSAIDs non-selectively shut down both the pain pathway and the pathway that creates this protective layer, leaving the inner lining of our digestive tract exposed to the highly corrosive hydrochloric acid contained in our stomachs. If you are looking for an alternative to these types of potentially gut-damaging medications, acupuncture, herbs and an anti-inflammatory diet can all be quite effective, particularly in combination.
Repair. After removing those things from your diet or lifestyle that are compromising the health of your gut, you can now begin the process of repairing the damage done. Herbs and supplements can be a powerful way to accomplish this, but because everyone’s constitution and symptoms are unique, I prefer to save this type of information for the one-on-one office consultation. Food, however, can also be powerful medicine, so here are a few food-based therapies to consider:
1) Bone broths. These contain gelatin, which acts to soothe an irritated gut. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, gelatin has been shown to “be useful in the treatment of a long list of diseases including peptic ulcers.”
2) Mucilaginous foods. Examples include things like okra, nopales (cactus), aloe and chia seeds. Mucilages (“mucus like”) act like a band-aid over irritated spots in the gut lining, helping to soothe and even prevent further irritation.
3) Coconut oil. This contains a compound called lauric acid which acts as a natural antimicrobial in the gut, preventing the proliferation of bad bacteria. Its oily nature also helps to soothe inflammation.
4) Cabbage. Eaten as a cooked food or in the fermented form known as sauerkraut, cabbage contains the highest concentration of L-Glutamine, an important amino acid in the maintenance and health of the gut lining.
5) Honey. Sweet and delicious, honey has been shown to have antibacterial properties by inhibiting the growth of certain bacteria. It can help to resolve inflammation and has been used to treat GI disorders such as peptic ulcers, gastritis and gastroenteritis.
Reinoculate. This refers to the process of re-populating your gut with healthy bacteria. A great way to do this is with beneficial probiotics (“for life”). At the clinic I have an effective, easy-to-follow, 6-week program that will help you build up healthy gut flora. For all the DIY-ers out there, though, fermented foods are another good place to start. All traditional cultures around the world have incorporated fermented foods into their diets as a way to aid digestion and improve health through the immune-boosting benefits of the probiotics they contain. A few of my favorite ones are:
1) Sauerkraut. Mentioned above, sauerkraut is made by soaking shredded cabbage in a solution of whey, water and a little salt for several days to a couple of weeks. The result is a delicious, crisp side condiment, often eaten in Germany together with bratwurst, which helps to balance out the fatty, heavy flavor of the sausage.
2) Kombucha. I make this at home in multi-gallon batches and it is a lovely substitute for soda pop. Kombucha is an effervescent, fermented beverage made from sweet, sugary tea (green and black blend) and the addition of a SCOBY, a mushroom-like culture of beneficial bacteria and yeast. It is so simple to make – all it takes is a little patience and a few pieces of equipment that you probably already have at home.
3) Kimchi. This is kind of like sauerkraut’s Korean cousin. It can be made from a medley of vegetables, including peppers, napa cabbage, and daikon radish. After fermenting for several days, the final product can be quite pungent, but it makes a nice accompaniment to noodle and meat dishes.
4) Buttermilk. Sometimes referred to as “Grandma’s probiotic,” buttermilk contains lactic acid bacteria that can help to soothe the GI tract, improve immunity and aid in digestion.
5) Beet Kvass. Another fermented beverage, beet kvass is lauded as the ultimate digestive tonic. Similar to sauerkraut, it is made by combining beets, whey, water and a little salt in a jar. The liquid formed after a couple days of fermentation at room temperature is said to be an excellent blood tonic, digestive aid and liver cleanser.
You’ll notice I didn’t include yogurt on this list. The reason for this is that most yogurt that people think of as “healthy” (Activia, Chobani, Dannon, etc.) actually contains high amounts of sugar in the form of fruit or fruit flavorings. As a rule of thumb, I try to avoid these types of processed yogurts and go for something a little more natural. Full fat, unsweetened yogurt like the kind White Mountain makes, with some chopped up berries, nuts and a little honey drizzled on top is a delicious and much healthier alternative.
You may have questions after reading this. If so, please do not hesitate to send me an email or leave a comment in the section below. In future posts I will discuss why keeping your gut healthy is perhaps the single most important thing you can do for your own longevity. To find out how good digestive health can impact conditions like autoimmune diseases, acne, eczema, allergies and even cancer, please stay tuned!
As always, thanks for reading and stay well!
Tama Henderson, L.Ac., ACN