We're going to take a daring leap here and center this blog post on our gastrointestinal (GI) or gut health. Yes, something we all think about (and some of us stress about) but rarely discuss. Lately, more and more research studies have been conducted on this topic and there is even some evidence to suggest that our physical health and susceptibility toward illness could very well originate in our small intestines. In simple terms, in order for our digestive tracts to remain healthy we need a certain level of beneficial bacteria around to balance things out. Several factors can affect the bacteria levels in your gut. These factors include poor diet, excessive alcohol and caffeine intake, overuse of NSAIDS, environmental toxins (such as BPA from plastic, excess metal consumption, and pesticides/hormones in our foods) and overexposure to antibiotics. Those of us who have taken antibiotics may have experienced what is called gut dysbiosis on occasion - basically an imbalance of healthy gut flora. When this is a temporary sort of thing, our bodies adjust and life goes back to normal when the balance is restored. However, people with sustained levels of unhealthy bacteria in their gut are running the risk of certain health complications and if left untreated this can result in serious auto-immune conditions. Most people with imbalanced gut flora will experience a number of GI complaints initially - intolerance to many foods, heartburn and acid reflux, bloating, indigestion, constipation, and/or diarrhea. Sometimes people will have more subtle symptoms of an imbalanced gut, including general feelings of fatigue and low energy, skin issues, aching joints, anxious/depressed mood, headaches, loss of balance, confusion/memory loss, and many others. How exactly does an bacterial imbalance in the gut cause physical and emotional symptoms of distress? Think of your intestines as a wall made up of tightly formed junctions that protect the functioning systems of your body from particles, chemicals and other toxins on one hand, and unbalanced bacteria having the ability to come in and compromise those junctions from doing their job on the other hand. When the digestive system is compromised, those tightly formed junctions in our gut are more likely to develop gaps in them, opening the door for those toxins and other substances to leak out into our systems. This phenomena is known as "leaky gut syndrome". In a leaky gut, food particles and other toxins that we ingest are no longer contained in our guts (where they're normally broken down and digested) anymore. By entering into our systems, these foreign substances turn on an autoimmune response which can lead to complications and distressful symptoms. Our bodies see these particles as foreign invaders, and will attack the invaders to protect our systems. For some, leaky gut can be the trigger for autoimmune diseases such as celiac, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, among many other unknown autoimmune conditions. The newest research shows that many people with autoimmune disease show higher incidence of leaky gut syndrome, and that symptoms can improve significantly when the gut is healed!
From Andrew: Ali has done a lot of research over the last year on leaky gut syndrome because of her own personal experience with a "hard to diagnose" autoimmune disease. Her auto-immune condition peaked last year with symptoms of cardiac myocarditis, eosinophilic blood disorders, and then topped of with a diagnoses of Celiac Disease. And even though she changed to a gluten free diet when diagnosed with Celiac, it didn't make her physical symptoms much better. Not only were we unaware of leaky gut syndrome, but most of the top doctors in Boston never even mentioned it to us (as we know quite well, traditional medicine can take a while to catch up to current trends). Because of Ali's auto-immune condition, she had developed cardiovascular disease in the form of heart inflammation, liver abnormalities, Hashimotos Thyroiditis (autoimmune system attacking the thyroid gland), and ulcerative colitis. Doctors were prescribing more medications to help each organ recover, and though we are thankful that some of those meds (ie steroids and antibiotics) kept the inflammation in check probably saved her life. But she somehow felt more physically sick as time went on and with each new medication.
From Ali: Lucky for me, I am a big fan of alternative health information, and I regularly read healthy living blogs and listens to daily wellness podcasts from some of the leading voices in the field of alternative medicine. One day I listened to a podcast interview of Dr. Alessio Fassano, who is a pioneer in the field of autoimmune disease and celiac. In the interview, Dr. Fassano introduced the concept of leaky gut syndrome, food intolerance, and gut dysbiosis, and how they are connected to inflammation in the human body. In one 30 minute interview, I learned that inflammation from leaky gut that is left untreated can lead to serious health complications like the one she was dealing with the day of the interview. Dr. Fassano referenced a naturopathic doctor by the name of Chris Kresser, who has an entire website devoted to these issues. I was now well on the way to learning how to heal leaky gut syndrome without relying on chemicals and drugs anymore. Think about it. If you have a leaky gut, do you want to heal the process from occurring in the first place? Or do you want to just treat the symptoms with drugs and more chemicals that can just slip into your system and feed the reaction all over again?
Since learning about the process of leaky gut, we have changed the way we eat, move, and think, and I truly feel like a different person! Naturally, we want to spread the word about the importance of gut health to other people who may be suffering from these physical symptoms. Many of us simply get used to feeling tired, cranky, and lousy overall, and of course these symptoms may be due to some other underlying cause which you would need to investigate. But many of us don't put much thought into the fact that we are capable of feeling amazing and energized a good percentage of the time. If you feel this way, we are making it our mission to help people who experience physical and emotional maladies understand the importance of GI health, and to help them strategize ways to prevent or heal leaky gut!
If you feel like your gut health is getting in the way of your ability to live a healthy, energized life, here are some important tips to get started on the way back to good health:
-Be careful of over-exercising and under-eating. While it's true that most people in our country over-eat and under-exercise, we do live in a society that promotes thinness and is obsessed with unrealistic body image, and this can sometimes lead to extremes. Extreme exercise and dieting causes a tremendous amount of stress on our systems. This kind of stress can lead to the excess secretion of cortisol, and can affect our adrenal glands (part of our endocrine system that controls stress hormones) as well. The excess stress can mess with our GI health as well, having a major impact on digestion.
-Watch out for processed foods! Don't be surprised to learn in the coming years that process foods can and will initiate leaky gut and other serious health disorders. In our opinion, an over-reliance on processed foods, most of which contain ingredients we can't even pronounce, likely initiates or triggers disease processes in our bodies. Processed foods contain highly refined substances that can throw off the balance of bacteria in your gut. In order to stay healthy, It is very important to minimize the amount of processed foods that you eat. If you would like to become more educated on this topic, check out the author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) and/or become a fan of webpage Food Matters.
-Processed sugar is another food that is highly toxic to our systems, and although it falls under the category of Processed Foods, it deserves it's own special category. Processed sugar greatly increases rates of inflammation in our body. Don't forget that processed carbohydrates (breads, pastas, pastries, etc.) are immediately converted into sugar in our digestive track.
-Pesticides on our fruits and vegetables are highly toxic to our systems and is a controversial topic area. Though organic fruits and vegetables are found to be more expensive, think of your body as your temple. Put out a little bit more money in now, and avoid medical costs later. If you are on a budget, try to focus on buying "The Dirty Dozen" fruits/veggies in organic form (http://www.thedailygreen.com/healthy-eating/eat-safe/dirty-dozen-foods#slide-1) and not worry too much about the others if price is a concern.
-Watch out for hormones and antibiotics in our meats and dairy. Again- you are going to have to spend a little bit more money to buy organic, but conventional versions of these foods do not only affect your personal health, but the health of the overall environment as well (think of the hormones and antibiotics that are used in factory farms on helpless animals and then all the residue that runs off into the water systems and food chain). Not convinced? Ali has worked with 10 year old girls who are fully developed and have begun menstruation already, and the rates of childhood obesity are skyrocketing. More research has pointed to the positive relationship between increased rates of hormones in our foods and the early development of puberty in kids, along with the higher rates of obesity. After all, if the hormones given to our animals are meant to get them bigger quicker, why would it not do the same to the people who eat it? Let's all focus on consciously buying food that is safe and then the government will have no choice but to change their policies.
-Antibiotics destroy the balance of flora in our gut. Period.If you google it, you will find tons of data tied to this. Try to minimize your use of antibiotics and always explore your options when you are feeling sick.
-STRESS! Too much work and too little play can disrupt our gut health. Do you ever get that feeling of the pit of your belly tightening up when you get anxious? There is a direct correlation between the brain's stress response and the GI tract. The more stress we have, the less healthy our GI tracts will become.
What steps can you do to restore a healthy GI system and prevent leaky gut? The good news is that unless you are dealing with a life threatening situation, you don't NEED to take any medications! Over-the-counter pills like TUMS and Pepto Bismal are just masking the problem, and can actually make things worse for many people. By suppressing stomach acid over time, we can develop significant issues with being able to secrete the digestive enzymes to properly absorb our food. Here are some positive action steps you can take:
-Eat real , whole, non processed foods. These include (if possible grass finished and organic) meats, fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds, starchy tubers, and lots of healthy fats (such as coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado). -Meditate and find other ways to manage your stress levels. This includes finding healthy levels of exercise (without overdoing it). -Eat enough! Don't stress your systems out by dieting! -Cut out the processed foods. -Watch the alcohol and caffeine intake. -Watch the amounts of wheat, glutenous grains, and other processed carbohydrates that you are eating. These foods are much harder to digest, and can destroy the lining of the gut health for many people. -Supplement with probiotic rich foods such as fermented food (saurkraut, kefir, and yogurt if you tolerate it), and probiotic supplements are very helpful to many people. -Avoid added sugar and also fake sugars (splenda, etc.) -Avoid taking antibiotics unless you absolutely need to.
If you have any questions about managing your gut health or working on behavioral/dietary changes to maximize your energy levels, contact Engin Coaching anytime.
Ali and Andrew Barton provide Wellness Coaching at ISIS Holistic Clinic in Brookline, MA. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org