All disease begins in the gut. – Hippocrates
Scientific research is bringing more and more credence to the notion that up to 90% of all known human illness can be traced back to an unhealthy gut (Permutter, David, Brain Maker). And we can say for sure that just as the disease begins in the gut, so too does health and vitality. Ongoing research continues to uncover a strong case that gut health is critical to immune system functioning, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter and vitamin production, nutrient absorption, signalling being hungry or full, and utilising carbohydrates and fat. The gut extracts vitamins, minerals and energy from the food we eat, and it produces more than twenty different hormones. An unhealthy gut contributes to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autism spectrum disorder, depression, Alzheimer's, ADHD, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Most doctors know very little about gut health and you would be betteroff finding a good functional medicine practitioner if you wish to explore your gut function and nutrition.
When we talk about gut health, what exactly do we mean? Gut health can be divided into two main areas: the intestinal microbiota, or “gut flora”, and the "gut barrier".
The Gut Flora:
Plants in a garden only thrive if the soil is healthy. The human gut is home to approximately 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) microorganisms, which is ten times more bacteria than all the human cells in the entire body. In fact, you could say that we are more bacterial than we are human. Currently, we know of over 400 diverse bacterial species in the gut, and ongoing research continues to discover more.
The families of bacteria in our bodies have different characteristics. They break down food in different ways, produce different substances, and detoxify certain harmful substances but not others. Furthermore, they may also influence the gut flora by either encouraging or attacking other bacteria. (Enders, Giulia. Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ)
The microbiome affects our mood, libido, metabolism, immunity, and even our perception of the world and the clarity of our thoughts. The microbiome helps determine whether we are fat or thin, energetic or lethargic. Put simply, everything about our health — how we feel both emotionally and physically. Unfortunately, our "modern lifestyles" do not support the health of the gut flora, the following things destroy our digestive health:
Antibiotics and other medications like birth control and NSAIDs (painkillers like panadol and nurofen)
Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods
Diets low in fermentable fibres
Dietary toxins like wheat (gluten, industrial seed oils, and chemicals found in our water and food cause leaky gut)
Chronic stress (high cortisol)
High consumption of alcohol, drugs and coffee
It’s also frightening to know that babies that aren’t breastfed and are born to mothers with bad gut flora are more likely to develop unhealthy gut bacteria, and these early differences in the gut flora may predict obesity, diabetes, eczema/psoriasis, depression and other health problems later in life.
Gut flora is essential, but the particular balance of certain bacteria also seems to be critical to our health. A skewed proportion of the different gut flora is often found in those suffering from weight gain, malnutrition, nervous diseases, depression, and chronic digestive problems. In other words, when something is wrong with our microbiome, something is often wrong with us.
Well-respected institutions around the world are discovering that to an extraordinary degree, brain health and, on the flip side, brain diseases, are dictated by what goes on in the gut. That’s right: what’s taking place in your intestines today is determining your risk for any number of neurological conditions.
The Gut Barrier:
The surface area of our digestive system is about one hundred times greater than the area of our skin. The gut barrier is like a bouncer at a nightclub; it decides who gets into our bloodstream and who should stay out. If you stop and think about it, the contention of our gut is technically outside of our body. The gut is a pipe that runs from your mouth to your butt hole. One of the most critical features of the gut is to stop certain substances from entering the bloodstream.
When the gut barrier becomes permeable (i.e. “leaky gut syndrome”), large food molecules can leak into the bloodstream. Since these molecules don't belong outside of the gut, the body mounts an immune response and attacks them. Studies show that this immune response can lead to autoimmune diseases and type 1 diabetes, among many other things.
The breach of the intestinal barrier (i.e. “leaky gut”) by food and other toxins can cause an immune response that affects the gut and other vital tissues and organs like the pancreas, the kidneys, the liver, the brain and even the skeletal system.
Doctors initially scoffed at the idea that a leaky gut contributes to autoimmune problems, but now they’re eating their words. It has repeatedly been shown, in several well-designed studies, that the integrity of the intestinal barrier is a significant factor in autoimmune disease.
It's important to know that you don’t have to have gut symptoms to have a leaky gut. 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, autism spectrum disorder, depression and more.
Why we should avoid gluten
Zonulin is a protein that increases intestinal permeability in both humans and animals. Research has shown most autoimmune diseases (celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, MS, rheumatoid arthritis and IBS) are linked with high levels of zonulin and leaky gut.
Gluten-containing grains contain a protein called gliadin which has been shown to increase zonulin production and directly contribute to leaky gut. Animal studies have been able to immediately induce type 1 diabetes by exposing animals to high levels of zonulin.
As covered in the list above, there are many other causes of leaky guy: poor diet, medications (antibiotics, NSAIDs, steroids, antacids, etc.), infections, stress, hormone imbalances, and neurological conditions (brain trauma, stroke and neurodegeneration).
The first step in a healthy diet
The first step in any nutritional plan should be to restore the integrity of the gut barrier and support intestinal health. You can have the best diet in the world, but if the gut is unable to digest and absorb nutrients correctly you're only flushing your time, money, and potentially your health down the toilet.
We would like to think that changing the diet is a simple solution, and yet many people struggle to stick with a nutrition plan. When asked to eliminate the modern foods that cause disease as well as the most common food allergens, people often fail. Focus on eating the safe, nourishing foods that our ancestors have thrived on for generations seems to be so difficult. Could it be the superficial and aesthetics driven values that many people attach to a diet are flaky at best? What if the value of our diet could be attached more meaningful values such as health and longevity, reduce inflammation, improve digestion, burning fat, eliminating food sensitivities, reduce allergic reactions, boost energy, regulate blood sugar and stabilise mood and preventing illneess? Would this not be a better motivation?
Changing what we eat has a significant impact on digestive health just like stress management, probiotics, exercise intensity, sleep, toxins, etc.. also have a vital role to play. But how do you know what to fix if you don't investigate what is going on under the bonnet? Investing the time and money into a Complete Digestive Stool Analysis (CDSA) (example from London BioLab) is going to deliver a wealth of valuable information that can be used to prevent disease, improve sleep, increase energy levels, improve training results, lose weight, build lean muscle, and add valuable years to your life.
Be aware, the test itself simply giving you a snapshot of your current gut health. The information gathered is the juat the start of a journey that may require you to make some or all of the following changes:
Make changes to your nutrition
Manage your stress
Take supplements to heal the gut barrier, balance the gut flora, manage inflammation
Modify your exercise routine to support stress management
Improve sleep quality
Potentially take further blood tests to investigate other possible factors that contribute to poor gut health
Many people will believe that this is an expensive process and they don't have the time or willpower to complete it. The reality is, preventative health is far cheaper and far less time consuming than a chronic disease, or worse, multiple chronic conditions. Setting aside a yearly budget for testing is something more of us should be doing. Modern society is getting fatter and sicker by the day and the current medical system is failing to keep up. We need to start focusing on and addressing the cause of disease, instead of just using drugs that work like Band-Aids but seldom fix the underlying problem. Isn't preventative testing and medicine a smarter answer?