Why Gut Health Matters: Your Gate Keeper

In researching and writing this series, I recognize the challenge I face in cleanly separating the interrelated subtopics I laid out last week. So I’m taking one step back to explain the role of the gut as “Gate Keeper” before jumping into the rest. Giving you this visual aid will help you understand the interconnectivity of everything that happens inside our digestive tract with respect to our health, and it will also impress upon you the importance of keeping the gut lining intact.

Because gut health is the cornerstone of overall wellbeing and vitality, what happens in the gut can beget a cascade of symptoms and ailments throughout the body and mind. All the subtopics I laid out for you last week overlap with each other because the source for all of them is arguably the same: leaky gut and the resulting inflammation. So to start, let me explain what those mean and why they matter.

When What’s Outside Comes Inside

The digestive tract (along with our skin) is our main interface with our environment. It acts as a vital barrier to unwelcome invaders and breaks food down into absorbable nutrients that pass through the gut walls and into the blood stream. It’s essential that what we introduce from the outside world that travels inside the gut does not pass through the gut lining until it’s been properly broken down. This is why I call the gut lining your body’s “Gate Keeper.”

gut permeability leaky gut

free image sourced through Creative Commons

When the Gate Isn’t Locked

The barrier function of the gut is one of the most critical aspects of our health. The gate should remain locked and impenetrable until the food inside has been adequately broken down into parts that the rest of our body recognizes as friendly. When that lock is broken, partially digested food particles can enter the blood stream and set off a cascade of negative physiological reactions; the first of which is inflammation. 

Inflammation is a healthy, normal part of our immune response. When we have a fever, that’s our immune system ramping up the heat to kill off a foreign invader (a cold or flu). When we eat something that wasn’t cooked properly, we expel it rapidly and experience burning pains in the abdomen — that’s our body keeping us safe from a food-born pathogen. When we scrape our ankle, the area around the cut becomes red, inflamed, as the white blood cells come to clean up the mess and bring in the platelets to scab over the opening. This type of inflammation is part of our Adaptive Immune System — it targets specific invaders and wipes them out, and when it’s working properly it keeps us healthy and alive. Indeed, inflammation is meant to protect us, but when it’s chronic — when our immune system is always turned on and we’re constantly fighting, inflammation can cause serious health problems.

How Chronic Inflammation becomes Chronic Disease

The food particles allowed into the blood stream as a result of an inflamed, leaky gut are made up of partially broken down proteins (short amino acid sequences).

What else is made up of short sequences of amino acids? Pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi). These microorganisms actually share some characteristics with partially digested food particles.
So what happens? Our immune system attacks the food — food sensitivities and allergies in the making. Because our immune system creates antibodies that will view this food as a threat going forward, we will now become inflamed when we eat it. 

gut permeability leaky gut

This unicorn is frolicking freely because she just pooped a rainbow with the help of her magical microbes. (free image sourced from imgarcade.com through Creative Commons)

What else is made up of these amino acids? For one, the cells in our own bodies. What about our myelin sheath (the protective coating around the axons of our nerves)? Our joints? Our skin? What if our immune system is so overactive and chronically inflamed that, not only does it start to see the cells of our own bodies as invaders, but the safety levers we have in place to block this auto-immunity are too hot and fatigued to notice? What if our Adaptive Immune System begins to see us as harmful to ourselves?? 

Answer: Autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriasis, and  Lupus. Find me a person with an autoimmune disease without digestive issues, and I will find you a live unicorn with a rainbow mane.

Having a leaky gut will most definitely create chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation begets chronic disease.

What Causes a Leaky Gut?

We don’t know the extent to which genetics are involved in creating a greater susceptibility for a leaky gut, but we do know that environmental factors play a huge role, and that the effects are reversible if you catch it and address it early. We also know that children who were born of a C-section and not breast-fed are more vulnerable than those born of vaginal birth and breast-fed (source). The list below represents the most significant reasons your gut can become inflamed:

1. Gut dysbiosis — an overgrowth of bad bacteria and/or fungus in the gut.

There will always be a percentage of “bad” bacteria in the gut, but they are (or should be) kept in check by the probiotic population — the beneficial bacteria that aid in nutrient breakdown and absorption, mood regulation, and immune response. Taking antibiotics kills both the good and the bad bacteria in the gut, and it can take up to 8 weeks to recolonize after a course. It can take just as long to recover from a food-born illness. If you’ve ever experienced a yeast infection after a round of antibiotics it’s because the good bacteria that were keeping the candida at bay were all killed off by your prescription. You can restore your probiotic colony by eating a diet rich in fermented food and low in sugar, choosing organic, and exercising regularly. And of course these are important to do on a regular basis. We’ll dive more deeply into probiotics in the coming weeks. 

gut permeability leaky gut

image source: Gaspirtz through Creative Commons

2. Food Sensitivity or Allergies

Our body begins to see certain foods as pathogens and creates cytokines (antibodies) to protect us from them, setting off an inflammatory response every time they enter the body. This particular one is a bit confusing, because it’s a chicken/egg problem. Did the leaky gut come before the allergy or did the allergy cause the leaky gut? It’s a commonly identified pattern that patients with one food sensitivity will develop others down the line if measures aren’t taken to throw water on the fire. What causes the initial sensitivity could be genetics or an exposure early in life that excited the immune system before it was strong enough to recognize friend from foe. Children who are born of C-section and not breast-fed are more likely to have both food and environmental sensitivities/allergies than those born through the vaginal canal and fed breast milk. We’ll go more in-depth about why that is and how to take steps for better outcomes later in this series.

3. Stress

Were you waiting for this to come up? Stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, causes leaky gut. I’m going to dedicate a whole post to this one, but suffice it to say that the physiological stress response itself weakens our immune system, promotes inflammation, and creates a hostile environment for beneficial bugs in the gut, which brings us back to the first thing on this list.

What does Chronic Inflammation Look Like?

What should we look for to indicate that we might be struggling with a gut problem that has led to chronic inflammation? How can we prevent it from sending us into full-blown auto-immune disease? I had some readers ask questions about bloat and puffiness, distended belly after eating certain foods, foggy-headedness, and general weight gain. I also had a few people ask me about eczema and acne, chronic yeast infections, middle body weight, and IBS. Yes, these are all signs of chronic inflammation and leaky gut.

gut permeability leaky gut

free image from Pixababy through creative commons

But something no one asked about was mood. If you have been diagnosed with a mood disorder like anxiety, depression, bipolar, or OCD, you are experiencing a symptom of leaky gut and chronic inflammation. Find me a person with anxiety and no digestive problems, and I’ll find you a fire-breathing dragon with tiny purple wings at your local pet store. In a future post, I will show you why a leaky gut = a leaky brain, but for now I’ll share that 80% of total serotonin in the body is located in enterochromaffin cells in the gut lining, which means that if we don’t have gut integrity, we are likely short on serotonin. 

What’s Next?

Wondering what you can do about some of these symptoms right now? Check out my kombucha recipe to get started adding fermented foods into your diet, and stay tuned for Friday’s post to learn how to make another probiotic-rich food. I’ll also explain a little bit more about why that matters. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’d like to learn about next in this series. I’m deciding between stress and mood — the two are obviously intimately linked. Let me know your thoughts and questions below, and I’ll get the final touches on the next installment of Why Gut Health Matters.


Sources for this segment of this series include a 6-credit continuing education seminar presented by Merrily Kuhn, RN, CCRN (r), PhD, ND, PhD and the Institute of Brain Potential (bibliography and references can be viewed here), and information from the following journals and experts:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15911167

http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v13/n10/abs/nrn3346.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3228987/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016508509003461

http://physiologyonline.physiology.org/content/13/4/189

http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/180/2/99.full

Dr. Tom O’Brian: http://thedr.com/ 

Dr. Mark Hyman: http://drhyman.com/

Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/

Dr. Sara Gottfried: http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/

Jordan and Steve from the SCD Lifestyle: http://scdlifestyle.com/

Your Single Most Important Health Advice – Heal Your Gut

Editor’s Note: For a full series dedicated to gut health entitled “Why Gut Health Matters,” click here.


Recently I was asked a tricky question:

“If you had one single piece of health advice to share for living a healthy lifestyle, what would it be?”

This is a tricky question for a number of reasons, the first and most obvious one being that every individual is different and everyone needs their own tailored solution for achieving a healthy lifestyle. Yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean this question can’t be answered.

I see a question like this one as a personal challenge; how far can I zoom out to accurately answer a question like this one and truly address nearly every single health concern that plagues modern man? Is that even possible? I’d venture to say that yes, it’s possible.

The single most important piece of advice for healthy living is to HEAL YOUR GUT.

gut health healthy gut heat adviceHeal your gut and the rest will follow.

That’s the advice. It’s that simple. You might be thinking that we’re right back where we started, that ways to “heal your gut” are as varied as the individual, or that surely there are tons of diseases that have nothing to do with gut health.

You might be mistaken.

If the gut isn’t working properly, nothing is working properly.

Vitality starts in the gut where we assimilate input from the outside world into resources for inside our bodies. Gut health is crucial for the health of every other system in our bodies. It affects our skin, our immune response, our hormones, our weight, or energy level, our bowel movements (obviously), even our MOOD and PERSONALITY. That’s right, there are studies taking place now that attempt to isolate certain bacteria in the gut responsible for depression and anxiety. That level of detail hasn’t been worked out in the lab yet, but rest assured that altering the human biosphere to address any number of mental health problems is in the not-too-distant future. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.

5 Facts About Gut Health that Might Surprise You

1. The microbiome in the gut comprises more than 60% of our immune function (some say as much as 75%)?

We have more cells of bacteria in our bodies, and especially in our gut, than we do human cells. 10 times more, in fact. Certain bacteria in our gut represent the body’s ability to fight off invaders, and they actually communicate with those neurons I just mentioned above. When the right bacteria are overtaken by the wrong ones, we start to see both acute and chronic malfunction in our bodies, often accompanied by inflammation and pain.

A healthy gut means a healthy immune system.

2. 95% of serotonin is found in the Enteric Nervous System.

It makes sense that medications aimed at addressing depression through SRIs (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) would disrupt bowel function, considering that so much of it resides in the bowel. Surely it would follow that ensuring the healthy functioning of our second brains would some day enter the scope of practice in mental health care. That day could come very soon indeed!

A healthy gut means a healthy mood.

gut health leaky gut

3. Gut permeability (aka “leaky gut”) is the culprit for a large number of autoimmune diseases and possibly allergies too.

In fact, leaky gut is arguably to blame for the sharp rise of food allergies (gluten, corn, dairy, soy to name the most common).

Debunking PCOS

click my image to learn how I finally cleared my skin!

If your intestinal lining is compromised, you could suffer from something called gut permeability. In layman’s terms, what should stay inside your intestines leaks out into the rest of your body through tiny holes that shouldn’t really be there. The partially digested food that leaks into the gut is seen by the body as a foreign invader, so an immune response occurs– an allergy. 

The causes of gut permeability definitely vary from person to person, but a major factor is inflammation. Inflammation can occur for a number of reasons and is actually implicated in the chronic diseases of the western world – heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. Inflammation in the gut can occur due to over-consumption of inflammatory foods, gut dysbiosis (too much of the wrong kinds of bacteria wreaking havoc in the gut), and too much sugar in the diet (can be a cause of gut dysbiosis). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but it’s a good start.

A healthy gut means less allergies and inflammation (often resulting in healthy skin).

4. The gut is often called our “second brain” due to the more than 500 million neurons that reside in the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).

In fact, communication between the gut and the brain is a two-way street, with information going from gut to brain far more often than we ever thought was the case in the past. The term “gut feeling” is a lot less metaphorical and a lot more literal than you might think.

A healthy gut means proper communication between the systems of the body.

gut health leaky gut

5. The bacteria in your gut might determine your cravings AND your ability to gain/lose weight.

Scientific studies are being done to test this hypothesis, and very interesting findings are coming about. We’re learning so much about the communication between the bacteria in our gut and our brains, and while major conclusions haven’t yet been drawn as it relates to common medical practice, this field of research could revolutionize the way we address obesity in medicine.

“…the capacity of bacteria to adapt is such that if it is to their advantage to influence their host preferences for food, they will.” (source)

It’s been shown that “bad” bacteria such as candida thrive on sugar and foods that quickly turn to sugar. When there’s an overgrowth of candida, the bacteria actually cause you to crave those foods that they like to eat! Likewise, when you have “good” bacteria at healthy levels in your gut, you’re more likely to crave a diet that they want to eat – one rich in fiber.

Studies have also shown that when certain bacteria are placed into the intestines of mice, and the mice are fed the same exact diet, those implanted with “bad” bacteria gained weight and those implanted with “good” bacteria lost or stayed the same.

A healthy gut means a healthy weight.

Heal Your Gut, Change Your Life

You might be surprised at some of the easy changes you can make to start improving your gut health today. Of the listed suggestions, for me personally eliminating sugar is by far the most challenging to stick with consistently. It might be a different story for you, but considering how much sugar we as a country consume every day, I’m guessing we might have this in common.

If you truly want to see positive results in your health, this is one of the only times I suggest going cold turkey.

If you completely eliminate sugar for at least 2 weeks, it will have a synergistic effect with the rest of the suggestions on this list. If you do all the things below but remain on a high-sugar diet, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. Sugar is a highly inflammatory food. After your two weeks of cold turkey, test the waters with fresh berries or a small amount of dark chocolate, but pull back for another week or so of you see negative side-effects.

5 Ways to Heal Your Gut:

  1. Eliminate sugar from your diet for two weeks to a month (depending on the severity of your problem) and then slowly reincorporate natural sugars only and very sparingly.
  2. Take a probiotic and eat foods rich in live cultures (kim chee, kefir, sauer kraut, yogurt, kombucha).
  3. Heal the gut lining and reduce/eliminate permeability by drinking bone broth and/or supplementing with l-glutamine.
  4. Eat foods that support the propagation a healthy gut biome – fiber-rich foods that represent every color of the rainbow.
  5. Explore the possibility of food sensitivities through an elimination diet (start with the ones I listed above). By identifying trigger foods, you can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. Once your gut is healed, you can attempt to reintroduce the trigger foods watching closely to see if any old symptoms return.

Want to buy pre-made bone broth to jump-start your way to a healthy gut? Check out my very favorite product! 

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