Why Gut Health Matters: Illustrated [INFOGRAPHIC]

This is the last segment of the Why Gut Health Matters series, but today I’m not sharing new information with you; I’m simply sharing it all in a different way — a shareable way! While 6-weeks of blog posts couldn’t possibly cover every detail of how the gut affects the other systems of the body, I feel like we’ve covered a lot in our time together, and my biggest hope is that what you’ve learned will inspire change in how you perceive your health — and what you might do to improve it. 

The Final Step

I want this post to seal the deal for those on the fence about taking action in the name of their health — whether it’s mental health, autoimmunity, skin health, weight, or general digestive troubles. I want to convert the unbelievers, and I want to encourage evangelism to those willing to spread the word!

So I’ve created an infographic that I hope will do the trick. I’ve simplified the message of the last 6 weeks into an illustration that drives the point home: Inflammation is at the root of all disease, and a healthy gut is the first step to solving it. I hope you’ll share this with your friends and family and encourage them to check out the series, which is posted in its entirety as a page in the menu bar on the main CWB home page. It’s all the way to the left — please share it!  

Why Gut Health Matters Infographic

Why Gut Health Matters

–click to view larger–


Sources for the entirety 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 articles, journals, and experts:

Stokes JH, Pillsbury DH (1930) The effect on the skin of emotional and nervous states: theoretical and practical consideration of a gastrointestinal mechanism. Arch Dermatol Syphilol 1930, 22:962-93

Ketron LW, King JH: Gastrointestinal findings in acne vulgaris. JAMA 1916, 60:671-75 

http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1757-4749-3-1.pdf 

http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2008.0495

http://www.theactivetimes.com/sitting-new-smoking-7-ways-sedentary-lifestyle-killing-you?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=sitting

http://www.consultantnutritionist.com/General-Health-Nutrition/Traditional-Bone-Broth-in-Modern-Health-and-Disease.html

http://chriskresser.com/naturally-get-rid-of-acne-by-fixing-your-gut

http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1757-4749-3-1.pdf

http://wageningenacademic.metapress.com/content/0u3x16807123w358/#.VNq_SrB4qXw

http://healthandstyle.com/health/gut-may-causing-bad-skin/

http://docsdrive.com/pdfs/ansinet/jms/0000/57615-57615.pdf

http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/7/5/410.pdf

http://journals.lww.com/jcge/Abstract/2014/11001/Skin_Microbiome_and_Skin_Disease__The_Example_of.23.aspx

http://www.thecandidadiet.com/candidasymptoms.htm

http://www.science20.com/news_articles/ghrelin_hunger_hormone_activated_fatty_foods_not_your_empty_stomach

http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-truth-about-fat

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.201400146/full

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01537589

http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Enteric_nervous_system

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/07/what_is_dopamine_love_lust_sex_addiction_gambling_motivation_reward.html

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/vitamin-b12-and-depression/faq-20058077

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16648320

http://psycheducation.org/treatment/bipolar-disorder-light-and-darkness/light-therapies-for-depression/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-bacteria-may-exacerbate-depress/

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/the-truth-about-tryptophan?page=2 

http://gut.bmj.com/content/early/2014/04/29/gutjnl-2013-306541.abstract

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/

Why Gut Health Matters: Your Skin

Ahh acne. We meet again, my nemesis! But this time, I’ve cracked the code, and I’m ready to share it with the world. In this next segment of Why Gut Health Matters, I’m going to address the link between gut health and skin disorders. My personal skin issue has always been acne, but that’s not the only one affected by poor gut health. There’s also rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, and many, many more. While those last two have an auto-immune component (which we briefly covered in this segment of the series), all can be traced back to gut health — or lack thereof — even if they diverge in physical expression. 

Myopia in Specialized Medicine

Unfortunately, most dermatologists aren’t trained to ask their patients about their digestion or even consider the possibility of a link between gut health and skin disorders (a connection first scientifically documented in the early 18th century!). I know from personal experience that in my 20 years of battling acne, never once did any physician or aesthetician I saw for my skin troubles ask me about my digestion or my diet. Nor did any of them see a problem with prescribing me round after round of antibiotics along with a Diflucan prescription, knowing that yeast infections would result from the constant antibiotic assault. This was normal — a standard course of dermatological treatment. 

Today, if you walked into a psychiatrist’s office presenting with anxiety, you likely wouldn’t mention your constant gas and bloating or your eczema — nor would your doctor ask. You wouldn’t mention your psoriasis or depression to your GI specialist either. But the fact is, most if not all patients with skin disorders also have digestive disorders and mental health challenges. Specialized medicine has cordoned off our bodies into separate parts, ignoring the very real and very documented relationship between certain conditions. Conventional medicine no longer sees us as a complete system, much to the detriment of the whole-person patient.

gut health and skin disorders

Bugs Bugs and More Bugs

As I’ve mentioned in all of the previous segments of this series (especially the one addressing the gut as gate keeper), the living bacteria in the gut are integral to our overall health, and that includes skin health. When we take round after round of antibiotics, we aren’t just killing the “bad” bacteria — we’re killing nearly all the bacteria, giving fungi like candida a chance to run rampant in the system. Candida overgrowth results in a whole host of symptoms I don’t have time to go into today, but check out this extensive list to find out if they apply to you. I’ll give you a hint: skin problems is on the list.

Not only is gut bacteria crucial to maintaining healthy skin, so is the bacteria living right on the surface of our bodies. Like those found in the gut, the bugs on our skin protect us from the outside world of potential invaders, and when we kill them all off, it’s open season for everything else in the environment. When skin disorders are treated with antibiotics, the problem might seem to temporarily subside, but at best, it’s a band-aid solution. The cumulative effects of antibiotic use is a net negative, with gut dysbiosis as a common consequence.  

Where They Don’t Belong: SIBO and Leaky Gut

SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) occurs when the bugs that belong in our large intestine start migrating up into our small intestine. It can also result when bugs from our food don’t get neutralized by the hydrochloric acid (HCl) in our stomachs — inadequate HCl is a major factor in SIBO.

While a very small number of bacteria naturally (and healthily) live in the small intestine, it’s supposed to be a nearly sterile environment. These microscopic interlopers can cause some major problems, one of which is gas. Lots of gas. Most patients with SIBO feel bloated and gassy after meals, especially meals rich in carbohydrates, because those bugs that don’t belong are breaking down their dinner before it gets where it’s supposed to be going. Other symptoms of SIBO include diarrhea, constipation, malabsorption of nutrients, and fatigue. Want to know another type of patient that often has SIBO? Patients with rosacea. 

You might be asking what causes low stomach acid. A major cause of low stomach acid will be the topic of the last segment in this series: STRESS.

Let’s connect the dots:
Stress => Low Stomach Acid => SIBO => Rosacea

I’ll delve more deeply into how stress affects the gut next week, but this note from a recent paper should paint the picture for you nicely:

“Experimental studies show that psychological stress stagnates normal small intestinal transit time, encourages overgrowth of bacteria, and compromises the intestinal barrier.” (source)

… which leads me to …

Leaky Gut, which we’ve discussed extensively throughout this series. Leaky gut (aka intestinal permeability) is both the chicken and the egg when it comes to systemic inflammation in the body. A leaky gut allows partially digested food particles into the system, setting off an inflammatory immune response, and the resulting inflammation causes further leaky gut — a destructive cycle that can lead to autoimmune disease if gone unmitigated. (And as I mentioned at the top of the page, psoriasis and eczema are increasingly being seen and treated as autoimmune disease.) As we talked about in the segment on gut health and mood disorders, a leaky gut => a leaky brain => depression. But what I didn’t mention in that segment was this:

Stress => Leaky gut => ACNE

As many as 40% of acne patients also complain of constipation (or other digestive distress). A growing body of research is showing that acne patients have a larger variety of “bad” bacteria in their stool, a greater sensitivity to “bad bugs” (like e. coli) and a higher level of systemic inflammation resulting from leaky gut. If you’ve been following along with this series, you know we’ve come full circle to Your Gut as Your Gate Keeper. Fix the leaks, fix the skin. 

gut health and skin disorders

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times.
Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU.
Image released by the Agricultural Research Service, ID K11077-1

Fix it! 

How to fix a leaky gut? How to clear up SIBO? It turns out, the answer is the same: reduce systemic inflammation by healing the gut wall and increasing the good guys. Stokes and Pillsbury, the pioneering researchers who discovered the gut-brain-skin connection in the early 1900’s, suggested probiotics and cod liver oil to do just that. 

Sorry, did you read that whole sentence? IN THE EARLY 1900’S RESEARCHERS WERE RECOMMENDING PROBIOTICS AND COD LIVER OIL FOR SKIN DISORDERS. I’m not one for all caps, but I felt that deserved the emphasis. Imagine me yelling when you read that. WHY don’t conventional medical doctors use this and the subsequent studies supporting this work to inform how they treat their patients?

Probiotics help restore the proper balance of bacteria in the gut, thereby booting out the bad guys that create inflammation and toxins that harm the gut wall.

Cod liver oil is not only rich in Omega 3’s with potent anti-inflammatory and healing properties, it’s also rich in vitamin A, an important nutrient for healthy skin (which you know if you ever took Accutane for your acne). 

Enteric-coated peppermint oil, an herbal remedy scientifically proven to relieve symptoms of IBS, is also being explored with promising findings for mitigating SIBO. 

And while the research from Stokes and Pillsbury doesn’t cover this last ancient gut-healing solution, I’m going to cite my own anecdotal evidence and add bone broth to the list of tools to heal your gut. Rich in minerals, collagen (aka gelatin), and cartilage, bone broth is the ultimate gut- and skin-healing superfood. You’ve probably seen cosmetics products that boast collagen as a topical ingredient to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and create healthier looking skin. When ingested in the form of bone broth, collagen does a lot more than that.

  • It promotes a healthy level of stomach acid
  • It aids in digestion of problematic foods like dairy, legumes, meats, and grains
  • It coats the lining of the gut to reduce permeability, reduce inflammation, and fill the leaks
  • It supports a healthy immune system, including white blood cell production
  • It provides amino acids — the building blocks of muscle in our bodies
  • It promotes the absorption of minerals, including those already present in the broth, for skeletal support and bone health (source)

My personal success story with bone broth has reached more readers than anything else I’ve posted in a year of writing this blog. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to about bone broth, encouraging them to try it and celebrating with them when they’ve seen results. In combination with a diet rich in probiotic foods and eliminating the trigger foods that create inflammation (for me that was mainly gluten), bone broth changed my life. I’ve recently experimented with adding this fermented cod liver oil and this enteric-coated peppermint oil into my diet out of curiosity (affiliate link).  (I like to use myself as a guinea pig from time to time.)

gut health and skin disorders

“My worst” didn’t just mean my skin. I was more depressed and heavier than I’d ever been before or since.

What’s Next?

Next week is the last segment of this series on Why Gut Health Matters, where I’ll not only wrap up this discussion but also challenge you to get started in healing your own gut. The end of this series doesn’t have to mean the end of the discussion for you — I’m happy to answer any questions you might have on the topic — just send me a note and we can keep the ball rolling to get your gut health where it needs to be.  


FTC DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive monetary compensation for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. I only link to products that I USE and LOVE. All opinions are my own.


Sources for this segment of the 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 articles, journals, and experts:

Stokes JH, Pillsbury DH (1930) The effect on the skin of emotional and nervous states: theoretical and practical consideration of a gastrointestinal mechanism. Arch Dermatol Syphilol 1930, 22:962-93

Ketron LW, King JH: Gastrointestinal findings in acne vulgaris. JAMA 1916, 60:671-75 

http://www.consultantnutritionist.com/General-Health-Nutrition/Traditional-Bone-Broth-in-Modern-Health-and-Disease.html

http://chriskresser.com/naturally-get-rid-of-acne-by-fixing-your-gut

http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1757-4749-3-1.pdf

http://wageningenacademic.metapress.com/content/0u3x16807123w358/#.VNq_SrB4qXw

http://healthandstyle.com/health/gut-may-causing-bad-skin/

http://docsdrive.com/pdfs/ansinet/jms/0000/57615-57615.pdf

http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/7/5/410.pdf

http://journals.lww.com/jcge/Abstract/2014/11001/Skin_Microbiome_and_Skin_Disease__The_Example_of.23.aspx

http://www.thecandidadiet.com/candidasymptoms.htm

Why Gut Health Matters: Your Mood

What if I told you that the phrase “gut feeling” was less of a metaphor and more of a literal experience? What if I told you that what you eat, how well you absorb and synthesize it, and the effect it has on your gut lining could actually alter your moods and behaviors? Would you think twice before you ate that chili cheese dog that gives you heartburn every single time you eat it? Or that milkshake that leaves you bloated and farting for 3 days? 

gut health and mood disorders

image author Vistawhite, sourced from Wikipedia through Creative Commons

Last week we talked about our gut as “gate keeper,” and how chronic inflammation begets chronic disease. This week, we’re covering gut health and mood. More specifically, how a healthy gut creates a healthy mood(When I say mood, I mean a mood state, not necessarily a fleeting emotion. Negative mood states present as mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Positive mood states present as relaxation, resilience, happiness, and balance.) There’s a pretty remarkable feedback loop between the gut and the brain — the gut-brain axis  and it starts with the enteric nervous system. 

Your Other Brain

Have you ever heard the term “gut brain?” More generally, did you know that our nervous system is comprised of multiple systems that reach far beyond the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)? Indeed, the nervous system is split into two major components: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system then splits into the autonomic and somatic systems, and part of the autonomic system is what we’ll be talking about today: the enteric nervous system.

Embedded in the lining of our gut, the enteric nervous system plays a crucial role in our health and wellbeing, including our emotional health. It has an estimated 100 million neurons — more neurons than our spinal cord — along with its own neurotransmitters and proteins that have the ability to communicate, learn and even remember. It’s entirely autonomous from the central nervous system, governing about 90% of the messages that operate the gut, but the two systems communicate to ensure that our bodies function properly. Because of this unique independence from the brain in our skulls, the enteric nervous system in our bowels is often called our “second brain.”  

Now that I’ve given you an Anatomy and Physiology speed round, what does it all mean? 

It means your gut does a lot more than extract nutrients from your food and poop out the waste. It has a direct line to the brain, and it’s constantly communicating with it. If your gut is inflamed and leaky, chances are your brain is also inflamed and leaky. You’ve probably heard the term blood-brain barrier; it’s the shield that prevents substances in the blood from flowing freely into the brain, including medications, allergens, antigens, and other inflammatory agents such as excess cortisol or insulin. In short, it’s the brain’s “gate keeper.” Does that sound familiar? We have a blood-gut barrier too, and last week we talked about what happens when that barrier is compromised. Well guess what else is compromised when our gut wall is compromised: our brain wall. 

inflamed gut = overactive immune system = inflamed brain = depression

leaky gut = leaky brain 

How do I know if I have Leaky Brain??

I mentioned very briefly at the end of last week’s post that mood disorders are a sure-fire sign of a leaky gut/brain. In fact I said, “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.” (That might be the first time in history that I quoted myself.) Here’s a short list of indicators that you could have a leaky gut/brain:

  • foggy headed-ness
  • poor concentration
  • poor short-term memory
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • irritability (short fuse)
  • hyperactivity (possibly ADHD)gluten-free

In my first eBook, I shared with you that when I eliminated gluten from my diet, I noticed that I felt more clear-headed and less drowsy and foggy. I noticed not only that redness in my acne-prone skin was reduced, but also that my skin was less sensitive in general. I noticed that I had been waking up every morning with a stuffy nose thinking that was normal.

No, it’s not normal. I had a gluten sensitivity, and it was causing a leaky gut, an overactive immune response, and a leaky brain. When I eliminated gluten and healed my gut with bone broth, all of those symptoms I just mentioned dissipated.

Eating foods that inflame your gut will inflame your brain. A chronic assault on the brain by inflammatory cytokines can eventually cause neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. If you know that you’re allergic to certain foods, and you continue to eat them, you are guaranteeing a disturbance in your brain, whether it’s as mild as poor performance or as serious as a clinical mood disorder or Parkinson’s.

The Pharmacy in Your Gut

Dopamine

There are equal amounts of dopamine in the brain and in the gut. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals reward, motivation, love, and lust, but it’s also responsible for fear, apathy, psychosis, addiction, and ADHD. It’s a powerful chemical that needs to be maintained at proper levels in the body in order to keep that second list of characteristics at bay.

Dopamine also plays a role in our level of satiety and sense of reward when we eat, but we’ll talk about that when we cover weight gain in another part of this series.

Serotonin

95% of the serotonin running through our bodies at any given moment is found and made in the gut, and from there, the brain takes over and converts some of that serotonin into melatonin — the hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. The food we eat supplies our bodies with the fuel (in the form of tryptophan) to create serotonin. When we eat tryptophan-rich food, the small intestine converts it into 5-HTP, which is then converted to serotonin. Problems arise for our mood if one of those two steps is faulty due to … say it with me! … inflammation. If the small intestine is inflamed and the gut is leaky, we cannot properly convert tryptophan into 5-HTP, which means we don’t make enough serotonin.

Not only is serotonin important for our moods, it’s also important for proper gut motility. If you’ve ever taken an SSRI for anxiety or depression, then you might have experienced some of the digestive disturbances that come along with it. 

Melatoninsleep better

This one is actually made in the brain, but its synthesis is entirely dependent on serotonin, most of which is found in the gut. If your brain can’t make melatonin, you won’t get good quality sleep. Poor sleep means that our bodies aren’t able to adequately clear inflammation and damaged tissue as we move through the stages of sleep, which means we wake up in the morning just as inflamed as when we went to bed. And the cycle continues.

Low levels of melatonin are also associated with increased risk of cancer — another chronic disease rooted in inflammation.

How to Make Changes Today

Last week we talked about the role of bacteria in keeping the gut lining intact, and this week we covered mood disorders and neurological issues that could result from leaky gut and leaky brain. Addressing gut health will eventually become part of a medical treatment plan for patients with mood disorders, but in the meantime, here are some things you can do:

Lock the gate! 

Eliminating processed (inflammatory) foods, drinking bone broth, and feeding the good bacteria is a good place to start. Adding more live cultured foods to your diet, like sauerkraut, kefir, kim chee or the wild pickle recipe I shared on Friday, will help keep those good bugs happy and ensure they stick around and reproduce. Not only are healthy gut bacteria crucial in maintaining the gut lining, they are also crucial in making B-Complex. Deficiencies in B vitamins have been linked to depression, low energy, and decreased cognition.

gut health and mood disorders

imaged sourced through Creative Commons from pixababy

Get to bed.

Creating a consistent sleep schedule that follows our circadian rhythm (even on weekends!) will help us get back on track. Doing this not only affects our mood but also the type of bacteria living in the gut, which help perpetuate the good work we’re doing to keep our gut linings sealed.

Studies show that using a morning light box treatment (mimicking the sunrise) is as effective as antidepressants on alleviating depression. Talk to your doctor before starting a light box treatment, as there are some potential side effects that need to be discussed professionally.

Thanksgiving year-round! 

No, I don’t mean you should spend more time watching your family pass out on the couch in a food coma; it’s all about that turkey and stuffing (or sweet potatoes, as it were)!sleepymealEating foods rich in tryptophan is another way to ensure that you have adequate supplies to make serotonin. But the trick is to make sure you follow it up with a small portion of carbohydrates, which help deliver the goods to the right place for conversion. Of course, at Thanksgiving, we don’t eat anything in moderation, so do with that what you will…

Here’s a quick list of foods rich in tryptophan:

  • Egg whites (greatest source)
  • Seaweed
  • Soy nuts
  • Cottage cheese
  • Chicken livers
  • Turkey (the most famous source due to our relaxed state after Thanksgiving dinner)
  • Chicken
  • Tofu
  • Milk 

Hit the Pavement

Research is demonstrating a direct connection between exercise and the growth of good bacteria in the gut. By now, I don’t need to repeat why good bacteria help prevent leaky gut/brain and inflammation. 

The endorphins released in exercise also act as a pain reliever and can provide a sense of euphoria for the exerciser — you’ve heard the term “runner’s high.” Not to mention, it just feels good to move, which can increase our self-esteem. 

running shoes

photo taken by Josiah Mackenzie and sourced through Creative Commons

 Regular exercise has been proven to:

  • Reduce stress
  • Ward off anxiety and feelings of depression
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Improve sleep (from WebMD)

What’s Next?

On Friday I’ll be sharing a delicious, grain-free breakfast recipe rich in tryptophan. In the meantime, have a look at my 2-part series on sleep to find out how you can get your sleep on track to help keep your gut health in order and heal a leaky brain. 

Why Your iPhone is Ruining Your Sleep

How to Create a Sleep-Conducive Life

In case you missed the first installment of Why Gut Health Matters, check it out here


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 articles, journals, and experts:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01537589

http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Enteric_nervous_system

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/07/what_is_dopamine_love_lust_sex_addiction_gambling_motivation_reward.html

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/vitamin-b12-and-depression/faq-20058077

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16648320

http://psycheducation.org/treatment/bipolar-disorder-light-and-darkness/light-therapies-for-depression/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-bacteria-may-exacerbate-depress/

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/the-truth-about-tryptophan?page=2 

http://gut.bmj.com/content/early/2014/04/29/gutjnl-2013-306541.abstract

Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/

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

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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