There's so much information on gut health that it can be hard to sift through the noise. You're told you can restore gut health through a healthy diet, bone broth, and probiotics, and now, some supplements even contain prehistoric dirt. So what really works? And how do you know if your problems are related to your gut health in the first place? While there's still a lot to be done in the way of digestive health research, leaky gut syndrome and the potentially negative effects it can have on your overall health are at the forefront of research. The strategies for how to heal your gut may vary from person to person, but there are a few tried and true pieces of advice worth following — even if more research needs to be done in the field. Eating strategies, lifestyle changes, and even supplementation can help you restore gut health. Whether your goal is to reduce gas and bloating, improve systemic inflammation in your body, boost your immune system, or something else, there are steps you can take to make it happen. Reversing gut dysbiosis by increasing good gut bacteria, healing and sealing your gut lining, and removing inflammatory foods and toxins from your diet are all great places to start to restore gut health and get you back on track.
Symptoms of Gut TroublesYou may think that the symptoms of gut troubles directly relate to digestive upset, but that's not actually the case. Of course, chronic heartburn, gas, bloating, loose stool, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other digestive diseases are often a result of something going haywire inside your digestive tract. But those aren't the only symptoms of gut troubles. More systemic problems can occur if gut issues — especially those related to the gut microbiome — go untreated. Your microbiome is a complex system of trillions of microbes (bacteria, yeast, viruses, and protozoa) living inside your gut, particularly in your large intestine (1). In a healthy gut, the beneficial microbes are in balance with the potentially dangerous ones. The good bacteria keep the bad in check and even perform vital functions for your health by digesting fiber and boosting your immune function (1). It's when these microorganisms fall out of balance that health issues can arise. A major problem that can result is chronic inflammation, and the cascading effects of an inflamed gut lining can get pretty serious.
Leaky GutLeaky gut, a term that basically means intestinal permeability, happens when the tight junctions in your intestinal lining loosen and allow partially digested food particles and potentially harmful microbes (bad bacteria) out of your gut and into your bloodstream (2). In a healthy system, there's no permeability in your gut wall — what goes into your mouth stays in your system until the nutrients are extracted and the rest is passed through the bowels. In an inflamed digestive system, whether due to bacterial overgrowth, an overtaxed system, genetics, or something else, tight junction integrity is compromised, and things can start getting wonky. Leaky gut syndrome is a relatively new idea in the conventional medical world, but functional medicine doctors and naturopathic doctors (NDs) have been working on ways to remedy it through holistic treatments. These include changes in diet, supportive supplementation, improved sleep schedule, and stress management.
Gut-Related Health Problems
An inflamed gut that's missing healthy bacteria can't properly absorb the nutrients you need to stay healthy, so malnourishment is a potential symptom of gut troubles. Malnourishment doesn't always involve severe weight loss (though it can). Sometimes, weight gain is also a symptom, because your body is holding onto everything, including water in inflamed tissue. (3). Allergies and autoimmune diseases like Crohn's, celiac, and Graves’ disease may also be due, at least in part, to an overactive immune system resulting from leaky gut or low microbiome diversity (4)(5). Researchers are even connecting problems with brain health, mental clarity, and other cognitive and mood challenges with leaky gut (they're calling it "leaky brain")(6). Skin problems like acne, rosacea, and eczema are also heavily correlated with gut issues like leaky gut. In fact, there's an established physiological link between the gut, skin, and brain called the gut-brain-skin axis (7). Mental health and mood issues are linked to gut problems through this axis. When a person has skin troubles, it's likely that they also have digestive issues and possibly mental health challenges like anxiety or depression. Finding ways to heal and seal your intestinal lining can help reduce your risk of experiencing these issues and support your overall health and well-being.
How to Restore Gut HealthNow that you know the potential downsides of an imbalanced gut, it's time to wade through the potential solutions. As we mentioned, a holistic approach involves a healing diet, supportive supplementation, improved sleep schedule, and stress management. Each of these may seem straight-forward, but a quick search online will reveal everyone has an opinion on this topic, and each one varies. It's helpful to have a holistic medical professional like a functional medicine doctor or ND run some specialized tests to help pinpoint the root cause of your particular symptoms. That way, they can walk you through the protocol they believe is right for you. But short of running those expensive tests and seeking out a doctor you trust, there are a few things you can do on your own to get started.
Don't worry — we aren't going to tell you to drink lemon juice and maple syrup for a week. Rather, a gut cleanse is a protocol that involves restricting certain foods and boosting others in order to better support gut healing. Restricting inflammatory foods and non-organic ingredients that could contain agrichemicals like glyphosate will help you calm down your gut membrane and promote the healing process (8). Inflammatory foods include things like:
- Sugar (including sugary snacks like cookies, cake, and candy)
- Refined flours and grains
- Conventional meat and dairy
- Overly processed foods
- Fresh fruits and leafy green vegetables
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, coconut kefir, and kombucha (Limit kimchi if you're sensitive to spice at this stage, but feel free to add it in later once you're feeling less sensitive)
- Bone broth
- Well-cooked, organic and pasture-raised meats and wild fish
- L-glutamine (amino acid) for intestinal repair (10)
- Prebiotics to help feed the healthy bacteria (11)
- Probiotics to replenish the good bacteria (Look for products that have both lactobacillus and bifidobacteria to make sure you get a diversity of bacterial strains.) (12)
- Omega–3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation (13)
- Aqueous humic substances (prehistoric dirt) to support the growth and colonization of microbiota (14)
Stress and Sleep
Inflammation may be linked to just about every chronic disease known to man, but stress is right behind it in the list of the greatest health risks, especially when it comes to gut health (15). Studies are showing that there's a feedback loop between the brain and the gut (the axis we mentioned above), and when stress interplays negatively with the gut microbiome, bad things can happen. Stress can affect your immune function, your ability to properly digest food and assimilate nutrients, your sleep cycle, and even your mental acuity (16)(17). If you've ever felt that "butterflies in your stomach" feeling, you know in your gut (pun intended) that there's a direct connection between stress and your bowels. As a reminder, a feedback loop runs communications in both directions. In other words, when you support your gut health and the diversity of your microbiota, it can help you manage your stress and mood. And when you take steps to manage your stress, it can positively impact your microbiota. The same goes for sleep. One review of the literature explored the relationship of microbiota and inflammation to sleep regulation, circadian rhythm, mood disorders, and even metabolic disease. The findings indicated (again) that this communication network runs in both directions. IBS patients found that addressing their gut issues through probiotic supplementation and a gut-healing protocol helped alleviate anxiety and depression at the same time (18). Another study showed that sleep disruption can change the composition of the microbiome — meaning poor sleep affects gut health (19). And since gut health is directly linked to immunity, mood, cognition, and skin health, poor sleep can affect all of those things, too.