Welcome back to the Be Well Weekly. I hope you have enjoyed the discussions thus far on detoxification and “normal” as it relates to blood testing, but most importantly, I hope you learned a thing or two. Today, we move into the great unknown of the dark and windy gut. If you watch any television these days, you are sure to see commercials about yogurt, probiotics, and any number of products claiming to improve gut health. In fact, as I type here and now I overheard on the news an upcoming story about a new study that links yogurt to lowered risk of type II diabetes. There is no doubt an awareness has developed of late, miraculously trying to turn the normally “keep it to yourself” topic of gut health into a sexy topic of the day. Well almost anyhow. Based on my education and clinical experience, I am frankly happy to see this new awareness. The gut plays a primary and integral role in health, and yet, like most en vogue health topics, the media is getting it only part right. Better than not at all, right?

So why the gut then? Like anything I write about here, I want to appeal to your common sense. Functional medicine, and health in general, is not really as complicated as we make it out to be, or the pharmaceutical companies would like us to believe. Ultimately, do your own research and come to your own conclusions, but I will share my own take based on science and common sense. The gut is the casual name for our digestive tract, made up of a long tube from mouth all the way to anus. Along the route we name the players to be the mouth, esophagus, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus. The small intestine alone has the surface area of an entire tennis court. That is cause for a “wow!” Each part plays its own unique role based on its anatomy and physiology, but together it comprises the barrier between the outside and inside world of our body. In other words, everything we eat or drink enters from the outside world to be transported through this long tube. In its route, ingredients are exposed to enzymes, stomach acid, and funky words like chyme, microvilli, and peristalsis. In reality, if any food enters the mouth and passes out the other end during a seated trip to the bathroom, it never really entered the “inside” of our body. A temporary “residence” in your tube, fine. Part of you, not really. And the goal of it all? By-and-large the goal is to digest and absorb the nutrients from ingestible foods and excrete waste products out of the body. This is a relatively basic goal that requires the cooperation of diet and a lot of moving parts.

So where can it all go wrong? A poor diet of refined carbohydrate, chronic use of medication, antibiotics, stress, toxins, to just name but a few, can all wreak havoc and disrupt the delicate physiology of this system. You may have heard of the term “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability that describes the interruption to the intestinal barrier. Instead of nutrients fully digested in the stomach and small intestine, larger molecules are able to leak into the bloodstream through larger than acceptable holes in the intestinal wall. As this happens, often the immune system cannot recognize friend from foe, and any number of health conditions may result. In the medical world if the joints are attacked it may be called “arthritis.” If the skin is attacked, it may be “psoriasis,” “eczema,” or the like. Any organ or system of the body from brain to baby toe can fall victim indirectly to a gut not functioning well. Medicine so often addresses the symptoms of gut dysfunction without ever addressing the cause of it through diet and repair to the gut lining. On the contrary, often in functional medicine the first priority is to optimize the health of the gut and detoxification pathways of the body. If the gut is not working well, all bets are off beyond that. Make sense?

Add to this the potential for toxic mess that the intestine can become when it is not functioning well. The gut is meant to be a highway with exits along the way, not a Holiday Inn for food to take residence for extended periods of time. As good bacteria (probiotic) balance and enzyme deficiencies develop, the gut may become toxic as nutrients hang around to putrefy and wreak havoc. This can lead to any number of digestive complaints, poor immune function, or even brain fog. Yes, brain fog! The gut is host to more neuronal tissue than your brain itself, which explains why you can have a “gut feeling, “butterflies in your stomach,” or “have your gut tell you something.” Also, as the commercials tell you, the gut is the residence to about 70% of your immune system. Its relevance to health cannot be overstated.

So let me just give you a few basic tips you can try starting today to improve gut function on your own.

  • Clean up your diet. Restrict sugars and processed foods. Add more whole foods and fiber.
  • Get moving. Exercise improves gut mobility and immune health.
  • Take your time eating. Chewing food helps to stimulate improved digestion.
  • Stay hydrated. Most of us fail here. Good quality water keeps the tube moving along.
  • Try a tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar diluted in room temperature water 1-2 times a day.
  • Consider a gut program to restore the integrity of this critical system. I believe each and every one of us can benefit greatly, some more than others. The results may be far reaching.

Have a very Happy Thanksgiving and start to your holiday season. Take a moment to be thankful and kind to your gut as well!