Like Autism, the number of people with digestive disorders (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, celiac disease, IBS, constipation, diarrhea, GERD, candida and food allergies) is on the rise. Just ten years ago, only 1 in 10,000 people were diagnosed with these diseases, today the number is 1 in every 500!
Even if you aren’t one of the growing number of people suffering from the diseases of poor digestion, you may still be suffering from poor digestive health. Hippocrates — the ancient Greek father of medicine — once said that “all diseases begin in the gut.” In many ways, he was right.
What is your gut? It’s your intestinal tract, and what goes on there has a huge impact on your overall health and wellness.
Did you know that what goes on in your gut can directly affect your mood? That poor digestion can actually cause neurological and psychological disorders? How is this possible?
Your Gut: The Second Brain
“Have you ever wondered why people get butterflies in the stomach before going on stage? Or why an impending job interview can cause an attack of intestinal cramps? And why do antidepressants targeted for the brain cause nausea or abdominal upset in millions of people who take such drugs? The reason for these common experiences is because each of us literally has two brains — the familiar one encased in our skulls and a lesser-known but vitally important one found in the human gut. Like Siamese twins, the two brains are interconnected; when one gets upset, the other does, too.” So writes science journalist Sandra Blakeslee for the New York Times.
Indeed, the human digestive tract contains over one million nerve cells, about the same number found in the spinal cord. There are actually more nerve cells in the overall digestive system than in the peripheral nervous system. Furthermore, major neurotransmitters found in the brain — including serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine and nitric oxide — occur plentifully in the gut as well. Enkephalins — described as the body’s natural opiates — also occur in the intestinal tract, as do benzodiazepines, psychoactive chemicals similar to mood-controlling drugs like Valium and Xanax. (source)
In other words, poor digestive health can lead to mood disorders and other neurological disorders. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride has made the connection quite thoroughly in her book, The Gut and Psychology Syndrome.
Your Gut: The Key To Your Immune System
Besides being important to your mental and emotional health, your digestion actually plays a key role in your natural immunity to diseases. This is because your gut isn’t sterile. It’s actually an entire ecosystem of bacteria and yeast — some beneficial to you, others toxic.
When the intestinal ecosystem is healthy, beneficial bacteria keep yeasts and other fermentation microorganisms at bay in this part of the digestive tract. An imbalance of microorganisms, called dysbiosis, results in overgrowth of fungus and other pathogens, resulting in numerous digestive disorders.
Even today, textbooks typically describe the environment of the small intestine as “sterile.” Scientists thought that beneficial organisms could not survive the highly acid milieu of the stomach to pass into the small intestine. This view is no longer tenable. Good health depends on the right mix of microorganisms in both the small and large intestine.
Like all ecosystems, the delicate balance of the digestive tract can be altered by various toxins including antibiotics and other drugs, chemicals like chlorine and fluoride in our water, food additives and preservatives, stimulants like coffee, and an overabundance of difficult-to-digest foods like improperly prepared whole grains. (source)
When the balance of micro-organisms in your gut is out of balance and the “bad bacteria” proliferate, these bad bacteria produce toxins which can weaken your immune response. They also interfere with the proper absorption of nutrients into your blood stream. It is possible to eat a nutrient-rich diet of real foods and still be nutrient deficient because of poor digestive health.
Taking Good Care of Your Gut
To keep the right balance of bacteria thriving in your digestive tract, do the following:
- Avoid sugar and starches. — You hear this piece of advice often on this site, but it holds true YET AGAIN. Bad bacteria thrive on sugar. It is their food of choice. You shouldn’t eat any refined sugars like table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and you should greatly reduce the amount of starches you eat (think: corn, potatoes, grains, legumes). If you are willing to properly prepare grains via soaking, sprouting, or fermenting, they should be fine as occasional treats (read more about how to eat grains). But they should not be the staple of a healthy diet.
- Eat the right balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats. – Too many Omega-6 fatty acids can lead to inflammation and exacerbate digestive problems. A huge step in this direction can be made if you eliminate seed-based yellow cooking oils (corn oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, etc.) from your diet and begin cooking with more traditional fats like butter from grass-fed cows, coconut oil, lard, or tallow. Eat foods naturally rich in Omega-3 fats like wild caught fish. You’ll also want to eat meats and dairy from pastured/wild/grass-fed animals. (For sources of wild caught seafood, grass-fed meats, good butter, and more, see here.)
- Avoid trans fats. — It almost seems silly saying it because it’s so obvious. Trans fats hide in all sorts of foods, even those labeled “trans-fat free” thanks to our shoddy labeling laws. To eliminate these from your diet, you’ll need to avoid any foods containing partially-hydrogenated oils and any foods fried in yellow seed-based vegetable oils (i.e. french fries at your local fast food chain), etc.
- Eat more soups & stocks. — Homemade stocks from animal bones and cartilage are excellent at promoting digestive health and healing the intestinal lining.
- Eat more fermented & living foods. — Old-fashioned sauerkraut, pickles, chutneys, and fermented dairy products like buttermilk, kefir, sour cream, & yogurt (all made via natural fermentation with good bacteria) help repopulate the gut with good bacteria. (For starter cultures of these healthful foods, see the listings here. For probiotic, naturally fermented condiments, see the listings here.)
- Supplement with probiotics and fermented cod liver oil. — Although I’m not a huge fan of supplements, these are the two biggest exceptions to my rule. These two supplements combine to form a veritable power-house that promotes intestinal healing. Probiotics help repopulate the gut with good bacteria while the Omega-3s and vitamins A & D in the fermented cod liver oil help reduce inflammation and supply the gut with what it needs to heal. (For the online sources of fermented cod liver oil & probiotics I recommend, see the listings here.)
If you suffer from any of the gut-related diseases listed above, I highly recommend you get your hands on the books Gut and Psychology Syndrome and The Body Ecology Diet. For more in-depth information on how to restore digestive health, please read this article by Jordan Rubin, author of The Maker’s Diet.
For more on Understanding the Keys to Health, check out these articles:
This post is participating in today’s Real Food Wednesday carnival, hosted by Kelly The Kitchen Kop.
(photo by progoddess)