Your Gut: Understanding The Keys To Health

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)

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Comments

  1. says

    Are those changes in order of importance? Having both Crohn’s and (recently diagnosed) Adult ADHD I’m very interested in eating better, but the ADHD makes it difficult for me to make a lot of changes at once. I want to make gradual changes, but I’m not sure what the most important one is.
    .-= SemiCrunchyMom

  2. says

    Since I eliminated sugars (ALL of them), starches, grains from my diet permanently, my digestion has been so much better. I know I have a ways to go but eliminating those foods has improved my life.
    .-= Carla

  3. says

    Carla — Yes, eliminating sugars and starches works wonders.

    SemiCrunchyMom — Oh, good question!! I should have thought of that when I put the post together. I’d say the two most important things you can do are eliminating sugars & starches and starting to take those supplements. If you aren’t able or willing to switch to grass-fed/pastured/wild meats, perhaps you could also add in an additional Omega-3 supplement, too.

  4. says

    To add to the importance of the gut as a brain, in Chinese Medicine, we refer to the area over the intestinal tract as the “hara”. We consider that this is our “core” (and quite literally our core muscles are there) where our energy is housed. This is also considered in many traditional arenas to be where our spirit/intelligence resides. I suspect they were far more in tune with their bodies than we are!
    .-= Bonnie

  5. says

    Thanks for this great overview of gut health. We are a GAPS family for my daughter, but since I cut out all sugar, grains, potatoes and legumes from my diet, my own digestion has been enormously improved, and her symptoms have greatly diminished too. The addition of fermented cod liver oil has also made an huge difference. Unlike doctors would have you believe, I think many gut-related conditions like ulcerative colitis, autism, IBS, etc. can be cured with proper nutrition.
    .-= Dawn @ SmallFootprintFamily.com

  6. says

    I suffer with Crohn’s but thankfully in remission right now. You make a lot of good points. Thanks for the reading references. I’ll read anything on I can my hands on when it comes to Crohn’s.
    .-= Nancy

  7. says

    I’ve been making tons of fermented foods for my family to promote gut health. My husband son both have digestive problems that have calmed down since we’ve started eating ferments and cut out processed sugars and gluten.

  8. says

    F.R. I love the passion on your blog! I so agree with many of your points… Indeed, I take prebiotics in the form of a meal replacement. I’ve completely transformed the way I eat over the last several years. Keep up the good voice.
    .-= Lisa Musick

  9. says

    Thank you for posting this! We’re getting geared up to start the Body Ecology Diet for our 4 year old autistic son (but, of course, we all need it!). I’m trying to get my hands on as much information as I can. All of us have been eating real food for a while, except for my son. He’s got major sensory issues and this is going to be extremely tough for him. I’m just spending my time now collecting recipes and trying to make them kid friendly. Anyways, I just wanted to say thanks so much for your blog!
    .-= Megan

  10. says

    I totally agree that the gut is the foundation of good or bad health depending on how well you take care of it. I forget where I read it, but the connection between the gut and the brain is supposedly where the expression “I have a gut feeling” came from. It’s ironic how many people use this expression without really knowing what it means.

    I just recently found out about the Gut and Psychology Syndrome book and can’t wait to read it! This is one of my favorite topics. :) Thanks for another great article!
    .-= Vin – NaturalBias

  11. says

    Great information! Thank you for the timely reminders. It is essential during flu and cold season to build a strong immune system through a healthy gut. This week I’ve been eating my traditional saurkraut everyday along with some fermented ketchup and fermented mayo on my grass fed meatloaf. That along with a little raw milk helps me feel that I can fight off all the germs I run into daily.
    .-= Cathy Payne

  12. IngaG says

    I am really surprised and confused by the recommendation to greatly reduce grains, especially since I love most advice I came across on this website.

    I am Russian, and grains seem to be the cornerstone of the diet for my ancestors for hundreds of years, if not a thousand (we just don’t enough about them before 9-10th century AD). Bread is all over folklore, proverbs, and customs. As are kashi – a large variety of hot cereals. Especially in winter and early spring, when even the resources of stored fermented/preserved vegetables and fruits were running low.

    I can easily believe that it was made differently (with soaking, fermenting, and sprouting) and was certainly made from whole grains (especially rye, barley, etc). But to say that it should not be the staple of a healthy diet while seeking wisdom in traditions seems to be a contradiction to me.

    • Melissa says

      I have to say I agree. I have gone through many morphs in my diet, moving to a completely traditional diet. But in the end I didn’t feel fabulous all the time until I let go and began eating all the properly prepared grains my body was asking for. Every body is different, and requires different amounts of nutrients. Though, I believe strongly ALL grains need to be prepared with wisdom, I think it is folly to teach all people to cut most grains out of their diets. Instead let’s perhaps teach the proper ways to prepare grains, ie soaking, souring, and sprouting, and then teach people to listen to what their bodies are saying to them about what quantity is right for them individually.

  13. FoodResearcher says

    Why are you saying to stay away from Canola oil? According to what I’ve read Canola has a good 2:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio.

    PLEASE RESPOND.

  14. says

    Food Researcher — Yes, I’m saying avoid Canola oil. Canola oil was invented in the 1970s, and as such is not a traditional food. Furthermore, the version that most of us eat today wasn’t invented until the 1990s, with the invention of Round-Up resistant rapeseed plants (via genetic modification). So, not only is it completely new to the human diet, but it’s also a genetically-modified crop. Furthermore, most canola oil is extracted and refined in such a way as to make the delicate polyunsaturated fats in the oil go rancid, which is why the refining processes includes a chemical deodorization to make the oil more palatable to consumers.

  15. Kel says

    Saying Thank you for such an amazing post doesn’t seem to be enough. I went primal about 3 months ago because I’ve had nothing but stomach issues over the last 8 years. I have food allergies and I suspect I might have some new ones, so I’m working on that. I actually went one full month (the first primal) without any attacks or calming meds until eating out and afterwards learned my lamb was bathed in beef juices (am allergic to beef!) since then its been 2 months of attacks…….now I know that my gut needs to heal and seal……thanks you!!

    I have been able to maintain being sugar, gluten, soy free (also allergic to corn and soy) during all this, and I’ve dropped 18 lbs without effort (had gained about 20-25 over the years because of all the bread and bananas when I couldn’t eat anything else). I am taking probiotics, but recently started again and noted that I can’t sleep when I take one in the evening, I always fast after 4pm. They are sugar, gluten and soy free….any ideas? is this normal?? [taking Dr. Ohhiras Professional formula)

    I am ordering some of the books so I can get to this, I doubt that my condition is really all that serious by comparison, but I’d like to be able to leave this house and I’m tired of going to gastro doctors who hand me a fistful of prescriptions to mask the problem instead of getting to the heart of the problem (i’ve always refused them, I know better, why dont they?).

    I’d heard of leaky gut but never fully understood it, now I’m learning this could be my issue. We have crohns in the family but Ive not been given such a diagnosis but I suspect if i cant heal my gut its a likely possibility.

    I feel like crying with relief!!! ……where have you been all my life?!!! cyber hug, yes I’m that excited!!!

    ps: anyone who wants to give me some advice on the GAPs while waiting on my books, feel free, its a bit confusing (kellciadesigns@gmail.com)

  16. Kel says

    me again, the link to the restorative digestive health article is dead, is there another link?
    (ps: sorry for such a long post before)

    • KristenM says

      I fixed the link. The Weston A Price Foundation has re-done their website several times, and each time they do it they mess up a LOT of their old links! Sorry about that.

  17. says

    I’m extremely pleased to discover this web site. I want to to thank you for your time for this particularly wonderful read!!
    I definitely loved every little bit of it and i also have you
    saved as a favorite to see new stuff in your blog.

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