Heal the Gut
The digestive system is the gateway to the body. Everything that moves through your intestines is still in some sense outside of the body. It hasn’t gone in yet. So, when you eat a food, what happens to it? How does it get in? What regulates the process of absorption?
One of the first digestive “steps” is interacting with gut bacteria. Trillions of bacteria live in your gut and regulate the breakdown of food into nutrients. These bacteria are, in a sense, like castle guards. As foods march through your digestive track, these guards help keep order and promote healthy digestive processes. They are your first line of defense, and having them in place keeps whatever is toxic in your gut from abrading your intestinal walls and causing inflammation
at this point of entry.
Your gut can be populated by good or bad bacteria. The more and higher quality of gut bacteria you have, the healthier your body is, the lower your inflammation, and the less at risk you are for autoimmune disease and mental health disorders. When you have more bad bacteria than good bacteria, your digestive system has less protection and the rest of your body is more vulnerable to inflammation.
The relationship between gut flora and obesity is robust in animal models. Mice without any gut flora are more susceptible to obesity than normal mice. In fact, by transferring gut flora among mice, you can change their fat mass. Adding the gut flora of an obese mouse to a bacteria-free mouse will make the latter mouse obese. Adding healthy gut flora to this mouse will not make it obese. These exact studies have not been conducted on humans, but it has been demonstrated that good bacteria cultures promote metabolic wellness, and that nurturing a healthy gut environment with pre- and probiotic foods (see below) improves insulin sensitivity, fat burning, and metabolic efficiency in humans.
So gut flora are your first round of defense against the external world. The thing they so crucially defend is the lining of your intestines. If this lining is breached, toxins that would otherwise be excreted as feces leak through the intestinal lining, enter the bloodstream, and cause the immune system to go into panicked hyper-drive. This condition is called “leaky gut.” Leaky gut is one of (if not the primary) cause of inflammation, as well as hundreds of autoimmune disorders. Having a leaky gut due to a poor intestinal environment is quite possibly the one problem that underlies all the rest in the body.
What you can do to heal your gut:
First and foremost, shore up the first line of defense: your gut flora. Do this first by eliminating your use of antibiotics and limiting non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (acetaminophen is not an NSAID). Both of these things reduce the level of good bacteria in your gut.
Once you stop killing off the good guys, help boost their population. Regularly consuming bacteria is one of the best ways to do this. Fermented foods contain high amounts of beneficial bacteria. Any food that contains a bacterial culture will help.
Our knowledge about supplements is quite limited, and none of them do as well as the natural stuff from the bounty of the earth. Food is a better option than supplementation for healing if at all possible. Why? Fermented foods like sauerkraut provide greater bacterial variety than supplements do. They also provide the cultures in the context of a natural form of ingestion, which is more familiar and helpful for the body. Nonetheless, probiotic supplements can serve you well in a pinch.
In addition to straight up eating good gut bacteria in the form of fermented foods, you can also feed existing populations and help them grow. Good gut flora love to eat the fiber found in fruits and vegetables. They particularly love a form of fiber called inulin, which is found in Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, and jicama. It is also found in onions and leeks, to a lesser extent. The studies I mentioned earlier on mice with different kinds of gut flora have also shown that the overweight mice lose weight when inulin is added to their diets. Human studies show that increased inulin sharpens insulin sensitivity and promotes metabolic efficiency. Inulin and other fibers are called “prebiotics” since they feed and nurture the “probiotics” in your gut. In fact, it is quite important to consume both pre- and probiotics, since probiotics are primarily helpful in the small intestine and prebiotics are helpful further on in the digestive process in the large intestine.
As you are boosting your good gut flora population, stop feeding the bad guys. Bad gut bacteria love processed sugar. Sugar is the easiest form of food for them to eat. Other carbohydrates need to be broken down by processes in your digestive track before they can be consumed. Simple sugars do not. The bad gut flora eat them up, create uncomfortable gases as a byproduct of their digestion, crowd out the good gut flora, and enable toxic particles to enter your bloodstream. This results in a state of high alert and panicked activity by your immune system.
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