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What is Leaky Gut and What Can I do About it?
Gut health is the foundation of our overall health. Our digestive system allows us to break down and absorb nutrients (and energy) from food and eliminate toxins from the body. It is also the control centre of our immune system, and produces many of our hormones including serotonin and dopamine, which impact our mood, sleep, appetite, and the nervous system.
The gut lining is like a neighbourhood made up of houses along a street. If we have a good neighbourhood, there are people living in each home who take care of their yards and go to work to contribute to society as a whole. Cars may drive down the street in this neighbourhood, but they only pull into driveways and enter homes if they’re invited guests.
A healthy digestive tract is very similar! There are single cells lining the digestive tract, populated by beneficial gut bacteria that ensure the gut lining functioning in a healthy way, and who have jobs to benefit the body, including immune system and hormone functioning. The gut lining selectively absorbs nutrients from the contents passing through the digestive tract, and the rest continues on its way to be excreted from the body.
When the gut lining is inflamed, it’s like we have a bad gut neighbourhood. The good neighbours have left, and squatters have moved in. They don’t take care of the properties, and don’t contribute positively to their communities. Uninvited guests might break into houses and cause issues throughout the neighbourhood. In an unhealthy digestive system, there is often an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria or yeast that contributes to inflammation in the gut lining. We refer to this as ‘leaky gut syndrome’. This limits the digestive tract from carrying out its normal functions, resulting in symptoms throughout the body.
Leaky gut can be caused by antibiotic use, eating inflammatory and processed foods, some medications, contracting traveller’s diarrhea, prolonged stress. These factors can negatively alter the gut flora, resulting in inflammation in the digestive tract.
When our digestive tract is inflamed, we may experience bloating, gas, heartburn, nausea, abdominal discomfort, constipation, diarrhea, or mucous in the stool. If we have prolonged issues with our digestion, it leads to whole-body symptoms, including fatigue, anxiety, depression, frequent cold and flu, and inflammatory issues like eczema, acne, joint pain, and autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Dr. Hilary’s Lifestyle Tips To Improve Gut Health
- Eat slowly: Digestion begins with chewing! Chew slowly, put down your fork between bites, and enjoy your meals. This helps you break down foods better in the stomach so that it is more well-received in the small and large intestines.
- Get hungry: When your stomach grumbles, your body is ready to properly digest a meal. This is a sign you’re producing stomach acid and digestive enzymes to break down foods. Think about your meal, smell it as its cooking, and allow yourself to get hungry. Lemon water or apple cider vinegar five minutes before a meal can also help to promote this action.
- Eat prebiotics: Prebiotics are foods containing soluble fibre, and they feed healthy gut bacteria. Great sources of prebiotics include oats, artichokes, bananas, apples, asparagus and flax.
- Supplement: GUT-FX promotes digestive health by targeting three aspects of leaky gut syndrome. It provides building blocks to heal the digestive tract, herbs to soothe the gut lining and limit inflammation, and probiotics to replenish healthy gut flora. GUT-FX supports digestion in order to support our overall health.
- Be careful with fermented foods: In people with healthy digestion, fermented foods are a great way to promote a healthy gut microbiome. However, in people with digestive concerns, especially those with IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), fermented foods often worsen symptoms because the types of bacteria in food items may not be best suited for them.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners: Sweeteners stimulate the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut. We should try to avoid all forms of sugar, but if we are using sugar, focus on natural substitutes like apple sauce, banana, maple syrup or honey.
- Adjust fibre: People with mild IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and well-controlled IBD tend to benefit from a high fibre diet. However, during flare-ups or if there is an unhappy gut neighbourhood, high fibre diets tend to worsen symptoms because fibre feeds gut bacteria. These people feel best on a low-FODMAP diet. It can be confusing to know what type of diet is best, so please speak with your healthcare professional if you need assistance.
- Avoid inflammatory foods: In some people, foods like gluten and dairy can cause inflammation. Think of gluten and dairy like the red flag in a bullfight. They are large molecules that trigger a response from the immune system, worsening digestive symptoms and inflammation.
- Reduce stress: Make sure your body is in 'rest-and-digest' state when eating, not in 'fight-or-flight' mode. Try taking three deep breaths before you start each meal to promote calmness, avoid being in front of screens during meals, and remember that digestion functions best when stress is low.
Our digestion should function like a healthy neighbourhood, absorbing nutrients, eliminating waste, and supporting the immune system and hormone production. However, factors including eating unhealthy foods, antibiotic use, and prolonged stress negatively alter gut flora, which leads to digestive upset and inflammation. It’s important to improve the diet, practice healthy eating habits and reduce stress, but providing additional support for healing the gut is the best thing we can do to get our gut-neighbourhood back on track.
(Author: Dr. Hilary Chambers is a licensed and registered Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Toronto, where she is the Founder of the Toronto Natural Digestion Clinic.)