Updated: Mar 30, 2020
The start of a new year brings a sense of optimism, motivation and oppourtunity when it comes to setting and achieving life goals. Health goals nearly always get a mention, with gut healing frequently getting a mention.
To help you understand a bit more about gut healing and make your journey easier here are seven questions you need to ask yourself.
1. What is an unhealthy gut?
People frequently use the term unhealthy to describe their gut when they believe something is 'wrong' or 'not working properly'. I get it. It's hard to understand what is going on inside, let alone describe it accurately. Also, there is frequently multiple things happening that are contributing to your symptoms and words like 'unhealthy' or 'bad' are just easier to say.
So when these terms are said, perhaps one or more of the following could be happening.
By-products created by bacteria. Are there beneficial short chain fatty acids being produced or harmful byproducts?
Dysbiosis, which is characterized by having a reduction in microbial diversity and an increase in pro-inflammatory and/or pathogenic species. (3)
Structural and mechanical issues like slow stomach emptying or 'weak' sphincters (4)
Insufficient acid, bile or enzymes required for food breakdown (5).
2. Does my gut need healing?
Due to the gut-everything connection, you may find that the symptoms of a gut in need of healing extends beyond obvious gut symptoms. With this is mind here are gut specific and whole body symptoms which may indicate there is a gut in need of some support and healing.
Gut specific symptoms:
Food intolerances and allergies (6)
Constipation, diarrhea or alternating bowel motions
Excessive bloating (7)
Abdominal pain, indigestion and discomfort
Excessive burping or flatulence (8)
Whole body symptoms and conditions* that may indicate the gut is involved include:
Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression (12)
Autism and spectrum conditions (13)
Low immunity, recurrent and/or chronic infections (16)
Allergies and hay fever (17)
Respiratory conditions such as asthma (21)
Nutritional deficiencies such as iron and B12 (these can also cause other symptoms like low energy) (24)
Inflammatory joint pain (25)
*None of these things are cause and effect as health a product of many things (diet, genetics, stress, chemical exposure etc). This is merely suggested there many be a gut component involved.
3. What causes an 'unhealthy' gut?
There are many causes of an 'unhealthy' gut, and each of us will have different triggers/drivers. Some may be easier to identify than others and how they may have influenced your health. Here is what some of the evidence has linked to unfavourable changes your gut and it microbiome.
Eating foods contaminated with Roundup - essentially this mean most non-organic foods (29)
Medications such as PPIs and antipsychotic medications (34)
Infections, including H. pylori and gastroenteritis infections (food poisoning and travellers diarrhoea) (35)
4. What foods heal your gut?
As you can see by now, food is only one part of the picture. Whilst it is important to have a diet that is supportive of your goals, this is still very individual and can be quite tricky to navigate on your own.
The following list is a very general and evidence based list. This does not take into account conditions like Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome and any individual complexities and circumstances.
Avoiding foods you have a known allergy, autoimmune response or intolerance to
Avoid known dietary drivers of gut dysbiosis including refined sugar and carbohydrate, animal protein, sulphates and alcohol.
Prebiotic and high FODMAP foods that contain fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin, and galactooligosaccharides can beneficially modulate gut bacteria, assist with many gut conditions, are anti-inflammatory (37)
Polyphenols can enhance the growth of beneficial bacteria and inhibiting the growth of pathogens, thus exert prebiotic-like effects (38)
Fermented foods can provide sources of lactic acid bacteria which can improve the health of your intestinal tract health, enhance the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients and reduc prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals (39) (Not advised for anyone with histamine issues).
A long term diet that is highly diverse can help support microbiome diversity. Aim for 40+ different plant-based foods per week (40)
There are many other foods that have the potential or theoretically assist general gut health. One example is bone broth which I often encourage to people to enjoy (not helpful in histamine issues) and a part of a healthy diet.
5. Can you test for a leaky and ‘unhealthy’ gut?
Aside from the medical procedures of a colonoscopy or endoscopy that would identify structural damage and significant inflammation. There are lots of functional tests that trained practitioners can use to assess the health of your gut. These include:
Urine tests that can test for leaky gut
Stool tests which can test for bacterial, fungal, parasites, inflammatory and immune markers, enzymes and bacterial byproducts. Not all stool tests are the same - make sure you choose the right one for your health needs.
Breath tests which can assess for SIBO, Helicobacter Pylori and other food intolerances such as fructose
Blood tests to assess for Coeliac genes and other generalised inflammatory markers.
6. Can stress, anxiety and depression affect your gut?
There are so many studies confirming that the mind can affect the health of your gut. Studies have linked stress with dysbiosis, reflux, indigestion, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and leaky gut (41, 42, 43, 44, 45).
Supporting your mental health is incredibly important in the gut healing process, perhaps just as important as any food or probiotic you take.
February is dedicated to the mind-gut connection where we will explore this topic in greater detail.
7. Can you heal your gut on your own?
The body has the power and ability to heal and with that said, yes you can heal your gut on your own. However, healing on your own may be the most efficient or effective solution for everyone. I'm sure you can see that there is a lot more to healing your gut than taking bone broth and glutamine.
If you can relate to any of the following, perhaps you need to team up with a professional for support.
You haven't identified or find it difficult to identify your causes or drivers for an unhealthy gut
There is a long history of health issues, (it's of a chronic nature)
Your health is complex, as in there isn't just one issue playing out for example there is hormonal, mental health, immune or low energy happening as well
You experience food intolerances and allergies. Intolerances and certain immune responses to food can often be addressed with the potential of consuming them without pain or bloating etc.
You take medications. For your safety, these need to monitored as your health changes and contraindications for foods, nutrients and herbs must be assessed.
You are managing your health, but it requires restriction and there are limitations to your day for you to feel normal (there is no leeway).