The gut. Admittedly not the nicest of words. But us nutritional therapists use it freely to describe your digestive system or, if you’re really squeamish, your tummy! It is so important to look after your gut.
In nutrition college we learnt that the gut is ‘the seat of health’ and Hippocrates taught ‘All disease begins in the gut’. Without a properly functioning digestive system, the rest of your body is not going function properly either. And if we were ever presented with a really tricky case and didn’t know where to start, we were always told to start with the gut. It never failed!
But why is it so important?
There are 100 trillion bacteria in your body (eeww) and most them reside in your intestines. The food you eat determines the kind of bacteria that enters your gut, and the bacteria is responsible for the overall function of your digestive system (eg. pooing) as well as your immune system, your mood, nutrient absorption, hormone regulation, elimination of toxins and so much more!
Poor gut health can be responsible for more obvious symptoms such as bloating, heartburn, constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence but also symptoms in other parts of the body that you would not necessarily associate with your digestion – conditions such as eczema, food intolerances, allergies, chronic fatigue, arthritis, mental heath conditions and autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s (thyroid disease) and psoriasis.
If you’ve followed my blog you’ll know that I have Hashimoto’s and I previously tested positive for leaky gut (See: My personal thyroid story). I’ve undergone a strict gut-healing protocol and I am really careful with what I eat. I avoid gluten at all costs, and limit my intake of dairy and grains – I know when I’ve gone overboard with these as my symptoms start to flare up. It’s a fine balancing act to manage an autoimmune disease nutritionally, but I am very grateful for my knowledge in this area or I could be very sick.
How is your digestive system linked to the rest of your body?
The main reason why poor digestive health can lead to conditions outside of the digestive system is ‘leaky gut’. And it’s not as gross as it sounds. Also referred to as ‘intestinal permeability’, it’s when the lining of the gastro-intestinal tract becomes inflamed which results in microscopic ‘holes’ that allow larger particles of undigested food or toxins into the bloodstream.
These particles are not supposed to be in the bloodstream and the body reacts accordingly by firing up the immune system to attack them and dispose of them.
What causes this inflammation in the first place?
In short, 21st century living. Processed foods, gluten, yeasts, bacteria, parasites, medication, an imbalance of gut bacteria can all contribute to the inflammation which results in leaky gut. The following dietary and lifestyle factors can increase your risk of leaky gut:
- Gluten – one of the biggest contributors to leaky gut. Gluten intolerance is linked autoimmune disease, and I always recommend gluten elimination to anyone with autoimmune issues.
- Medications such as antibiotics, antacids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen)
- Processed foods
- Sugar – Eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates may help to feed the pathogens like yeast in the gut.
- Non-organic foods
- Stress – in addition to the ‘typical’ perceived stress of jobs/relationships/finances/kids, other stressors such as overtraining, electronic screens, environmental toxins, pain and poor sleep can all contribute to the damaging effects on the gut that too much stress can cause.
All stuff we are exposed to regularly in daily life, right?
But what to do about it?
In addition to trying to reduce your exposure to some of the factors mentioned above, there are certain foods which can actually help to heal a leaky gut by either reducing the harmful effects of the foods/toxins above, or patching up the holes themselves.
Top 10 Gut-Healing Superfoods
1. Bone Broth
An amazing source of gelatin, collagen, glycine and glutamine which all help to heal the lining of the gut. Learn more about bone broth and check out my gut-healing soup recipe here.
You can drink bone broth on its own with a little Himalayan salt, or use it to cook you soups, stews, rice, quinoa or beans.
For therapeutic use, drink a cup daily.
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil’s antimicrobial properties also prevent/destroy the overgrowth of bad bacteria and fungal infections such as candidiasis (yeast overgrowth), and parasitic infections which can cause gut inflammation and poor digestion.
I love to add a dollop of raw coconut oil to smoothies and homemade energy balls (link to blog post – energy balls).
It is also one of the most stable oils to cook with at high temperatures so you should look to use it in all of your cooking, frying and baking.
3. Coconut Butter
Another incredibly healthy fat which is helpful in reducing inflammation (remember leaky gut is caused by inflammation from all those unhealthy foods etc!), and also good for regulating bowel movements. If you’re not excreting those toxins, they’re just staying in your body!
Use coconut butter as you would regular butter, spread on healthy homemade baked goods, drizzled into porridge or over mashed sweet potatoes.
4. Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
ACV is seriously good for your gut health. It acts as a ‘prebiotic’ which helps to promote the growth of good bacteria in your intestines..
It is really great for digestion and as it provides the right acidity for foods to be broken down into smaller, more digestible micronutrients.
For best results, make sure you use raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar that contains ‘the Mother’ (a colony of beneficial bacteria)
ACV can be taken in a little water before each meal to aid digestion. It’s also great in salad dressings, or you can make your own little digestive ‘tonic’ out of ginger, raw honey, lemon juice ACV and water.
5. Grass fed ghee
Excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins
Ghee is traditionally used in Indian cooking – it’s clarified butter which is free from lactose or casein so may be tolerated by those with dairy issues. Ghee is an amazing source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K which are crucial for maintaining elasticity of mucous membranes (your gut lining!)
Ghee is also really high in a substance called butyric acid which provides the fuel for the cells lining the large intestine – therefore extremely useful in healing a leaky gut.
Use ghee in cooking as you would any oil/butter.
Ginger can help to reduce bloating, flatulence, symptoms of IBS and poor digestion as it stimulates digestive acids and secretions. This improves nutrient absorption and can therefore protect against further damage to the intestinal tract.
Ginger is also amazingly antibacterial and can reduce certain stomach infections. It’s also one of the world’s most potent anti-inflammatory foods.
You can add ginger to your curries and stir fries, I like to throw some into a smoothie, or you can also make a fresh anti-inflammatory tea with raw honey and turmeric for a super super-food hot drink!
Fermented foods are the current hipster darlings of the nutrition world. It’s all about the fermented foods, didn’t you know?
Well our grandparents and great-grandparents were fermenting their own foods way before you could buy kefir in Whole Foods!
But since we’re on the subject, fermented food are amazing for gut health because the fermentation itself provides the gut with a whole host of fabulous beneficial bacteria that help to balance gut dysbiosis, reduce inflammation and support the immune system.
Kefir is a drink fermented from milk but which may be tolerated by people with dairy issues due to the enzymes in kefir that help to break down lactose. It is also protective against certain gut infections. You can make it yourself by buying kefir grains online or there are companies that sell it pre-made now.
You can use kefir as you would any milk in smoothies, porridge or with fruit.
Another fermented drink that provides beneficial bacteria that can kill off candida, boost the immune system and support the body’s detoxification processes. Kombucha tea is also a great source of specific antioxidants that can protect the body against certain diseases and reduce inflammation. It has also been found to have antibacterial properties – so all in all, a pretty powerful beverage in the management of healthy gut function.
I have never actually tried to make it myself yet although I’m definitely going to give it a go with these instructions.
9. Fermented vegetables
We’re still in the world of fermentation. You can easily make your own fermented vegetables like sauerkraut if you have a glass jar and a bit of patience.
I’ve made this sauerkraut before and it’s delicious at any time of the day – with eggs for breakfast, on burgers or with salads.
If you are buying it in the shops, make sure it’s raw and unpasteurised otherwise it doesn’t come with those lovely beneficial bacteria that are so good for your gut.
10. Pumpkin Seeds
You might not associate the humble pumpkin seed with gut health but they have actually been used therapeutically for years specifically as an ‘anthelmintic’ – a substance that helps to destroy intestinal parasites.
Parasites are more common that you might think – giardia, ringworm and tapeworm are all parasitic infections that can be tricky to eliminate and which can survive in the gut for many years causing a variety of wide-ranging symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, diarrhoea; and parasites can contribute to leaky gut so we don’t want them hanging around.
If you’ve ever been ill abroad, you could well have picked up a parasite.
Add 1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds to a smoothie, or make your own pumpkin seed butter if you have a high speed blender and this as a spread or dip.
Do you think you could have a leaky gut? Try eliminating some of the foods mentioned above and including more of these gut-healing remedies into your every day diet to reduce the burden on your digestive system.