Hippocrates said this 2,000 years ago, and for years modern medicine has dismissed any notion that problems with your digestion could cause symptoms and diseases in other parts of the body. Without having the scientific research that we have today, Hippocrates knew that healing a leaky gut was important for addressing many diseases.
For years naturopaths have been taught to “treat the gut” first, while modern medicine was treating symptoms with drugs, and dismissing the idea that gut health could have anything to do with obesity, depression, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, chronic fatigue and many other conditions.
Now the latest research has confirmed that Hippocrates was right and the health of our gut bacteria and the health of our intestinal wall (gut mucosa) has a big influence on all aspects of our health. This has now become one of the biggest areas of research, and it shows that by improving our gut health we can improve all aspects of our health.
This article will explain how we can do that.
Our large intestine is home to 100 trillion bacteria, this is a number so large that it is difficult to comprehend! To put it into perspective the human gut contains 10 times more bacteria than all of the cells in the human body …. that means we are more bacteria than human, and if we look after them they will look after us and keep us healthy.
It is only in recent years that we have been able to begin to understand just how beneficial many (but not all) of these 100 trillion bacteria are to our health. They promote digestion, protect against infections, regulate metabolism and makeup about 75% of our immune system, all important jobs which is why our bacteria is vital for our health.
Unfortunately, there are many aspects of modern life that have a negative affect on our gut bacteria.
Antibiotics are particularly harmful to our gut bacteria, this has been known for a while but what a lot of people do not realize is that the health of the gut bacteria does not recover on its own without adding in probiotics, prebiotics, and fermented foods.
Most people have an idea of how important the health of our good bacteria are, but the health of our “gut barrier” or intestinal mucosa is equally important, this is what determines what is absorbed from our intestinal tract and what is eliminated.
From the mouth to the anus our digestive tract is one very long hollow tube, anything that goes into the mouth and isn’t digested and absorbed into our body will pass out the other end. This is a vital process in absorbing our nutrients and eliminating waste.
Along the intestinal tract we have many microvilli, which are finger-like projections that increase the area of absorption in our gut, and help to absorb our nutrients, if they get damaged it can lead to the intestinal barrier becoming “leaky” and larger proteins and toxins that should be eliminated, can get absorbed into the bloodstream.
This is what is known as leaky gut.
When these larger protein molecules and toxins “escape” into our bloodstream the body recognizes them as foreign and mounts an immune response to attack them. There has been a lot of recent research into leaky gut and autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroid and Rheumatoid arthritis showing that this immune response with leaky gut is one of the prime triggers for autoimmune conditions.
Eating a few bad meals does not cause leaky gut, the same causes that affect our gut bacteria do contribute to leaky gut, especially gluten from wheat and casein from dairy in susceptible individuals.
Researchers have identified a protein called Zonulin that triggers intestinal permeability and gliadin from wheat is one of the main triggers that increase Zonulin levels. You can measure your Zonulin levels which determines leaky gut with a G.I Map test.
While many people with leaky gut will experience digestion symptoms like constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and gas, it is also possible to have a “leaky gut” and have no digestion symptoms. A leaky gut can also manifest with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, arthritis, headaches, skin conditions, anxiety and depression and many other chronic health conditions.
The most obvious way is to avoid all of the processed foods, gluten, medications other things that I listed earlier that can affect our gut bacteria and gut barrier, but sometimes that is not possible especially with things like stress and infections.
The first step is to cut out the gluten containing grains, dairy and even some vegetables known as FODMAP’s which ferment and cause digestion problems. For some people cutting out these foods can make a huge difference to their symptoms and that is all they need to do, for other people they may have to do the second step.
The second step, especially if you do have digestion problems like constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and gas or you have chronic health problems like thyroid issues, autoimmune, arthritis, depression or other health issues, is to rule out gut infections.
This can be done through a special stool test called G.I Map test which identifies the DNA of pathogenic parasites and bacteria, this type of stool test is a lot more accurate than the traditional stool test.
I would also test for Helicobacter pylori which is a common bacterial infection of the stomach, if these tests come up clear it may be necessary to test for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or SIBO as it is known which is a special breath test.
All of these tests are available through Planet Naturopath.
Having good levels of stomach acid is a priority with a healthy digestive system, stomach acid is vital for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, if there is not enough stomach acid then this process will be compromised.
Many people are on acid lowering medication like Nexium, Somac, and Pariet which have many long term health consequences as they reduce our ability to absorb vitamins and minerals. They don’t treat the cause of the digestion problem, only addressing the symptoms and there are many natural alternatives to these drugs.
Good levels of stomach acid are needed to stimulate pepsin, bile and the pancreatic enzymes, if these are not working it is going to lead to malabsorption of nutrients, gallbladder problems, increased the risk of infections and leaky gut.
Sometimes supplementing with Betaine hydrochloride is necessary for the short term to improve stomach acid, it is important to use a good quality one that ideally also contains the herb Gentian, which can help stimulate the body’s production of stomach acid.
While addressing diet, lifestyle and any gut infections are important, the final piece of the puzzle is addressing stress!
High stress whether it is from overtraining, lack of sleep or not enough time out affects the adrenal hormone cortisol which can lead to issues with gut motility, stomach acid secretion and low levels of secretory IgA which affects the permeability of the gut barrier.
Long term stress leads to adrenal dysfunction and this can cause an increase in food intolerances, lowered immune system, lower energy and mood disorders.
If you have been under stress for a long time and you have digestion issues it is a good idea to test adrenal function, because it is hard to fix the digestion when the adrenal and nervous systems are out of balance.
Adrenal testing is available at Planet Naturopath.
Addressing digestion problems and chronic health issues can be complex, and while for some people it can be as simple as cutting out processed foods or gluten, for other people they may need help with specific diets like the FODMAP diet or GAPS diet to see results.
At Planet Naturopath we can help you with specific diet plans, specialized testing for digestion, adrenal and thyroid problems to identify the underlying cause of your digestion or health problems.
If you have any questions contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael is head consultant at Planet Naturopath - Functional Medicine and Nutrition Solutions. As Seen