You hear it everywhere in the wellness world: The key to health lies in our guts. But even as the term “healthy gut” becomes more mainstream, not all of us know exactly how to define it, let alone how to achieve it. So, we reached out to a holistic health coach to get an in-depth look.
After going through a 10-year struggle with chronic ulcerative colitis, compounded by anxiety and depression, Kristin Thomas, Functional Diagnostic Nutritional (FDN) Practitioner at Thrive By Food, ultimately found her cure through a healthy diet and lifestyle. As an expert in all things digestion and healthy living, she takes a functional approach to healing people with digestive issues, anxiety and fatigue to find their most balanced life. Here’s what she has to say about why our guts can be linked to so many illnesses—and what we can do about it now.
What exactly is your “gut”?
The “gut” refers to your entire gastrointestinal tract, starting at the mouth and ending at the anus where hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions occur every day, it’s where the microbiome (or good bacteria) resides, and it’s considered our body’s second brain.
What contributes to a good gut vs. a bad gut?
A good, healthy gut is one that has a diverse population of good bacteria, functions chemically and mechanically without any issues, and keeps you feeling well inside and out. A bad gut, on the other hand, is one that has some type of dysbiosis (or unhealthy balance of good to bad bacteria), damage to the intestinal lining, such as from toxins, lacks proper muscular function, acid levels, or enzyme levels, and/or is symptomatic to the person.
Why should we care about having a healthy gut?
As the oh-so-wise Hippocrates said, “all disease begins in the gut.” When the gut isn’t well, we cannot be well. Our gut is the first system in our body that becomes exposed to our environment, from the air we breathe in to the food we eat to the toxins we’re exposed to. When in tact, the GI tract protects the body from these harmful substances, but if damaged, a person may start to feel the downstream effects (called symptoms).
A healthy gut also ensures that we’re able to properly break down, transport and utilize nutrients from our food. If there is a chemical or mechanical breakdown anywhere in the gut, these processes can become interrupted. This can result in a number of issues, ranging from cramping because the body can’t break down food correctly, to gas if food gets backed up and begins to ferment, to fatigue if it can’t deliver nutrients to our cells, to bloating if the gut can’t fend off pathogens from taking over.
Because so much goes into our guts every day, it’s so incredibly important to keep gut health in check to stay healthy.
What is leaky gut syndrome? What symptoms should we keep an eye out for?
“Leaky gut” is a term used to explain the damage that can occur to the gut, causing it to become compromised. Damage can be caused by things like environmental toxins (e.g. air quality, second hand smoke, household cleaning products, etc.), medications (e.g. antibiotics, birth control), poor food quality (e.g. processed, fast food) and even chronic stress.
Picture a line of bricks, sealed together with mortar. This mortar prevents things like bugs and dust from coming in between the bricks. Let’s say something hits the line of bricks and creates a crack in the mortar, leaving holes for bugs and dust to get in. A similar process can occur inside our gut. If outside toxins get in, whether because we’re exposed to someone else with a contagious bug, are breathing in dirty air or have a poor diet full of foods that can cause inflammation in the body, those all can create a compromise in the mortar, or the mucosal lining of our gut.
When damage occurs, the integrity of the cell lining in the GI tract can become damaged, which can cause everything from the food we eat on a daily basis to toxins like airborne chemicals to permeate straight through to the bloodstream and all other areas of our body. Our bloodstream is where a large majority of our immune cells are located, so when these substances enter it, the body tags them as an invader and launches an immune response to try to rid them from the body.
But if exposure to these substances occur for long enough, even if it’s the healthiest of foods, the body can become chronically inflamed because the immune system is in perpetual high alert. If this becomes the case, a person can feel fatigued, irritable, get headaches often, have digestive discomfort such as pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation and gas, and feel they can’t tolerate things as well as they used to. This is generally at the point when someone no longer feels like their “normal” self.
What’s the best way to treat a leaky gut?
The first step in recovering from leaky gut is to remove the triggers. Removing commonly irritating foods to the gut like processed and fast foods, and gluten, sugar and dairy can relieve the body of a great deal of burden. Filling up instead with whole foods like leafy greens, fruits, complex carbs like sweet potatoes and veggies, lentils and beans, and clean protein that is pasture-raised, grass-fed and wild-caught is key. This reduces the toxic load on the body and helps to maximize nutrients that are critical for healing.
It’s also important to purify the air around you with air purifying plants like snake plants or aloe vera and/or get an air purifier machine. If stress is a prevalent issue, that must also be addressed to help calm down the body and allow it to focus on healing.
Up next, you can bring in some healing aids to help the gut in recovering. Superfoods like bone broth, collagen powder and aloe juice are fantastic for this. Not only are they soothing to the gut and can help calm down inflammation, but they also aid in repairing damaged cells and strengthening the cell lining. Adding in a good quality probiotic will also help to crowd out the bad and nourish the good. From there, it’s important to run a stool test to discover:
If there are any other specific imbalances to address, such as a virus, bacteria, yeast or parasites.
What the population and variety of good bacteria looks like so you can further optimize it.
If there is inflammation specific to the gut or even from gluten (the antibody called anti-gliadin is an indicator of this).
This allows you to get hyper-specific with your treatment protocol so you can heal and seal your gut much more efficiently. One test in particular that I run with on my clients that looks for all of these markers is called the GI-MAP. This gives us the most comprehensive look at the gut microbiome.
What top three foods contribute to good gut health?
It’s hard to narrow it in on just three specific foods, but there are three categories of foods I encourage everyone to focus on:
Whole, clean foods: organic vegetables, fruits, carbs, fats and proteins.
Probiotic-rich fermented foods: kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut.
Superfoods: aloe, bone broth, collagen, marshmallow root, apple cider vinegar.
What one thing can we do today to start a journey to a healthy gut?
The single most important thing I recommend every one of my clients to do right off the bat is to start listening to their bodies. When you can piece together how exactly you don’t feel well, what foods cause immediate or delayed reactions, and if you feel worse at any particular time of day, that information can be incredibly useful when you begin to work with a practitioner like myself. All of these factors can pinpoint what areas to look into and how to begin optimizing your gut health today.
Starting a food journal where you write down what you eat for two weeks and how you feel afterwards (physically and mentally) can be an extremely valuable record for yourself and your healthcare practitioner. From there, you can begin to take out of your diet and life what’s not working, and add in more of what is working and makes you feel good.
Looking for more wellness tips? Try our adrenal-boosting tonic, and these three herbs to help your body deal with stress.