Is Your Gut Healthy?

This ‘second brain’ can affect mood and overall wellness

By Dr. Alexandra Prach and Tara Storjohann

Ever wonder why you feel “off” after having to take antibiotics for a prolonged period of time? The term “gut health” is usually mentioned when talking about overall well-being, but what does it really mean?  The truth is, your gut is tied to all aspects of health including mental, physical, emotional and immune. There are many products on the market that target improving gut health such as prebiotics, probiotics, apple cider vinegar and “gut shots.” Throughout this article, we will discuss what it means to have a healthy gut and how to get there.

The human microbiome consists of thousands of bacteria, fungi and viruses that colonize our nasal passages, mouth, skin and gut. Each person’s microbiome is individualized and affected by many lifestyle and environmental factors. It’s important to keep your microbiome diverse because it has many important jobs including defending against pathogenic bacteria, making vitamins, absorbing nutrients and producing hormones.

Your gut is intimately connected to your brain and affects mood, cognition and overall health. The gut is known as the second brain and produces serotonin and short-chain fatty acids, which influence brain cell development and function. Microbiome diversity is also strongly tied to mood. For example, those with less of a variety of good bacteria in their gut usually have associated depressive symptoms.

Many factors can impact your gut health such as stress, the environment, sleep and medications. A healthy microbiome increases resistance to stress. As previously mentioned, the brain and gut are intimately connected. They communicate bidirectionally (gut to brain and bring to gut). When the brain is under stress it sends messages to the gut that can disrupt the microbiome, further leading to inflammation, mood disturbances and chronic health conditions. In the environment, exposure to toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides, air pollution and molds can cause gut imbalance. Next, your circadian rhythm (your sleep-wake cycle) is directly linked to the microbiome. Poor quality of sleep may be due to unhealthy microbiome, but an unhealthy microbiome may be due to poor sleep habits. In other words, it is important to have both quality sleep habits as well as a healthy gut. Lastly, medications such as antibiotics, antifungals, antivirals, acid reducing medications and antipsychotics are all culprits of causing gut dysbiosis. Now that we know what may hurt our gut, we can discuss how to heal it using the “Five R Framework.”

The “Five R Framework”

Remove – When starting to heal the gut, we want to remove everything that may be hurting it. Foods that cause inflammation are important to remove. These irritating foods can be identified by having a food-sensitivity test done (which may be costly) or completing an elimination diet. In an elimination diet, we first eliminate common foods that cause reactions, including dairy and eggs, soy, peanuts, corn, gluten, processed foods and alcohol. After eliminating these foods from the diet for four weeks, food groups are reintroduced, one at a time every three days, and a food diary is kept to recognize what is causing any symptoms. This diet has shown to clear up symptoms such as chronic runny nose or congestion, skin conditions such as eczema, chronic bloating, constipation and nausea.

Replace – Next, we must replace components that aid in nutrient absorption, such as digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid (great for patients on long-term acid-reducing medications, vegans and vegetarians). Supplements that contain amylase, lipase, lactase and pepsin can be found to help aid digestion. Hydrochloric acid supplements will contain an ingredient called “Betaine HCl,” which may even be found in combination products with the previously listed digestive enzymes.

Reinoculate – This step involves introducing pre- and probiotics to the gut. Prebiotics are foods that stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. You can get prebiotics through flax seeds, oats, artichokes, garlic, onion, soy products and sweet potatoes. Probiotics are live bacteria that provide benefit to the host (you!). A quality probiotic is one that is broad spectrum (contains many different strains), has at least 30 billion colony forming units (CFUs) and includes soil-based organisms (SBOs). The quality of these products matter! Quality probiotic brands include Xymogen, Garden of Life, Florastor and Culturelle. These products can be found at your local pharmacy or ordered directly from the manufacturer online.

Repair – Key nutrients that aid in the healing of the gut lining must be replenished. These include vitamins and minerals such as zinc; vitamins A, C, D and E; omega-3 fatty acids; and glutamine. A diet containing foods rich in collagens (bone broth), fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kombucha and pickles) and fruits and vegetables is best for repairing and maintaining a healthy gut. Raw vegetables contain more phytonutrients than cooked; however, both are beneficial to the gut.

Rebalance – This final step involves implementing stress-reducing activities and increasing sleep and exposure to a healthy environment. Stress-reducing activities include meditation, yoga, exercise, aromatherapy, breathing techniques and comedy. Positive environmental changes include pets (this increases your microbiome diversity!), spending time outdoors, walking barefoot on pesticide-free grass and having live plants in your home. Sleep hygiene can be improved by not eating too late at night, avoiding caffeine late in the day, having a regular bedtime, getting sunlight exposure and avoiding blue light (television screens, cellphone screens and laptops) two hours before bedtime.

As you can see, a healthy gut is important for overall health. Gut health can improve immune function, mood and energy level. Using the “Five R Framework” you can be on your way to a happy gut and a healthy life.  

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