The gut’s job has long been described in utilitarian terms: We eat food, the gut breaks it down. Calories and essential nutrients are absorbed and the rest passes through. But scientists are discovering new things about the gut and what it’s really up to. Our guts are talking to us and you’ll want to hear what yours has to say.
So, how can you tune-in to your gut? Many of us try to eat a variety of foods but some just don’t belong in our body, an obvious example being harmful bacteria. The gut has a remarkable ability to maintain the balance between friendly and unfriendly bacteria, but when the balance is upset, our immune systems react. Bloating, diarrhea, constipation or irregular stools are signs that the digestive process has been compromised and is inflamed.
Repeated or prolonged imbalance and the resulting inflammation can damage the intestinal wall. The gut loses the ability to choose between particles that belong in the intestines and those that should be absorbed into the body. It’s similar to the air filter in your car—if it’s not working properly, dirt and dust builds up and slows you down.
When these unwanted particles escape into the bloodstream, inflammation can occur throughout the body. This process, termed “leaky gut,” is a problem that health care professionals have only recently started exploring in-depth. Fatigue, joint pain and mood complaints as well as conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, thyroid dysfunction and autoimmune diseases have all been linked to leaky gut.
If you suspect the presence of inflammation or leaky gut, or you just want to check in with your insides, these three steps will help you tune in.
1. The first step is to take a closer look at your diet. Research is clear: Diet plays a critical role in gut health from as early as infancy. As we start eating processed and solid foods, our digestive tract meets a diversity of food particles that shape gut bacteria. A typical Canadian diet, high in processed foods including excess sugar and fat, has been shown to create the environment unfriendly bacteria need to flourish. The body can get its friendly bacteria back and support its growth by eating foods high in fiber such as vegetables and whole grains, and proteins such as meat, eggs and nuts.
2. The second step is to explore potential food sensitivities. Food sensitivities can be difficult to identify as it can take up to three days for the body to react to a food. The DIY way to test for food sensitivities is to experiment with an elimination diet—it’s just what it sounds like. Remove all potentially sensitive foods from your meals for two weeks and introduce one of those foods back in every three days while you record everything from mood to energy to stool changes in a notebook. Expert tip: The most common food sensitivities I see in practice are gluten, dairy, corn, peanuts, soy and eggs.
For most of my patients, two weeks is enough time to experience symptom alleviation and ID the culprit. This is an incredibly safe and powerful experiment that can demonstrate the effect foods have on gut and whole body health. It also strengthens the self-discipline muscle!
3. The third step is introducing friendly bacteria to the gut by consuming fermented foods. Kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso soup contain numerous strains of friendly bacteria that can contribute to a healthy gut environment.
In combination, these three steps can increase friendly gut bacteria, decrease inflammation, eliminate waste and detoxify the body. Your gut would say thank you but it will be too busy doing the job nature gave it—it’s the rest of your body that will say thanks!
Maggie Pattillo, ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and co-owner of Halifax Naturopathic Health Centre. Her clinical practice is focused on digestive disturbances, women’s health concerns and integrative cancer care.