While most people only find it necessary to search out gut healing strategies when plagued with the stomach flu, recent scientific literature is showing the health of the gut is foundational to how our body operates, and our body’s ability to fight disease.
What is the Gut?
The gut (also known as the gastrointestinal tract) is the long tube that’s responsible for consuming and digesting the food we eat. Food enters, nutrients are extracted, and what’s leftover is eliminated.
In the last decade, much of the discussion concerning the gut has focused on the small and large intestine due to the fact that it’s home to 100 trillion microorganisms. (Give or take a few million, of course.)
While it may seem like an inconvenience to be carrying around this 3-4 pound load of bacteria in our intestines, our gut microbes do an enormous amount of work for us – including helping to digest certain foods, regulating metabolism, producing vitamins, and helping to balance our immune system.
That’s big news there, so—it’s worth repeating: Your gut plays a significant role in the health of your immune system.
It’s All in the Gut
Your immune system is far more than just your ability to fight a cold; it’s your body’s defense against illness, infection and disease. Each day, it goes to work against viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and regulates abnormal substances found in the body – like damaged or cancerous cells.
So, what does this all have to do with the gut? The intestines are the main area of the body where an exchange happens between us and the exterior world. After food has been churned and burned in the stomach, absorption begins in the small intestine.
Studies show the health of our gut bacteria and the integrity of the gut wall have a profound effect on how well our immune system works. And because of this connection, research surrounding some of our nation’s most complex diseases is now directing its focus on the health of the gut.
In fact, imbalances in gut bacteria and disruptions to the intestinal wall have been linked to an enormous amount of conditions and diseases, including (but not limited to) asthma, autism, depression, metabolic syndrome, bladder and urinary-tract infections, chronic fatigue, Parkinson’s disease, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes.
In short, a healthy gut and a healthy body are synonymous. To have health, one must proactively pursue maintaining a healthy gut with intentional gut healing strategies.
Where Does it All Go Wrong?
At birth, we’re introduced to our first exposure of gut bacteria through the birth canal and breast milk. After this initial inoculation, our gut microbes are populated from the food we eat and our environment.
So, where do things get wonky? Our obsession with sterilization and sanitation has drastically reduced our exposure to beneficial microorganisms. And since the industrial food revolution, our consumption of traditional cultured and fermented foods, which are packed with probiotics, has taken a nose dive.
In addition, there are several aspects of our modern lifestyle that can negatively impact our gut and gut microbes:
While the best way to build a healthy, robust gut is to remove the stressors listed above, life isn’t always as perfect as we’d like it to be. This is why it’s incredibly important to have gut healing strategies you can easily integrate into your life that will help repopulate and heal the gut.
If you’re currently experiencing an immune or gut-related condition, or want to strengthen your defenses against disease, here are three simple gut healing strategies I recommend everyone incorporate regularly.
3 Simple Gut Healing Strategies
1. Consume probiotic foods and supplements
Probiotics are live microorganisms (typically referred to as “good” bacteria) that have beneficial qualities. While probiotics are everywhere, they’re mainly found in soil and food, and can be cultivated through preservation techniques like fermentation.
Because many things can disrupt our gut bacteria, proactively maintaining and cultivating a healthy colony of good gut bugs with supplements and probiotic foods can significantly improve gut health and the health of the immune system.
And while there are many different types of probiotic supplements currently on the market, fermented foods are by far the best source of concentrated and diverse probiotics.
So, what the heck are “fermented” foods? Fermented foods are foods that have been through the process of lactofermentation in which lactose and other sugars in food are converted into lactic acid. This creates an acidic environment which preserves the food, and creates additional enzymes, vitamins, and various probiotics strains in the process.
It’s important to note, probiotic supplements definitely have their place. But, building a healthy, robust, diverse colony of gut microbes is best done with a coordinated effort that includes both fermented foods and supplements.
How to do this: Experiment with store-bought probiotics foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, kvass, or raw milk yogurt. (Note: These items can be found for much cheaper at your local health foods store in the refrigeration section.) If you’re new to fermented foods, start with 1-2 tablespoons and build your consumption from there. Once you become more acquainted with these foods, start researching how to make your own probiotic foods at home, which can be done for pennies on the dollar. I recommend starting with sauerkraut or kombucha, which are easy to make and only take a few simple ingredients.
Keep probiotic supplements on-hand for times when you can’t consume fermented foods, like when traveling. Supplements are also good when digestive issues strike (constipation, diarrhea, etc.) that could disrupt gut microbiota, and when taking antibiotics. Stick with high-quality probiotic supplements that have at least 10 billion CFU per capsule, and switch brands/bottles to diversify your exposure to probiotics. While there are very little adverse side affects to taking probiotics, start slow (1/2 – 1 capsule per day.) I recommend Prescript-Assist, Florajen, and Jigsaw.
2. Drink collagen-rich bone broth
Bone broth is a traditional food that has recently been making a comeback in the commercial food industry. While you make think all broth is the same, store-bought broths available in boxes or cans typically use lab-produced meat and vegetable flavors, and are nothing more than chemically enhanced water.
Traditional bone broth (or stock), on the other hand, is the liquid that remains after animal bones are boiled with water and other additions like vegetables, herbs and spices. Making broth was the way our ancestors made use of all the parts of an animal, and it served as a dense source of immune-boosting nutrients.
So, what does bone broth have to do with the gut? When parts from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals like bone, marrow, tendons, cartilage and ligaments are simmered in water for 12-24 hours, they release healing compounds including collagen, proline, glycine, glucosamine, chondroitin sulphates and glutamine.
While all of these nutrients are incredibly beneficial for the body, glutamine and collagen have specific gut healing qualities.
Glutamine is an amino acid that is the primary fuel source for our gut cells, and has been shown to enhance gut barrier function. Nourishing the gut barrier means fueling a stronger immune system, and may provide significant benefit for conditions associated with the gut lining, like leaky gut.
Collagen is the “glue” that hold cartilage together. The breakdown of collagen in bone broth produces gelatin, the same substance we all know that gives Jello its jiggle. Gelatin soothes the gut lining, improves gut integrity and digestive function, and can increase gastric acid secretion (which we talk about next!)
Bones broth is also packed with minerals in forms the body can easily absorb, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and other trace minerals.
How to do this: The best way to get the most nutrient-dense bone broth is to make it at home. The main ingredient in bone broth, animal bones, can be purchased for cheap from your local farmer. If you haven’t started eating locally yet, head over to localharvest.org and search the local farms and farmer’s markets around you. Keep in mind, you can also use the leftover bones from pastured animals you cook whole, including turkey or chicken. For some simple recipes on how to make bone broth, check out Wellness Mama’s recipe, which uses a large stock pot, or Diane Sanfilippo’s recipe, which uses a crockpot.
I personally cook a big batch of homemade broth once every two weeks in my 6-quart crockpot. Typically, after I’ve cooked a whole chicken in the crockpot, I’ll debone the chicken, and throw the skin, bones, and remaining “parts” back into the crockpot with the drippings that rendered while cooking the chicken. Then, I fill the crockpot with filtered water, add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, and let it simmer on “low” for 24 hours. I store my broth in large Le Parfait jars in the freezer for future use.
Keep in mind, you can use your homemade broth to make chili, soups or stews, or – you can drink a warm cup of it by itself. If you’re working on healing your gut, I recommend drinking 4-6 oz each day.
3. Support stomach acid production
Stomach acid, also known as gastric acid, is the acid the stomach produces in order to digest the food we eat. While formerly given a bad rap for being the cause of GI issues like heartburn, stomach acid is foundational to digestion because of the enormous effect it has on digestive processes downstream.
It’s estimated that 90% of people have low stomach acid due to issues like eating too fast, not chewing food appropriately, stress, deficiencies in nutrients needed to make stomach acid, and diets high in refined sugar and grains.
So, why is this a big deal? Stomach acid is responsible for breaking down food so it can be absorbed appropriately in the small intestine. When stomach acid is low, large, undigested food particles make it into the small intestine and can cause issues like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and dysbiosis.
It can also cause inflammation and damage to the gut lining. Because 70% of our immune system resides in the gut, problems here can lead to major imbalances in the immune system.
Stomach acid, which has a very acidic pH of 1, is also responsible for killing off pathogens like viruses, bacteria and yeast. When stomach acid is low, pathogens live on, creating inflammation and susceptibility to disease.
And lastly, when food (now called “chyme”) enters the small intestine, it must have a specific acidity to stimulate further digestive processes. If chyme isn’t acidic enough due to inappropriately levels of stomach acid, digestive processes aren’t stimulated, leading to major problems for the gut and its inhabitants.
How to do this: Digestion, as a process, begins in the brain. If we’re stressed, nervous, eating in the car, or simply not in a relaxed state, stomach acid production will be inhibited. So, always sit down, take a few deep breaths, and relax before engaging with your food. Second, make sure you always chew your food throughly, giving it sufficient time to break down and mix with saliva. “Wolfing” down food allows large, undigested food particles in the stomach, which can inhibit stomach acid and lead to inappropriate digestion. Lastly, avoid drinking water or other liquids with your meals as they can dilute stomach acid. Limit drinking to 30 minutes prior to or after consuming your food.
For additional support, use raw apple cider vinegar to stimulate stomach acid production. Simply put 1-2 tsp in 8 oz water and drink 30 minutes prior to your meal.
For more targeted support, consider using HCL (hydrochloric acid) supplements during your meal, which can be helpful for people with chronically low levels of stomach acid. To find out your appropriate dosage, you can perform a stomach acid “challenge” which introduces one low-dose HCL supplement every five minutes during a meal until a “warming” sensation occurs. Because this process can get a little tricky and isn’t right for everyone, I recommend performing this challenge with the help of a practitioner.
Do you practice any of these gut healing strategies? If so, what kind of difference has it made it in your overall health?