How it All Gets Out of Balance in the First Place
It might seem far-fetched to fathom that so many modern ailments can be linked with some level of gut dysbiosis: flora imbalance, food intolerance or other digestive distress resulting in inflammation and poor nutrient absorption. But, it's true. Chinese Medicine has known for centuries how important the role of the digestive system is based on proper functioning of the Spleen and Stomach - an energetic system linked to pretty much every pathology (and physiology) imaginable within the scope of TCM. Science is starting to prove it, and many Functional Medicine doctors incorporate gut healing into therapeutic strategy for chronic illness (including obesity and Type 2 Diabetes).
Some individuals have a predisposition or a history of digestive disorders, which may be genetic or have been induced by one of the myriad of life's exposures. The following factors are common ones to consider when evaluating your own gut health:
As we learned in Part 2 of this series, we get our first inoculations of healthy gut bacteria in-utero via the microbiome of the placenta and from mom during a vaginal birth, skin-to-skin contact and breast-feeding. How we start out in life, from a gut-flora perspective, absolutely plays a role in our digestive health later on - especially if we have a genetic predisposition to digestive distress or poor nutrition. We can trace back to this first exposure to learn how best to maintain and heal our own digestive system moving forward.
Taking anti-biotics (at any time in your life), is a major factor in gut dysbiosis and flora imbalance. The main concern with antibiotics is that they function to eliminate all bacteria, and since they work so effectively, both the “good” and the “bad” flora can be eliminated. While certain antibiotic courses are often prescribed for good reason and may be necessary, understanding the importance of our own bacterial health allows us to be pro-active about probiotic use as well - so we can heal.
Highly stressful lifestyles (stress wreaks havoc on the whole body, especially our digestion), or improper diet can lead to long-term stress and degradation of the intestinal system. This includes over-consumption of processed foods (even if "healthy" or "organic") as these foods have lost their nutrient vitality. Many prescription medications add to the systemic stress our body may feel, and can disrupt gut flora balance - such as the Birth Control Pill being a common factor. We can also consider exposure to environmental (and other) toxins as a form of stress on the body, that can weigh on the digestive tract over time.
Another correlation to the health of our gut flora is travel (especially outside of the country), when our system is susceptible to foreign bacteria – different contaminants in water and soil, foods, even airborne bacteria – that may create imbalance to our system, simply by being ‘new’ or ‘unrecognized’ by the body. Probiotic use can be both preventative and healing. Consider taking probiotics before and after travel as a way to bolster your system against foreign microbes.
Many people talk about elimination diets and the concept of “food intolerance” – which is not a full blown allergy, but a difficult food for the body to process determined on an individual basis. This could have resulted from a compromised gut, which once it is healed then the irritating food might be tolerated again. Or, this could be a genetic predisposition and the food should be avoided entirely. Working with a skilled nutritionist or functional medicine practitioner can help you decipher a potential food intolerance. When left unattended, repeated exposure to an irritating food can lead to systemic symptoms of fatigue, headache, skin conditions, and other inflammatory or even auto-immune conditions. Main culprits are gluten (wheat protein) and casein (dairy protein) – but can also include nuts, eggs, grains, fruits and others.
In very serious cases of gut imbalance, taking probiotics or eating probiotic rich food will not be enough. Sometimes, the lining of the intestinal wall becomes compromised, resulting in large holes where food particles and bacteria can enter the bloodstream that aren’t meant to. This condition is also known as “leaky gut.” To recover, an individualized treatment plan is necessary – consisting of high quality gelatin (found in various food sources or taken as a supplement) to repair the intestinal wall, elimination of irritating foods for a period of time (blood testing or experience testing can be done to determine which foods may be causing irritation) and high-dose therapeutic probiotic therapy to rebuild the flora. Rest and holistic therapies may also be useful.
How To Heal
Rebuilding the gut is not something that happens overnight. Nor is it something we are ever "done" doing. It is an ongoing process, and one we must continually check in with for ourselves. I hope you can start to see how the health of our gut and intestinal lining actually lays the foundation for systemic health. Because of the direct access to our bloodstream, we can't often heal from chronic headaches, painful periods or mood changes without first looking at the health of the digestive system. Some places to start:
- Include a high-quality probiotic, with meals (start slowly as you introduce a probiotic supplement)
- Eat fermented foods! Check part 4 for nine ways to consume probiotics
- Reduce your stress, a great way to do this is to mediate daily (even if only for 5 minutes!)
- Avoid processed foods, especially those with refined sugar and flour (they feed the "bad guys")
- Enjoy a healing tonic of bone broth or grass-fed collagen daily, for intestinal health
If you are struggling with symptoms that leave you feeling overwhelmed and confused where to start, consider speaking with a practitioner who can help guide you. There is no one-size fits all prescription for gut healing, but there are simple things you can do on a daily basis to begin the transformation. If you keep at it, you'll start to note significant changes in how you feel and how your digestion performs - a routine you can continue for the rest of your life!