“ All Disease Begins in the Gut”
Hippocrates was a smart dude, and he was onto something there. With recent research in support of the whole “GUT IS EVERYTHING” thesis, even western medicine has really shifted focus from prescribing antibiotics like candy to advising the importance of having a healthy and robust Gut Micro-biome as a pillar of health.
I was diagnosed with IBS at the young age of 7 and experienced miserable GI symptoms most of my life. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I stopped accepting the “this is just how I am” hypothesis and started digging did I find answers that have not only helped myself heal, but many others as well. Digestion, however, can be a VERY confusing topic.
Wait, what are probiotics again? Isn’t that just yogurt?
I take a fiber supplement, isn’t that enough?
I poop every few days..that’s normal right?
Isn’t bacteria BAD to have in your stomach?
Um..does frozen yogurt count as getting probiotics in?
Yes these are all questions I’ve gotten, and sadly it doesn’t even begin to cover the misinformation out there regarding your digestion. So, we’ve got a lot to cover… ONTO THE DIRTY TALK.
Why do I need to care so much about my poop anyway?
There are about 25 feet of intestines curled up in your belly, a whopping 5 feet of which is dedicated to your large intestine. The large intestine is a special friend to us, because it houses the colony of bacteria that make up around 60-70% of your immune system. In a happy colon, there are plentiful ‘good bug’ bacteria that do everything from help you digest food, fight off illness, and keep your mental health stable and uplifted (YES, you heard that right. Your poop is related to your anxiety and depression!). They are massively underestimated soldiers of your body, and impact basically every other organ and function your body has. Having a strong and robust good bug army impacts your weight, blood sugar balance, mental health, adrenal function, thyroid hormones, fertility, immunity, sex hormone balance, and skin health.
Not to mention, your digestive tract is a Barrier System. This means it has the heady job of deciding what is nourishing enough to be absorbed in the body and what gets denied and pushed out (if you know what I mean). This may not seem like a hard job, but just think of a club bouncer trying to sifting through to find the cool kids while tons of rowdy no gooders are fighting to get in at the same time (aka harmful proteins, toxins, inflammatory foods, etc). He has to first figure out what is actually harmful versus nutritious, sift them apart, then make sure the bad guys get excreted in a fairly quick manner because, if too long passes between poops, the toxins will be absorbed back into the body. (Yes, constipation leads to the toxins in your feces literally being absorbed back into your body…)
Recent surveys show that 74% of Americans are living with GI discomfort. That means ¾ of our country is living with gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and indigestion. The most heartbreaking part is how many of us consider it totally normal! Most likely because if we don’t experience this ourselves, we are probably surrounded with people who do. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. No, it’s not normal to experience gas and bloating at every meal, no that’s not just the way you are. It can be a long road to figure out the complicated land of digestive distress, but there are SO many interventions and natural things you can do to start improving your situation.
Just keep Swimming
I take a Top Down approach when it comes to digestion: meaning if a step gets all screwed up, so does every step after that, so we better take care to fix ALL the steps. Let’s go through the digestive process so we understand the many different places our food journeys through, what often goes WRONG, and how to fix it.
1. Digestion starts in the
We have something called the “Cephalic Phase Digestive Response”. This is a fancy name for all the elements of food we experience outside of our mouths: the visual appeal of our plates, the smell, the awareness of meal time, the anticipation of eating, etc. I like to best explain it as the mindful awareness of food. Despite sounding woo woo, scientists have estimated that it makes up about 30-40% of our TOTAL digestive response to a meal, and that bypassing this awareness process can mean we digest our food at 60% capacity of what we should. Awareness of the meal in front of us stimulates gastric juices, enzymes, saliva, and pancreatic enzymes so by the time the food hits our mouth, we are more than prepared to move it along.
Disruptions to this step and behaviors to AVOID:
-Rushing into eating
-watching TV or reading while eating
-eating extremely fast
-eating while driving or on the go
-not taking a moment to center yourself before you begin your meal
*this is one of the reasons I love to pray before dinner. Besides the obvious reason of gratitude, it helps calm the mind and bring awareness to the body before we begin eating. Even just pausing to take 5-10 deep breaths when you sit down instantly centers and calms you and can snap your awareness to the present, your digestion will thank you!
2. Chew your liquids, Drink Your solids
Yes, your mom was right–25 times at least! I know it seems like a lot, and quite frankly, it can feel unnatural when you start to intentionally focus on chewing more. It is a worthy cause though, I promise! Chewing produces saliva and therefore secretes the digestive enzymes held in our saliva that break down our food. When we eat extremely fast or swallow without chewing enough, we are neglecting part of the digestive process and overloading the stomach with chunks of food particles it now has to work twice as hard to break down.
-eating too fast
-not chewing enough
-drinking too much liquid with your food, diluting the saliva and enzymes
3. BURN BABY BURN
So now we hit the stomach. This is where, in my opinion, the most misunderstood but incredibly important step comes in: STOMACH ACID. Stomach acid is in charge of breaking down proteins, and turns our solid food into a sludgy mixture of liquid food and acid, called chyme. Now, this step is crucial, because the chyme needs to reach a particular level of acidity in order to stimulate the release of Pancreatic enzymes (which are the little guys that are necessary for further breakdown and nutrient absorption). Not enough stomach acid→ not acidic chyme→ malabsorption, bloating in the upper stomach, belching, heart burn, and that feeling like your food is sitting as a rock in your stomach.
Many people view stomach acid as a bad thing, which is why acid suppressants (PPIs) like Prilosec or antacids like TUMS are one of the most used classes of meds now. The problem is, issues like heartburn and Gerd are not due to having too much stomach acid, actually, the problem arises when we don’t have ENOUGH to break down our food, or at least to compensate with the overeating that is taking place. Then, undigested food doesn’t move down but instead overflows and pushes the stomach contents up through our lower esophageal valve, causing pain and burning–other wise known as that heartburn feeling in the center of your chest.
Low stomach acid is a problem the MAJORITY of the population have for many reasons; so many things can suppress or lead to insufficient production of it.
-eating a vegan or vegetarian diet for an extended amount of time
-eating too fast
-chronically over eating
-taking Proton Pump Inhibitors like Prilosec or Zantac
-extended use of Antibiotics
-having pathogenic gut infections that suppress stomach acid production like H. Pylori
ATTENTION: if you feel like this describes you, I detail how to increase stomach acid in my 5 pillars at the end of this post!
4. Let’s sort it out
Next comes the small intestine. In a perfect world, the chyme would make its way down here where it would be separated for various absorption uses. BASICALLY, if everything is right, there are no problems with food being broken down and/or getting through where it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, because of many reasons (cough* low stomach acid *cough), this can go awry.
The conditions/problems listed below are associated with joint pain, skin issues, fatigue, suppressed immunity, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and LOTS more.
General disruptions to Small Intestine activity:
-pre existing Gut infections or overgrowths (like Sibo or Candida)
-insufficient stomach acid
-insufficient Pancreatic Enzymes (which can sometimes be caused by insufficient stomach acid)
-eating when stressed/eating too fast
-eating while moving/driving
5. Home Sweet Home
We now enter the large intestine…at least, what is left does. And they provide food for those probiotic bugs we were talking about earlier. These bugs feed on the soluble fiber in starchy veggies like yucca, plantains, sweet potatoes, taro, and winter squash. They also really love what’s called prebiotcs (foods that feed the probiotics), like onions, garlic, jerusalem artichokes, leeks, and dandelion root. Your gut flora is also MAJORLY impacted by lifestyle habits. Getting regular sleep, moving frequently in exercise that you love, and managing stress are all crucial to keeping the micro-biome of your gut flora (aka, the population of bacteria in your gut) happy and abundant.
Things that interfere with the gut microbiome:
- Autoimmune conditions (particularly Crohns or Colitis)
- High stress life
- Emotional trauma
- Processed foods
- Not consuming enough probiotic foods
*A note on insoluble fiber. It is commonly recommended that pounding the fiber supplements and green cruciferous veggies is the miracle pill for digestion. Fiber this Fiber that. Yes, Fiber is great. But insoluble fiber (found in green veggies) and soluble fiber (found in starchy veggies like potatoes) play very different roles. If you’re experiencing GI symptoms, I recommend focusing on soluble fiber while SLOWLY increasing your insoluble fiber. Too much roughage and you’ll end up constipated, in pain, or just plain gassy. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is healthy digestion…don’t over do it on the greens, guys.
Now that Ive overwhelmed you with talk of chyme this and bugs that, and you have a better idea of what can go wrong, here are the basic tools I find the most effective at achieving optimal digestion. No matter where you are at in your digestive journey, I can pretty much guarantee these 5 steps will bring healing.
Wholly Healed 5 Pillars for Healthy Digestion
1.REMOVE GUT INFLAMING FOODS
Gluten, refined sugar, and conventional dairy/meat are the big three I recommend everyone cut out if they are experiencing the slightest digestive distress. For many, this is enough to see improvement, for others who might have an underlying food sensitivity, an elimination diet can be in order to figure it out. Learn more about those here. What’s important is that you are removing the most gut inflaming foods for YOUR gut. Even certain nutritious foods like coconuts or apples can pose a risk if YOUR unique body doesn’t do well with them. This is where I sound like a broken record when I say LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
2.INCLUDE HEALING FOODS SPECIFIC FOR THE GUT
Removing the offenders is half the battle, we also want to support healing with foods that will rebuild the gut lining, soothe irritated digestion, and support the entire process. The best foods for this include
-Bone Broth (hands down absolute favorite for gut healing. Make your own or buy my favorite brand here.
-probiotic foods: kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, grassfed yogurt, or my favorite probiotic supplement
-prebiotic foods: Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions
– Grassfed Collagen (I take this one)
–L-Glutamine for leaky gut specifically
3.SUPPORT STOMACH ACID
By now you know how much can go wrong simply from not having enough stomach acid. It screws with the rest of the process, so supporting it is key. If you experience symptoms I described earlier associated with low stomach acid, I recommend one of 2 things here
a.Taking a TB of Raw Apple Cider Vinegar in a cup of water about 10 minutes before meals to stimulate acid production…
OR, if that makes you gag like it did my boyfriend
b.Buy Hydrochloric acid tablets to take before a meal. Start slowly and work up tablet by tablet. When you feel a slight burning sensation in your stomach, go to 1 less pill than that. That will be your sweet spot. I recommend this one or this one. It depends on your preference and desired strength.
4. TEST FOR GUT INFECTIONS
If you have an overgrowth of yeast (candida) or bacteria (SIBO), or even if you have a pathogen of some sort, you may find yourself frustrated with no progress despite making all the diet changes here. If that’s you, I HIGHLY recommend getting tested to figure out EXACTLY what’s going on down there. These infections/overgrowths are WAY more common than you think. The more you know, the more tailored your healing plan can be. Find a practitioner you like and go from there.
5. STRESS LESS
Yup, I’m going to talk about stress Every. Single. Post. It really is that important, and it really does impact every function in the body, ESPECIALLY digestion. There is what’s called the “gut-brain-axis”, which essentially refers to the intricate relationship the gut and the brain have to one another. The gut is often deemed our ‘second brain’ because of all the neuronal activity happening down there. Did you know that 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin (the one that makes us happy and is reported low in people with depression) is produced IN THE GUT? 90% PERCENT!
I KNOW. CRAZY.
This means that your mood and stress are both influenced by and influential to gut health.
Stress levels play a part in all gut issues, from SIBO to autoimmune conditions like Ulcerative Colitis to more simple issues like constipation or bloating episodes. So make it a priority to unwind at the end of a day, do things that bring you joy, and laugh. DEFINITELY, laugh. This study showed those with atopic dermatitis (a gut related skin condition) who watched a funny movie 5 days in a row altered their gut flora to a more healing balance by the end of it. So, put on the Office, New Girl, or Friends–I approve of all three–and get to giggling. Your gut will thank you.
Did I clear up confusion about basic digestion questions? Are there more specifics you want me to go into for my next topics? Please let me know in the comments. ALSO, don’t forget to submit your questions via email for my monthly Ask Jess series coming up soon!! Shoot em over to firstname.lastname@example.org.