Hippocrates, the famous ancient Greek physician and “Father of Medicine,” is famous for having said, "all disease begins in the gut." This profound statement, made over 2,000 years ago, could not be more relevant today!
A growing body of scientific research indicates that the health of the gut is crucial for the maintenance of our overall wellbeing, regulating a diverse range of functions including digestion, immunity, and hormonal balance.
Factors that disrupt our gut health, such as dysbiosis and intestinal permeability ("leaky gut"), predispose us to a wide variety of health problems. Considering the far-reaching impact of the gut on our overall health, enhancing gut health should be a priority for anyone looking to optimize their wellbeing!
The million-dollar question is, what is the best way to optimize our digestive health?
With the number of probiotics, digestive health supplements, and diet plans out there, it can be hard to know where to begin. Fortunately, the answer needn’t be complicated!
A large body of evidence indicates that soil-based probiotics, the beneficial yeast Saccharomyces boulardii, and select nutrients and herbs effectively repair damage sustained by the intestinal barrier, restore balance to the gut microbiome, and quench gut inflammation.
Leaky Gut and Dysbiosis: Modern-day Epidemics
When addressing gut health, we need to consider two factors: The integrity of the intestinal barrier, which consists of the epithelial cells that line the tube that is the digestive tract, and the gut microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that reside in the gut.
The gastrointestinal tract serves two primary purposes; it acts as a barrier to the external environment and serves as a portal of entry for nutrients into the rest of the body. The functions of the gut microbiome, on the other hand, are many:
gut microbes regulate the breakdown and absorption of nutrients from food
modulate the immune system (80 percent of which resides in the gut!)
protect us from pathogens
produce hormones and neurotransmitters that affect our metabolism and mood
When external factors disrupt the integrity of the intestinal barrier and the gut microbiome, leaky gut and dysbiosis occur.
Leaky gut is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, causing undigested food particles, toxins, and bacterial products to “leak” from the intestine into the bloodstream, prompting an inflammatory response.
Dysbiosis occurs when the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut is disrupted, resulting in the proliferation of “bad” bacteria.
Leaky gut and dysbiosis underlie not only many of the gut health issues faced by people today, such as:
but also a wide variety of chronic health conditions including:
The Link Between Gut Health and Hormones
Gut health is one of the most overlooked factors underpinning hormonal imbalances.
Despite the lack of attention given to leaky gut and dysbiosis in the conventional medical system, a rapidly growing body of research indicates that gut health is fundamentally linked to hormonal balance. Fascinatingly, gut microbes produce hormones and neurotransmitters that are identical to those produced by humans; this means that imbalances in the gut microbiome can have significant effects on our hormonal balance. (1)
Many hormonal conditions have been tied to the gut microbiome, including the following:
Hashimoto’s disease: Patients with Hashimoto’s disease have significantly altered gut microbiotas compared to healthy controls. (2)
Hypothyroidism: Non-autoimmune hypothyroidism is also linked to the gut microbiome. Gut microbes are responsible for converting thyroid hormone (T4) into its most active form (T3). A lack of beneficial microbes may impair this conversion and promote hypothyroidism. (3)
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS): Disruption of the gut microbiome composition and leaky gut have been linked to PCOS, a hormonal condition that is rapidly increasing in prevalence among women of reproductive age. (4)
Weight gain: An imbalance between beneficial and pathogenic gut microbes can enhance energy harvest or the number of calories extracted from the diet. This promotes fat accumulation and weight gain. (5)
Menopausal symptoms: An altered gut microbiota may also be responsible for menopausal symptoms, including insulin resistance, weight gain, and osteoporosis. (6)
In addition to regulating hormonal balance in a variety of health conditions, gut microbes and an intact intestinal barrier are required for the absorption of nutrients involved in hormone production. These include iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
Clearly, correcting a leaky gut and dysbiosis is essential not only for reversing gut symptoms but also for preventing chronic diseases, hormonal imbalances and for promoting long-term health. Unfortunately, the conventional medical approach to treating these conditions leaves much to be desired.
The Problem With the Conventional Approach to GI Issues
A recent survey of 2,000 Americans has found that 74% of them live with gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. (7)
Understandably concerned about their symptoms, many people turn to their primary care physicians or conventionally-trained gastroenterologists, who often prescribe pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics or antacids. Unfortunately, while these medications may alleviate GI symptoms in the short-term, they fail to resolve the underlying causes of digestive discomfort.
For example, antibiotics lower levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut, increasing the risk of intestinal dysbiosis and yeast overgrowth. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a class of drugs commonly prescribed for GERD, also alter the composition of the gut microbiota and increase the risk of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. (8)(9)
While pharmaceuticals have their place, they are not the answer for building lasting digestive system health. To truly optimize digestive health, we need to correct two of the underlying causes of GI issues – intestinal dysbiosis and a leaky gut.
Fortunately, we have several powerful natural allies available that can assist in healing the gut – soil-based probiotics, Saccharomyces boulardii, and select nutrients and herbs. Together, these products work synergistically to restore balance to the gut and revive your health!
Soil-based Probiotics Re-establish a Healthy Microbiome
A healthy gut microbiome is a must if one wishes to create a resilient digestive system!
As awareness of the gut microbiome has grown, probiotics have gained increased popularity among healthcare professionals and the public. Probiotics, which are live bacteria and yeasts that confer health benefits to the human host, can be found in probiotic supplements and fermented foods.
Most commercially-available probiotic supplements contain a combination of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria; unfortunately, this poses a problem because these probiotic strains are often rendered inert by the acidic environment of the stomach before they've even had the opportunity to reach the intestine.
However, this doesn’t mean you should give up on probiotics altogether! Soil-based microorganisms (SBOs), spore-forming beneficial bacteria commonly found in soil, are an excellent alternative to Lactobacilli- and Bifidobacteria-containing probiotics because they survive the acidic environment of the stomach and arrive intact to the colon, where they exert a wide range of health benefits.
SBOs have long comprised a vital part of the human gut microbiome. Our ancestors were exposed to large amounts of soil-based microorganisms due to their close contact with nature. These beneficial bacteria have only recently gone missing from our guts due to our processed diets, lack of exposure to nature, and obsession with over-cleanliness.
Research conducted on modern-day hunter-gatherers, who live lives similar to those of our ancestors and are exposed to large numbers of SBOs, suggests that the great diversity of their microbiomes compared to those of industrialized humans plays a significant role in their excellent health, vitality, and extremely low rates of chronic diseases. (10)(11)(12)
In addition to epidemiological evidence, we also have a wealth of scientific research supporting the health benefits of soil-based microorganisms:
Antimicrobial effects: Bacillus coagulans, an SBO, secretes a compound with antibacterial activity against intestinal pathogens. Bacillus subtilis, another SBO, produces an antibacterial compound that targets H. pylori. (13)(14)
Strengthens the immune system: Animal research has found that Bacillus subtilis promotes the development of gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), a component of the immune system that protects the body from infection. (15) B. subtilis also stimulates the immune system by upregulating macrophages and natural killer (NK) cells, as well as by activating TLR2 and TLR4 cell receptors which recognize intestinal pathogens and encourage their clearance from the body. (16)(17)
Produce antioxidants: The SBO Bacillus indicus produces carotenoids which have antioxidant effects in the body. These carotenoids also happen to be significantly more bioavailable than carotenoids from other sources such as orange- and yellow-pigmented foods.
The Healing Power of Nutrients and Herbs for Leaky Gut
While probiotics are key for restoring healthy gut function and optimizing our health, herbs and nutrients also provide relief for nagging gut symptoms. Listed here are just a few nutrients and herbs that have beneficial effects on gut health.
Nutrients for Leaky Gut
L-glutamine is an important fuel source for cells that rapidly turn over, such as the epithelial cells of the gastrointestinal tract. Supplementation with L-glutamine supports intestinal barrier function and helps repair leaky gut. (22)
Zinc Carnosine, a compound composed of the mineral zinc attached to the molecule carnosine, enhances the integrity of the intestinal barrier and stimulates gut repair processes, helping to heal stomach ulcers and leaky gut. (23)
Quercetin, a polyphenol found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, increases the expression of proteins that “bind” intestinal cells together, enhancing intestinal barrier function and preventing leaky gut. (24)
Herbs for Leaky Gut
The gel of the aloe vera plant has both emollient and antibacterial properties. This makes it useful both for healing existing stomach ulcers and for killing H. pylori, the pathogenic bacterium implicated in stomach ulcer development. (25)
No, this is not the type of marshmallow you put on a stick and roast over a campfire! The marshmallow I’m referring to here is the root of the Althaea officinalis plant. It has a mucilaginous texture that is soothing to the gut lining and helps relieve gastrointestinal inflammation.
Okra extract, produced from the edible green seed pods of the okra plant, has been found to inhibit the adhesion of H. pylori to stomach tissue and may be useful in the treatment of stubborn H. pylori infections. (26) Okra is also a rich source of fiber which feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and lubricates the intestines, helping to prevent and reverse constipation.
The Best Way to Support Your Gut Health
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While conventional medicine primarily offers only symptomatic management of gut health issues, nature has provided us with an abundance of tools that can help us resolve the underlying causes of gut dysfunction and create a foundation for optimal health!
What have you tried to heal your gut? Share with us by commenting below!
Bridgit Danner, LAc, FDNP, is trained in functional health coaching and has worked with thousands of women over her career since 2004. She is the founder of Women’s Wellness Collaborative llc and HormoneDetoxShop.com.
Grab Bridgit’s list of 5 Easy Detox Swaps for Women’s Health to start clearing out the toxins and reset your system to feel better today!