Dr. Will Cole is our featured functional health expert in the Total Reset, a free 14-day program that combines daily yoga classes, simple plant-based breakfast recipes, and nutritional supplements into one total reset. You can learn from him in-person at Wanderlust Palmaïa (December 7-10, 2023).
Your gut has an influence on the health of your entire body. The trillions of microbes and colonies located in your microbiome are the manufacturers and managers of how you look, feel, and think.
70-80% of your immune system resides around and in the gut, and the gut produces a large amount of your “happy” neurotransmitter serotonin, and contains 10 times more bacterial cells than you have human cells! You are, in truth, more bacteria than human. And researchers are quickly learning just how much it regulates all aspects of your health.
A Healthy Gut is the Foundation of A Healthy Body (and Mind)
Many lifestyle behaviors, toxic exposures, and dietary choices can compromise gut health and lead to many downstream health issues. When your microbiome is weakened or damaged, it can “switch on” a number of potential disease processes throughout the body that may, on the surface of things, seem to have very little to do with your actual gastrointestinal system.
I see this all the time in my functional health telehealth practice. Someone will walk in with a skin condition like psoriasis or diabetes, and I know we have to look at the gut. And when I tell them we need to do a stool test to look at the health of their gut, sometimes my patients look at me and say, “But I don’t have any gut symptoms. I never had diarrhea or bloating.”
I go on to tell them how our gut is connected to all of our other organ systems including our skin, our brain, liver, and more. That is why it’s vital to educate yourself on the microbiome. By doing so, you are taking back control of your health.
Gut Problems May Not Manifest as Typical Gut Symptoms
There are about 100 autoimmune conditions we know about. Some of them, like rheumatoid arthritis, one of the most common causes of joint pain, and psoriasis, an autoimmune disorder of the skin, are likely to be familiar to all of you. While most of these conditions may not present with gut symptoms, in functional medicine we know we need to look deeper. Remember 70% of your immune system resides around and in your gastrointestinal tract. So when our immune system becomes dysregulated, it is essential to look at the state of the gut microbiome.
Mental health is another area that is closely tied to our gut health—so closely, in fact, that medical science often refers to your gut as your “second brain.”
Your gut and brain are formed from the same fetal tissue when you were growing in your mother’s womb, and continue their special bond throughout your whole life through what is known as the gut-brain axis. So, in order to heal the brain, we need to look at the other end of this axis—the gut—for clues.
In my practice, we test people for something called intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”. This is where the gut becomes permeable to food particles and causes food sensitivities to develop. Leaky gut also results in increased inflammation. This increased inflammation has negative effects on your blood-brain barrier, too. High inflammation can cause the blood-brain barrier to become “leaky” as well, letting bacteria and other toxins slip through.
Your immune system has to work in overdrive to fight off these invaders, and this in turn causes a cascade of inflammation within the brain. This inflammatory oxidative stress in the hypothalamus of the brain is the underlying cause of brain fog, anxiety and even depression.
In addition to autoimmune and mental health diseases, there are many other diseases that have are tied to the gut microbiome and gut health, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, skin conditions, obesity, and even cancer.
So you can see: it’s essential to support and heal the gut, even if gut symptoms are not present.
What to Avoid In Order To Support Gut Health
Processed and sugary foods are the most obvious culprits, because they feed pathogenic bacteria as well as Candida albicans.
Underlying food sensitivities, which can occur even with so-called healthy foods, can also lead to gut-damaging inflammation. Grains are one common example–even gluten-free grains and whole grains contain amylose sugars that “bad” bacteria and fungi love to consume, contributing to inflammation.
When protecting the gut we also want to be mindful of our use of medications. Medications are necessary sometimes, but are often overused. Antibiotics are essential in medicine and can save lives, but frequent use and overuse of these drugs kill gut bacteria, as these drugs do not distinguish between good and bad bacteria. With more good guys gone, pathogenic bacteria and fungi can take over, especially if you do not restore the balance through probiotic supplements or fermented foods.
Similarly, NSAIDS like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, are another class of medications that are generally safe and effective. However, if overused, these can damage the lining of the stomach and even cause stomach ulcers.
What to Add to your Diet & Routine for Improved Gut Health
What to avoid is helpful, but what to add to your daily life to support your gut is just as important.
Throughout the Total Reset you have been supporting your gut, whether you are aware of it or not. Stress reduction and exercise, like the yoga classes you have been doing with Janet Stone, help to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for rest and digestion.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It innervates virtually the entire gastrointestinal tract and ensures there is normal digestion and movement of contents through the gut—what you’d call normal bowel movements.
Additionally, you have been eating a whole-food plant based diet via the recipes from chef Sarah Todd, and a diet that is high in fiber and antioxidants and low in sugar is pivotal for the health of the gut.
Your gut microbes feed off of fiber and polyphenols, the antioxidants that are found in fruits and vegetables that make them different colors. These are their food sources, so for a happy gut we need to feed our gut bacteria what they really want–plants.
Besides eating healthy, fiber rich food, it’s also important to rotate your fruits and vegetables. Diet diversity is the holy grail to a healthy microbiome. Rotating your foods exposes your gut microbes to different fibers, polyphenols and other constituents that help to promote and maintain a diverse microbiome.
And we can’t talk about gut health without talking about fermented foods. Fermented foods have been used for thousands of years to help promote a healthy gut. Probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi will reinoculate your microbiome with good bacteria—especially important if you’ve recently had a round of antibiotics or been under a lot of stress.
Supplements Support—When They’re Clean
Nutritional supplements can become a huge part of your plan to boost gut health—and overall health. But it’s important to look at your source for these supplements and ask some questions.
Did you know that tablets require a number of questionable ingredients to produce such as binders and coating agents? The unfortunate thing is that these ingredients mean the products take more time to break down, decreasing how quickly it can be absorbed into your body. That’s why we prefer cold-pressed herbal liquid supplements, instead. They are rapidly absorbed and contain minimal excipients—that is, filler and inactive ingredients—due to their liquid format. If you aren’t quite ready to make the switch to liquids, you can instead opt for capsules, but seek out those made of plant-fiber derived from hypromellose, instead of animal gelatin.
You should also choose brands that are 100% plant-derived, and ideally organic, rather than synthesized in a lab. You’ll want to focus on brands that keep their ingredient list simple, as that ensures you’re staying as close to the unprocessed plant as possible.
Best Supplements to Shore Up Gut Health
The first supplement that comes to mind when I think of gut health is a probiotic.
Probiotic supplements can be helpful in healing the gut lining. I use a product with my patients that contains over 100 billion CFU. CFU is the measure of the amount of viable, living bacteria that can make it to your intestines intact, and in high enough concentrations to make a difference to your health.
Another one of my favorite supplements for gut health is L-glutamine. L-glutamine is an amino acid that must be obtained from diet, your body does not have the ability to make it. It’s a preferred fuel source for the enterocytes, the cells of the intestines.
There are many studies that support L-glutamine’s ability to reduce gut permeability. One study, in particular, looked at a group of 107 children and how they responded to L-glutamine. Half of the children took L-glutamine and the other half took a placebo. In just 120 days the children who received the L-glutamine supplement had improved intestinal barrier function, which means that it helped to heal leaky gut.
One of my other favorite modalities for treating the gut is herbal medicine. There are a lot of herbs that are useful for healing the gut and balancing the gut microbiome. Some of my favorites include licorice root, ginger, peppermint and lemon balm.
Lemon balm works well in the gut for a couple of reasons. Once is that it calms the nervous system, and as I mentioned before stress management is key for healthy digestion. Many GI conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) are associated with anxiety and stress so calming down the nervous system is essential in treating the gut.
Lemon balm is also an antispasmodic which means it helps relax the tissue of the gut if there is cramping or abdominal discomfort. And my favorite thing about lemon balm is that it is a carminative, which means that it helps to relieve gas discomfort which is one of the most common complaints people come in to my clinic with.
Lemon balm also has a great zesty flavor that is nice as a tea or in a tincture form especially paired with peppermint, which also has carminative properties to further help relieve gas discomfort.
Gut Issues Aren’t Just In the Gut
The next time you are thinking or talking about gut health, remember: gut health is systemic. It is not localized to the gastrointestinal tract. By introducing healing herbs like lemon balm and peppermint, and the right supplements like L-glutamine and probiotics, we can start to heal our guts to heal our bodies.
And remember, health begins with your lifestyle: the foods you choose to eat or to exclude on a daily basis either feeds and helps diversify your gut microbiome or has the potential to damage it. We have the power to set our bodies up for success, all starting with our gut.
Dr. Will Cole is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam, having started one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems.
He is the host of the popular The Art of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting, and the brand new Gut Feelings.