If I only knew then what I know now.
I’ve been in the depths of my holistic nutrition therapy world for so long now that it’s hard to imagine the time in my life when I knew virtually nothing about the impact that our environment, food and lifestyle choices can have on our health. Since getting my diagnosis of ulcerative colitis in 2011, the same thoughts and questions have continued to run through my head as I’m sure they do for everyone who has struggled with a health issue.
“How and why did this happen me?”
“Where did I go wrong?”
“If I had noticed the symptoms earlier, could I have done something to prevent it?”
Now that I'm on the other side of things and have spent countless hours reading, researching, studying and implementing different healing modalities, I know the answer to most of these questions that have perplexed me for so long. In a nutshell, my food and lifestyle choices were setting me up for failure in the future. I was never an adventurous person with food. My diet consisted mostly of refined grains, fried food, and junky snacks. (When I was younger, my grandma was legitimately worried that I would become obese from all the mac & cheese I ate...) I was chronically dehydrated and drank way too much alcohol, paired with the overuse of ibuprofen since I suffered from chronic headaches (and hangovers) at the time (Hello liver damage!). Along with all of this, I was chronically stressed and wildly ignorant to all of the cries for help my body was trying to send me. Looking back I can recall experiencing symptoms that I now know are strong indicators of poor gut health but I blatantly ignored them. I was young, invincible and didn’t have time to be concerned about a few cases of indigestion, heartburn, constipation and diarrhea (shaking my head at myself right now).
Like I said, if I only knew then what I know now. So just what did I set myself up for?
A Leaky Gut
Let’s say you can relate to my story even in the slightest way. You’ve been chronically stressed for years, went to college and drank way too many rum and cokes, or have lived off a diet of Doritos and Digiorno for longer than you want to admit. But maybe you don’t even notice any digestive complaints.
“How can my gut be leaky when I feel fine?”
Well my friend, read on. Hippocrates once said “all disease begins in the gut” and it’s my belief that he couldn’t be more right. If any of the following sounds like you, your gut may in fact be "leaky" and crying out for help.
• You regularly have digestive issues such as gas, bloating, pain, constipation or diarrhea.
• You’ve been diagnosed with IBS-D or IBS-C.
• You often have little or no energy to get through the day or participate in the activities you love.
• You’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, psoriasis, Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, or Celiac disease.
• You have multiple food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities.
• You experience chronic sinus infections.
• You frequently get headaches or migraines.
• You have seasonal allergies or asthma.
• You have achy joints and/or muscle cramps.
• You have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, insomnia or oversleeping issues.
• You suffer from painful cramps, mood swings, PMS and/or have abnormal periods.
• You experience mood disturbances or mental issues such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, ADD or ADHD.
• You experience acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, or unexplained rashes.
• You’ve been diagnosed with candida overgrowth, parasites, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), fungal overgrowth or gut infections.
How Could This Have Happened?
I’d love to give you a simple, straightforward answer to what exactly causes leaky gut, but unfortunately there is no single cause. Leaky gut can be caused by a variety of different factors. The most common causes that have been discovered so far are chronic stress, Dysbiosis (unhealthy balance of good and bad gut bacteria), environmental contaminants, gastrointestinal disease, immune overload, overuse of alcoholic beverages, poor food choices, presence of pathogenic bacteria, parasites, yeasts, and prolonged use of NSAIDS. When I first started researching leaky gut in school and came across all this information, it hit me like a baseball bat upside the head. No wonder I was SO sick! I can check yes to each one of these known causes and I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you may have experienced many of these too.
What Does "Leaky Gut" even mean?
More officially known as "intestinal permeability", leaky gut is not a disease or illness itself but more closely defined as a “symptom of inflammation and imbalance” that has many causes and effects. If you mention leaky gut (intestinal permeability) to your doctor and they shake it off, I suggest you find another doctor to work with. There are currently more than 12,000 research articles on intestinal permeability and the number of associated health conditions continues to grow as we learn more and more about the synergy between digestion and the immune system. It’s most definitely a real condition that many people knowingly and unknowingly suffer from.
In a healthy small intestine there is a lining of bacteria and cells that are held tightly together for optimal function. They are responsible for many very important functions related to proper digestion and immunity. These tight knit cells open and close accordingly to allow important nutrients to be absorbed into the body. When these cells become damaged (due to a pro-inflammatory diet, alcohol, stress, etc.), pathogenic bacteria and yeasts begin to proliferate and overtake our community of healthy, beneficial bacteria. The tight knit cells are no longer “tight” and stuck together. The gut lining becomes leaky and porous. This allows many particles that would normally be excreted, such as undigested foods, bacteria, toxins and parasites, to be absorbed right into the resident immune cells of the gut.
Once these molecules make it across the barrier, our immune system takes over. They are recognized as foreign invaders and a response is mounted against them. More immune cells and help from the liver are recruited to attack these pathogens, ultimately sending the immune system into overdrive and revving up body-wide inflammation. This is the basis for many autoimmune diseases/conditions and a far too common (yet undiagnosed) problem for thousands of people suffering from digestive complaints, food intolerances, allergies and skin problems (just to name a few...)
Healing Your Gut
Luckily, your gut can be healed! Restoring the integrity of your gut lining may be a quick, simple process or more complex, requiring a longer healing time, depending on the degree of your situation. Factors such as current or past health conditions, possible infections, food allergies and/or intolerances, quality of food you consume and lifestyle habits can all play a big role in determining the amount of damage your gut lining has experienced. Working with a doctor that is experienced in treating leaky gut will be incredibly valuable as they will be able to test for negative contributing factors to your leaky gut such as infections, parasites, yeasts, etc. When you can, it's always important to test and not guess! Start with these six simple steps to begin healing your gut and get ready to see major improvements in your overall health.
1.) Eat Amazing
Cleaning up your diet is one of the best first steps you can take to healing your gut. Avoid processed, prepackaged and nutrient depleted foods, unhealthy fats (read about healthy vs unhealthy fats here), refined sugars or excessive amounts of sugar and alcohol. Following a Paleo template can be extremely helpful as it is naturally an anti-inflammatory and healing diet. Read more about Paleo here. Additionally, healing "superfoods" such as bone broth, vegetable broths, cabbage juice, aloe vera juice, fresh, green vegetable juices and slippery elm tea can all be incredibly healing for the lining of the small intestine. My favorite is bone broth. I typically drink at least one cup a day and it has been so incredibly helpful in healing my leaky gut.
2.) Get Zzz's
Go to bed! We do a majority of our healing and recovery while we sleep therefore it's very important that we allow our bodies this precious time to recover. Limit your exposure to blue light (light from phones, computers, TV's, etc.) at least an hour before bedtime, sleep in a very dark room and aim for at least 7-8 hours of deep sleep a night. I like to rub lavender oil on the bottom of my feet to help promote sleepiness or I use a blend from Doterra called "Breathe" if I'm feeling a little stuffy. The enchanting smell of essential oils puts me right into dreamland.
3.) Zen out
Seriously, relax!! I'm sure by now you've heard that stress is the root of all evil, so don't let it take you as it's victim. Find ways to unwind and handle stress in the best possible way. Experiencing stress is inevitable, you're never going to completely eliminate it from your life but you can learn how to cope with it accordingly. Take deep breaths when a stressful situation arises, keep a journal to express your thoughts, go for a walk in the woods, take a bubble bath, lay on the floor with your dog, turn your lights off and light some candles or do some gentle stretching to peaceful music. Do whatever brings peace and clarity to your mind and body.
Hike a mountain, take a yoga class, go for a swim, play tag, rake leaves, garden, paint a room in your house a new color, walk down a road you've never gone before, do anything that gets you up and moving! Movement and exercise are so influential in how well we heal and utilize the beneficial nutrients coming into our bodies. Pick a movement that makes you happy and feels natural. Aim to do something everyday, even if it's just for 20 minutes.
Certain supplements can be very influential to healing your leaky gut. Glutamine is probably the most important nutrient needed to repair a leaky gut. This can be taken as a supplemental powder but it is also found naturally in homemade bone broths. (This along with other amino acids is what makes bone broth such a healing superfood!) Other supplements such as probiotics, zinc carnosine, quercetin, proteolytic and digestive enzymes and deglycyrrhized licorice are also very beneficial and soothing to a damaged gut lining.
6.) Build your team
It's important to build a healthcare team that you trust and can rely on to lead you in the right direction. Our health and wellness is so multidimensional that it typically requires many different practitioners to support us through our healing journey. Your team may consist of your primary care physician, naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, or nutrition therapist(like me!). All of these people specialize in different but equally important areas of your health and will be essential in assisting you to heal your leaky gut. You're not in this alone!
If you think your gut may be leaky, want assistance getting started on a healing protocol or just want to tune-up your nutrition, let me help you!
Wherever you are in the world, I can help you start healing your gut today. Your health is too important to wait.