You’ve probably heard the creepy rumor that the bacterial microorganisms living on our bodies have control over us. In fact, different scientists have put forth various hypotheses about our bacteria:
• They control how much we eat and what we choose to eat.
• They affect brain function and our thinking patterns.
• They live off incompletely digested food, which ends up increasing our caloric intake and leading to fat gain.
• They can regulate gene expression, which affects everything from disease risk to muscle growth.
Don’t be alarmed. There are simple things you can do to improve your digestion, fix your gut, and develop a microflora that has a profoundly positive effect on body composition and motivation. This article will tell you how to do it.
#1: Avoid stuff that damages your gut: Medications.
A whole load of things can negatively affect gut health and the bacteria living there. Most know people that antibiotics are bad for digestion, but it’s less known that just about every drug, including over-the-counter medications harm your gut. Here’s why:
There’s just a single layer of cells protecting your body from all the stuff that goes on in your gut. Working properly, this cell layer allows all of the nutrients, amino acids, and healthy compounds from food to be absorbed into your body.
Other compounds, such as waste products or toxins, are kept out and eliminated. A healthy gut does a good job of eliminating all the junk that is harmful to your body.
Each cell in the cell layer is held together by what is called a “tight junction,” but all kinds of things can break down the tight junction, especially antibiotics and drug therapies, so that toxins and compounds break through and are released into your blood stream. This is what is meant by the term “leaky gut.”
How to do it: First, make sure that all your medications are necessary.
Second, avoid excessive alcohol use (we’re not talking social use) but regular drinking.
Third, everyone should monitor vitamin D levels. Low vitamin D is associated with poor gut health and medications are well known for depleting vitamin D levels along with other essential nutrients.
#2: Eliminate gluten and wheat.
A “food intolerance” occurs when eating a certain food causes an increase in the permeability of that single cell layer protecting your body. For instance, if you are intolerant of gluten, eating it will cause the body to produce more of a protein called zonulin, which regulates the tight junctions and results in leaky gut.
In the right amounts, zonulin is not bad—it allows absorption of food nutrients into the body. But food intolerances cause the body to produce too much zonulin. Elevated zonulin breaks down the tight junctions and allows dangerous compounds to pass into the blood stream, which can cause an immune response.
Eating gluten is a primary cause of elevated zonulin in most people, even if they don’t have celiac disease. Scientists believe this is because modern wheat contains strains of gluten that have different properties than the grains we ate one hundred years ago.
One reason that people tend to feel better when they stop eating gluten every day is that zonulin goes down, the tight junctions are restored, and harmful compounds aren’t escaping their gut anymore.
How to do it: Try removing gluten and wheat from your diet and see if you don’t notice any positive changes. If you still have gut troubles, it could be that other offending foods need to be removed as well, or that you need to take a more radical approach to repairing your gut. Read on…
#3: Identify other food intolerances and avoid them like the plague.
Other food intolerances tripping you up, so watch out for the typical “food allergies” like peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, lactose, eggs, and soy.
Additionally, you can develop food intolerances to anything (for example, even strawberries or coffee!) and people with poor guts are more at risk of random intolerances because the gut will have been leaking stuff for a while.
How to do it: Besides removing a food from your diet for a set period of time and tracking how you feel, there are food allergy tests. An IGE test measures for severe food allergies. An IGG test measures for milder food intolerances.
#4: Eat plenty of probiotic foods and consider supplementing.
Probiotics are a term for the beneficial bacteria that promote a healthy microflora in the gut. Here are a few key points about the bacteria living in your gut:
• The microflora actually communicate with the cells that line the intestinal wall and “tell” your intestine what to absorb into your bloodstream and what to prevent from passing into your body. If you have more inflammatory “bad” bacteria in your gut, the “wrong stuff” can get through, which is called malabsorption.
• They regulate immune function, so if you have a large amount of inflammatory gut bacteria, you are more likely to get sick and develop food allergies.
• They are involved in the digesting and processing of nutrients and amino acids.
Ideally, your bacteria should be diverse and abundant because this composition is associated with better gut function, dampening oxidative stress and turning off inflammatory signaling. The benefits of having diverse, protective bacteria in your gut include better metabolic health, less belly fat, and an easier time losing body fat.
For example, in a Japanese study, drinking fermented milk containing probiotic bacteria for four weeks led to a decrease in belly fat of 8.2 percent. Body fat percentage and waist to hip circumference were also slightly reduced at the end of the study.
Simply supplementing with probiotics can also help. For example, we know that intense exercise can cause leaky gut and inflammation. However, taking a probiotic supplement for 14 weeks was found to reduce zonulin and lead to less oxidative stress in trained men after an intense cycle test.
How to do it: Eat a probiotic food every day, using them as condiments or a snack. Foods that have been fermented contain probiotics, such as high-quality yogurt, sauerkraut, Korean kim chi, kefir, miso, kombucha tea, and fermented vegetables.
In addition, two strains of probiotic supplements are beneficial in promoting diversity and countering inflammation:
1) The lactobacillus family convert lactose and sugars into lactic acid, helping the gut produce acid to create an unfriendly environment for inflammatory bacteria.
2) Bifidobacterium family helps to inhibit dangerous pathogen growth and enhances immune function.
#5: Plan meals around high-quality protein and fruits and vegetables.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables has a number of benefits for the gut:
• It provides indigestible fiber that the beneficial gut bacteria live on.
• It provides antioxidant compounds that can reduce inflammation caused by a poorly functioning gut or the presence of bad bacteria.
• It provides an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, all of which can be depleted if you have been suffering from malabsorption in which your gut absorbs the “wrong” things.
• It promotes a diverse and rich microflora.
Eating high-quality protein from a variety of sources has also been found to promote gut health, but only when it is eaten in conjunction with a high-fiber diet from fruits and veggies.
For example, in a recent study, rugby players who ate more protein, significantly more fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed snacks had better gut diversity than a control group that ate fewer plants and less protein. Whey protein, which has been found to be highly therapeutic for metabolic health, was a primary protein source for the rugby players.
How to do it: Eat fruit or vegetables at every meal, getting as many different colored plants into your diet as possible. Avoid all processed foods and eat a variety of whole protein foods, including whey protein.
#6: Exercise hard but focus on recovery.
Hard training produces inflammation, which can damage the tight junctions in the gut if you don’t recover effectively. Here’s how it works:
Stress of any kind, including mental stress, lack of sleep, and intense training all elevate cortisol. Elevated cortisol drives the release of histamine, a compound that revs up your immune system. If cortisol is chronically elevated due to lack of recovery from training or a stressful life, the immune system will also be chronically activated, until it becomes overwhelmed and you get sick.
Histamine increases gastric acid secretion, leading to bloating, and the release of other compounds that affect the tight junctions and cause the gut to leak. It also triggers neurotransmitters that stimulate the central nervous system and raise your stress response.
Major symptoms of elevated histamine include bloating, itchy or red skin, poor motor performance, and poor endurance.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you get adequate nutrition and recover well, exercise promotes gut health. Remember the rugby players mentioned in #5?
They were professional athletes in an intense preseason training phase but had relatively “low” life stress because they weren’t traveling or competing against other teams. They also had high-quality nutrition and recovery was prioritized. Results showed that they had less inflammation and better metabolic profiles than both a lean control group and an obese control group.
How to do it: If you have a highly stressful life, opt for two to four intense workouts a week (no longer than hour), preferably strength training, and focus on recovery—nutrition, sleep, hydration, deep breathing.
If you’re not too stressed out, more frequent workouts may be beneficial, but make sure exercise doesn’t become a chore.
If you’re doing two-a-day workouts, only use them for a short period to accomplish a specific goal.
In all cases, take special care of your gut; avoiding drugs, getting plenty of probiotics, fiber, and other gut care nutrients mentioned below.
#7: Avoid ibuprofen and other NSAIDs.
Because ibuprofen and other NSAIDs are anti-inflammatories you might be surprised to hear that they damage gut function, but it’s been well documented. One of the worst things you can do for your gut is to take ibuprofen and then train hard.
NSAIDs restrict blood flow to the kidneys and damage the protective intestinal barrier, and when you combine it with high cortisol release from a hard workout you have a bad situation. For example, a recent study found that when trained men took 800 mg of ibuprofen and then did a hard cycle workout, they had increased intestinal injury. Researchers conclude that using NSAIDs is not harmless and should be discouraged.
How to do it: Take the natural aids curcumin and boswellia instead of NSAIDs because both are anti-inflammatories that have been found to promote gut health. For example, boswellia doesn’t restrict blood flow to the kidneys and it reduces inflammation by targeting the same Cox 1 and Cox 2 pathways as ibuprofen.
Curcumin reduces muscle pain after hard workouts due to its ability to minimize inflammation, but it’s also been found to improve gut function in children with irritable bowel syndrome.
#8: Try resistant starch.
Resistant starch is a form of fiber that we can’t digest so it passes through to the intestine and the microflora feed off it, helping anti-inflammatory flora to proliferate. Supplementing the diet with resistant starch improves gut health by promoting diversity in gut bacteria.
In addition, when the gut bacteria feed on resistant starch, they produce butyrate, which is a short chain fatty acid that is involved in strengthening the tight junctions in the intestinal cell layer.
How to do it: Resistant starch is found in raw unmodified potato starch, green bananas, oats, peas, maize, and raw potatoes. It’s also available in cooked and cooled potatoes, and cooked and cooled white rice. Eat these foods daily or simply supplement with 20 to 30 grams of unmodified potato starch.
#9: Get adequate fish oil and zinc.
The omega-3 fats in fish are known for fighting inflammation and there is evidence they are protective of gut health. For example, in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, supplementing with fish oil allowed for greater mucus production, which protects the gut by helping to keep food proteins and pathogens from passing through the tight junctions.
Zinc also has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and taking it has been shown to enhance the repair of mucus in the intestines.
How to do it: Take fish oil or eat a variety of fatty fish frequently. This worked for pregnant mothers who ate salmon twice a week and had healthier gut function during pregnancy. Their infants also had a better gut microflora composition upon delivery than a control group.
To get your zinc, try a form called zinc carnosine, which heals the stomach lining and allows the body to achieve optimal stomach acid secretion.
#10: Take glutamine.
Glutamine is an amino acid that is the primary building block in the intestinal lining. It will help to seal the tight junctions in the gut lining, thereby decreasing oxidative stress.
How to do it: Try taking up to 10 grams of glutamine a few times a day to heal the gut. Pair it with whey protein to reduce inflammation.
#11: Chew your food and try digestive enzymes.
Your intestines don’t deal well with incompletely digested food. When large food particles hit your intestines, you aren’t getting the advantage of the nutrition, and you’re going to have digestive troubles.
Why does incompletely digested food make it out of the stomach?
Two reasons: You aren’t chewing enough and/or you have low stomach acid so that even if you are chewing, food is passing out of the stomach incompletely digested.
Low stomach acid is more common than people realize because it’s caused by aging, stress, and inflammation. It’s often misdiagnosed as too much stomach acid because when partly digested food starts to ferment, it will back up into the esophagus, and doctors commonly think this is acid reflux.
How to do it: Studies show you should be chewing each bite at least 15 times and maybe as much as 40 (seriously) to properly breakdown food and get the greatest release of hunger-reducing hormones. Chances are, you need to work on your chewing skills.
Taking digestive enzymes can improve stomach acid and for many people this will solve the problem. However, low stomach acid could be due to low thyroid function, so if this is a possibility, it’s important to get your thyroid checked.
#12: Get good sleep.
We’ve skirted around the edge of the profound impact that stress has on gut health, highlighting how cortisol elevates histamine, degrading gut function. But poor sleep and daily stress may be the most important thing for improving your gut besides dealing with food intolerances because of how both increase oxidative stress.
In addition, the combination of stress and bad sleep alter neurotransmitter and hormone levels, which make us act in ways that don’t promote gut health: we don’t chew as well and we make poor food choices, turning to high-carb foods and away from whole plants and protein. We’re also less active, and this trifecta of bad behaviors reduces our good bacteria, while increasing leakiness in the gut.
How to do it: Get good sleep by fixing your circadian rhythm. This promotes sleep by optimizing hormone balance and overall health.