Are you always…
Suffering from indigestion?
Struggling to eat certain foods?
...It can all (potentially) be tied back to your gut.
This is exactly why “gut health” has become a hot topic in the fitness industry over the last few years.
Your gut health has potential implications for TONS of different areas of your life - body fat, susceptibility to autoimmune diseases, fertility, hormones… the list goes on and on.
See, your gut is full of trillions of bacteria microorganisms - the “gut microbiome”.
All these microorganisms make up a whole ecosystem in your belly. This ecosystem can be helpful (doing things like improving digestion, or strengthening the immune system) or harmful (doing things like causing bloating, gas, and diarrhea) depending on the balance of different bacteria.
Truly, there’s lots of interesting stuff going on here...
→ We have fat mice in the lab getting lean by eating the poop of thin mice, allowing them to repopulate their guts with “thin” bacteria. (1)
→ We know that our bacterial cells outnumber human cells 10:1.
→ 80% of our immune system is based in the gut
→ 95% of our Serotonin is stored in the gut
→ 50% of our Dopamine is made in the gut
So yeah. Focusing on gut health seems to be important, for everything from getting lean & strong, to your overall sense of happiness and well-being.
But, hold up. Before you ask your super lean friend for a poop sample (I know you were thinking it too)...
We don't really know what's going on here.
There are TONS of products being sold to capitalize on the gut health hype - prebiotics, probiotics, kombucha, and the like.
But the reality is, scientists don’t really know what is going on here. Study of the gut & the gut microbiome is a very new field.
When it comes to most gut health supplements, to quote Dr. Gabrielle Fundaro:
“...supplement consumers should keep in mind that they are colonized with trillions of bacteria, so taking a pill with one million of one strain of bacteria is like using an eye dropper to add water to the ocean. The most effective supplements are multi-strain with multiple billions of bacteria (or CFU, which stands for colony-forming units). Also, what they find on the shelf may not actually contain the numbers of bacteria stated on the label.”
Basically, a good probiotic supplement will provide billions of CFU’s and cost around $50/month, and cheaper products that don’t provide CFU’s in the billions aren’t doing much.
And even then, it’s very hard to know if you’re getting the bacteria you specifically need via supplement.
So really, as far as gut health supplements go it's hard to identify what and how much we need to supplement in order to improve things.
That said, if you’re struggling with bloating, constipation, brain fog, etc. read on. Because most of what we come across as coaches can be remedied by some basic lifestyle changes.
What's Going On In The Digestive System?
So basically, we’re talking about improving your gut and digestive system’s ability to properly break down the food you eat into energy, without all the nasty side-effects we talked about earlier.
As un-sexy as it sounds, improving your digestion is one of the best things you can do for your gut health. The ability to properly digest food is VERY important to your gut health and your ability to build a lean, strong body.
So why wouldn’t you be able to properly digest food?
Major digestive issues can stem from stress hormones interacting with salivary glands, stomach, intestines, etc.
See, digestion start before food even hits your mouth, with the cephalic phase - basically, the sight, smell, or thought of yummy food actually causes your body to prep the gastrointestinal tract for a meal.
You salivate & increase the amount of the digestive enzyme Amylase in the mouth, gastric juice is produced in your stomach, and lots of other not that interesting stuff happens.
BUT, the point is - all of these juices & enzymes really help digestion, because they break down the food you consume, and help your body turn it into useable nutrients.
When you’re stressed (or just eating in a big rush), the signals that induce the Cephalic Phase get interrupted.This is where stress STARTS to disrupt what’s going on in the stomach.
Basically, your stomach has been “switched off” to a degree - you’re downregulating gastric juice production. This means you won’t be able to break down food as effectively, and digest all the nutrients you just ate.
Now, you have all of this food in your stomach, but not enough digestive enzymes & gastric juices there to digest it. You’re not digesting foods NEARLY as fast as should - so you get stopped up, you get reflux, food sits in your stomach & you get bloated.
So often the root of gut issues, is doing a better job of managing stress - especially around meals.
Now, before you prescribe yourself hours of meditation & yoga daily...
Realize that an inefficient aerobic system can ALSO be a big problem here.
If you have a weak aerobic system, your heart rate will likely be elevated more often than not - this in turn means that stress hormones will ALSO always be elevated - and just like above, the extra stress means your digestion will suffer.
So, you might not need more breath work, you might just need more cardio ;)
Intestinal Permeability Or "Leaky Gut"
So now that you understand the basics of many issues at the digestive level, let's get a bit deeper into some more popular gut issues.
In simplest terms - when you eat food, it eventually makes its way to your small intestine.
There, your food (which is HOPEFULLY no longer recognizable from what entered your mouth) comes into contact with Villi.
Villi is basically a bunch of tiny-ass finger looking things that line the wall of your small intestine. These mini-fingers have tiny cells that take in the amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc. from your foods and drop them into your bloodstream, where they’re shipped off to become GAINS!
So in the ideal world:
1. You eat food
2. It eventually makes its way to your small intestine, where it’s fully digested
3. All those creepy lil’ fingers in your small intestine drop the nutrients from said food into your blood stream, where it's delivered throughout your body for various functions.
But unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned.
We can get issues of “increased permeability” or as you’ve probably heard it called... “leaky gut”.
Your mucosal membrane is what protects the integrity of the villi cells, and keeps stuff from leaking through. In a case of intestinal permeability, this membrane has been eaten away. The spaces between the Villi cells increase, and food starts to slip through the wall of your gut into the bloodstream without being properly digested or absorbed.
Where Does Intestinal Permeability Come From & Why Does It Matter?
→ Gut bacteria.
So remember all of that bacteria in your gut we were talking about earlier?
Much of it lives in your large intestine. Like all living things, this bacteria needs to be FED to stay alive. When there’s a lack of food available in the large intestine, the bacteria there will swim up to the small intestine, searching for a fuel source.
When it reaches your small intestine, this bacteria sees the mucosal membrane as a tasty fuel source, and starts eating away at - this leads to increased intestinal permeability.
THE BACTERIA IN YOUR GUT FEEDS ON FIBER FROM FRUITS & VEGETABLES.
So one of the BEST ways to prevent your gut bacteria from eating away at your mucosal membrane, is simply eat your fruits & veggies.
→ Lectins (a protein) & Phytates (the storage form of phosphorus) found in foods like wheat, barley, rice, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, and soy can eat away at the mucosal membrane FOR SOME INDIVIDUALS. (NOTE: This is NOT saying that everyone should avoid these foods, or even that eliminating them is where you should start if you have gut issues.)
Why Does Intestinal Permeability Matter?
When undigested foods enter your bloodstream, your immune system sees a foreign invader and ATTACKS. Your whole immune system is put on red alert, which can create an “auto-immune response” to specific foods.
This can create situations where people can’t eat specific foods anymore, that they USED TO not have any issues with.
Intestinal permeability also can lead to endotoxins in the blood steam - endotoxins are very inflammatory substances, and can lead to a lot of inflammation.
Fixing Your Gut 101 - The Solution
First, if you're experiencing serious gut issues, see a healthcare professional. From here, addressing the root of the problem this should generally be very lifestyle-focused, NOT supplement-focused.
→ Manage your eating environment. Do your best to maintain a stress free eating environment. Don’t eat where you work - focus on your food. If you’re thinking about work, you'll likely be more stressed, which takes away from your ability to digest & relax.
→ Chew your food. Focus on chewing your food to the point where it’s partially liquefied before swallowing. It also helps to SLOW DOWN, by setting your fork down between bites.
→ Chrononutrition. Your circadian rhythm plays a big role in how your body reacts to ingesting food, and WHAT it does with said nutrients. It makes sense to follow the guidelines established in THIS BLOG.
→ Keep the 5-10 minutes that bookend meals as stress-free & relaxed as possible. But, for most people this is more realistically something like 5-10 deep breaths before eating. If you're crazy busy, and don't have 5-10 minutes to wind down around meals, just try box breathing. 5 sec inhale, hold for 5 sec, 5 sec exhale. Repeat x5-10.
→ Train your aerobic system. The aerobic system is an oft-neglected part of health and managing stress - this is exactly why my online clients always have some aerobic work programmed in. It's just too important to ignore.
→ Focus on managing life stress. Implementing tools like meditation, breath work, journaling, and time away from screens.
→ Eat lots of high-fiber fruits & veggies. This is essential to feeding your gut bacteria, and keeping them from eating away at your mucosal membrane. This, stress management, and aerobic work are the BIGGEST pieces many are missing.
→ Work in foods you enjoy. Remember the cephalic phase? Being excited about your food helps your body better digest said food - which really gives merit to focusing on enjoying your food.
→ Intermittent fasting and/or spending time in a calorie deficit can potentially help. The migratory motor complex (think: your stomach's housekeeper. It sweeps everything out, and really helps your stomach clean out all the junk.) happens after food has been digested. This won’t happen if you’re constantly eating.
→ If none of the above helps, it could also make sense to try an elimination protocol. Here, you pull out common irritants like lectins, phytates, nightshades, and more in an attempt to recognize which foods specifically are causing issues. CLICK HERE to learn more about how to run an elimination protocol.
Gut health is a complex topic.
But, for most it has a relatively simple solution - eat lots of whole foods, manage stress, be present at meal-times, and potentially get a bit more cardio in.
These are the exact principles we focus on when you start online coaching. Not only are they the prescription for a healthy gut, but for building your leanest, strongest self.
For accountability and expert guidance, CLICK HERE to apply for online coaching.