Community Building: Optimizing Gut Health to Improve Total Body Health
By Dr. Stephanie Karozos, MD
Gut health has been at the forefront of health and wellness recently, and for good reason!
There are many signs of gut dysbiosis, or abnormal levels of helpful and harmful bacteria in the gut. Bloating, gassiness, pain, and abnormal bowel movements are some obvious signs of gut health issues. You may be surprised to hear that joint pain, acne, fatigue, mood changes, and weight gain can also be less conspicuous signs that the bacteria in our GI tract needs a tune up.
Gut health can affect the entire body. Disruption in our gut microbiome, or the different strains of bacteria that live in our gut, has been linked not only to GI issues like GERD, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, and SIBO, but also to issues that may not seem related to the gut like mental illness, difficulty losing weight, immune system dysfunction, arthritis, skin ailments, and more. There are several things we can be doing right now to improve our gut health and therefore total body health.
Restore balance to stomach acid:
Your gut is one of your first lines of defense. Your stomach acid, for example, is capable of killing off harmful viruses and bacteria before they have a chance to take over. An example of the importance of gut health on our immune system is that people who regularly take proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a potent acid suppressing medication used to treat GERD, are more likely to be infected with viruses and more likely to have severe illness from infection than those who are not taking an acid suppressing medication. If you are on acid suppressing medications for simple reflux without more serious stomach issues, discuss slowly weaning off of them with your healthcare provider.
It’s widely known that antibiotics disrupt our microbiome, but did you know that researchers found several classes of non-antibiotic medication also can throw off the balance of healthy bacteria in your GI tract? Medications such as NSAIDS (ibuprofen, naproxen, etc), PPIs (mentioned above), cholesterol medications, and more can cause increased levels of harmful bacteria and deplete our levels of healthy bacteria, making regular users of those medications more likely to have problems like superinfections, pneumonia, infectious colitis, mood changes, and weight gain. While medications can sometimes have an important role in optimizing health, it is becoming obvious that taking preventative measures to avoid the need for medication, as well as limiting the use of unnecessary over the counter medications, will have lasting whole-body benefits.
Avoid triggering foods & drinks:
Do you get bloating, gas, or pain every time you eat a certain food? Do certain foods cause constipation, breakouts, heartburn, or headaches? Eliminating targeted foods temporarily can help to heal the lining of your gut, so that these foods can potentially be tolerated again in the future. Please do not endeavor to do this alone, your doctor would be happy to help you work through this process safely and sustainably. Allergen and food sensitivity testing can be of use in some people but not everyone, as such it’s worth having a conversation with a functional or integrative doctor about testing. They should help you interpret any testing that you get, to determine whether or not foods should be avoided or continued and when to reintroduce eliminated foods. Alcohol is capable of killing off our beneficial bacteria (it is, after all, used before you get your blood drawn or any injection to eliminate bacteria), so if you are regularly drinking alcohol, taking a break from alcohol and consuming it less frequently can help keep your gut flora thriving.
Restore your microbiome:
Sometimes, we need to replenish our levels of healthy bacteria. There are a few ways this can be done, and one of the best studied ways to get a variety of healthy bacteria to optimal levels is to increase plant diversity and plant intake. Eating 30 or more different plants in a week has been shown to restore optimum levels of healthy gut bacteria. This can be tried without the help of a physician: simply keep a list of the plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fresh herbs) that you eat in a week and try to hit 30 distinct plants. It’s even better to try to get different plants in from week to week, to really ensure that you are providing food for a wide variety of healthy bacteria. There are some instances where a targeted probiotic (or a synbiotic) can help with specific problems or help expedite the return of a healthy microbiome, so discussing with your healthcare provider is prudent if you have health concerns that you think could be related to gut health. If you ever need to take an antibiotic, taking a probiotic at the same time can help to prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea.