Hello Dear One, it turns out that your mother was right, you are what you eat!
Your diet and lifestyle affects the composition of your intestinal microbiome (i.e. the 2-5 pounds of microscopic bacteria, yeast, parasites and viruses that live in your digestive tract) AND your microbiome affects your brain function and overall health.
Did you know that 70% of Americans have digestive related symptoms or diseases?
Chronic diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, abdominal bloating and discomfort can cause a great deal of pain and suffering. Unfortunately, these symptoms signal not just a problem with your gastrointestinal system, but rather an insidious breakdown in your overall health!
Scientific research is uncovering the important connection between our mental health and the health of our intestinal microbiome. Your gut bacteria play a role in how your brain develops in childhood, your cognitive function as an adult and can even trigger serious mental illnesses.
Here’s a short list of some other seemingly unrelated disorders associated with disturbed gut function, particularly an altered microbiome:
Asthma, Autism, Autoimmune disorders, Chronic fatigue, type 1 and 2 Diabetes mellitus, Eczema, Fatty Liver, Fibromyalgia, Hypercholesterolemia, Metabolic Syndrome, Mood disorders, Multiple Sclerosis, Obesity, Oxalic kidney Stones and Parkinson’s Disease.
Sadly, most people simply self-medicate for their chronic GI symptoms by taking over the counter medications. These drugs may give temporary relief, but do nothing to heal the underlying inflammation and root causes of the dysfunction. Sometimes these medications actually contribute to further GI pathology by disturbing the normal environment of the GI tract and altering the microbiome. PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), commonly prescribed drugs for treating acid reflux/GERD are a prime example.
First, let’s take a brief look at the functions of GI tract:
DIGESTION – food is broken down into smaller portions that are more easily absorbed by the intestines.
ABSORPTION – digested food is taken up by the intestines and delivered to the body for energy, nutrition and other important cellular functions.
PROTECTION – The gut acts as a barrier to exclude harmful substances from entering the body, while at the same time allowing for the absorption of essential molecules to fuel the body. In addition, the gut houses and supports over 70% of the entire immune system and helps differentiate friend (e.g. nutrition and beneficial bacteria) from foe (e.g. cancerous cells and pathogenic bacteria).
DETOXIFICATION – the liver and GI tract metabolize and eliminate toxins (e.g. pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, preservatives, food dyes and environmental pollutants) from the body.
ELIMINATION – After digestion has occurred and the metabolic phase of detoxification is complete, the GI tract eliminates the waste.
COMMUNICATION – Your gut and brain are connected. There is a super highway of information flowing from the brain to the gut and vice versa. Gut microbes actually produce 3/4 of the neurotransmitters in your body (i.e. chemical messengers that allow nerve cells to talk to one another)!
What causes a disruption in the microbiome (a.k.a. dysbiosis)?
- Lack of breastfeeding
- Maternal antibiotic use
- Caesarean delivery (lack of exposure to the maternal vaginal microbiome)
- Standard American Diet (a.k.a SAD) = Processed foods that are low in fiber, high in poor quality fats and excessive simple carbohydrates
- Inadequate amounts of fruits and vegetables containing phytonutrients
- Inadequate essential fats
- Inadequate sunshine exposure and low vitamin D levels
- Inadequate magnesium
- Broad-spectrum antibiotics
- Proton pump inhibitors (e.g. “the purple pill”) to treat symptoms of acid reflux
- Many other over the counter and prescription drugs
- Chronic constipation
- Artificial sweeteners
- Psychological stress, fear and anger
- Lack of physical activity
- Tobacco use
- Alcohol use
- Sleep problems/circadian disruptions
- Environmental toxins
The 5R Functional Medicine Approach to Gut Health
In Functional Medicine we use cutting edge diagnostic testing and lifestyle medicine to heal the gut with the 5R approach: remove, replace, reinoculate, repair, and rebalance.
Identify and remove harmful substances from the body (e.g. hidden food allergens, toxicants, pathogenic microorganisms). An allergy elimination diet can be used to find out what foods are causing GI symptoms. Gentle herbs and nutrients can be used to treat dysbiosis.
A poor diet, pharmaceutical drugs, diseases and aging among other factors can contribute to deficiencies of substances required for proper digestion (e.g. digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid and bile acids). This can often be remedied with simple lifestyle measures and nutritional supplementation.
Re-introduce friendly bacteria for optimal gut health (e.g. probiotics) and support the growth of friendly bacteria by eating fruits and vegetables, as well as fermented foods and prebiotic fiber (i.e. food for the probiotics) from foods like Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, onions, chicory, garlic, leeks and bananas.
A well-balanced diet along with soothing herbs (e.g. slippery elm bark, marshmallow root) and therapeutic nutrients, such as zinc, antioxidants (e.g. vitamins A, C, and E), fish oil, and the amino acid glutamine can help heal the lining of the digestive tract.
Sleep, exercise, and stress can all affect the GI tract. Living a healthy lifestyle is the key to cultivating a diverse, abundant microbiome that supports your overall health and nervous system function over the long-term.
I hope that you are now intrigued about your own microbiome and the 100 trillion or so organisms living in your gut:) Stay tuned for more “joy prescriptions” to help you improve your mood, memory and brain function.
Cynthia Libert, M.D.
P.S. To my fellow health professional colleagues:
ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project), in partnership with Duke University World Food Policy Center, University of North Carolina Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and MAHEC, will present the Healthy Eating in Practice Conference August 26-29, 2018, at the Omni Grove Park Inn.
Healthy Eating in Practice is a hands-on conference for physicians and other healthcare professionals, focused on changing the culture of healthcare to better support healthy eating behaviors, particularly in children and families, and prevent chronic diet-related diseases.
In addition to presentations by leading practitioners, researchers, and policy experts, attendees will visit area farms, farmers markets, and gardens. Participatory cooking workshops will be team taught by nutrition experts alongside local chefs. Daphne Miller, M.D., author of Farmacology, will give a keynote address on the intersection of farming, food, and health. Continuing education credits are available.
Register by June 30 for early-bird discounts at www.healthyeatinginpractice.
Special rates are available for RN, NP, PA, and dietitians/nutritionists.
I hope to see you there!
Rogers GB, Keating DJ, Young RL, Wong M-L, Licinio J, Wesselingh S. From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Molecular Psychiatry. 2016;21(6):738-748. doi:10.1038/mp.2016.50.
Turner JR. Molecular Basis of Epithelial Barrier Regulation. The American Journal of Pathology. 2006;169(6):1901-1909. doi:10.2353/ajpath.2006.060681.
Round JL, Mazmanian SK. The gut microbiome shapes intestinal immune responses during health and disease. Nature reviews Immunology. 2009;9(5):313-323. doi:10.1038/nri2515.
Spor A, Koren O, Ley R. Unravelling the effects of the environment and host genotype on the gut microbiome. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011 Apr;9(4):279-90. doi: 10.1038/nrmicro2540
Kinross JM, Darzi AW, Nicholson JK. Gut microbiome-host interactions in health and disease. Genome Medicine. 2011;3(3):14. doi:10.1186/gm228.
Zeevi D et al. Personalized Nutrition by Prediction of Glycemic Responses. Cell. 2015 Nov 19;163(5):1079-1094. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.11.001