GUT HEALTH: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
THE FUNDAMENTAL: GUT HEALTH
Everyone's talking gut health these days. Microbiome this, probiotic that, ferment your dairy, pickle your veggies, drink your booch, eat your kraut. But why should you listen?
IMMUNE FUNCTION: 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut. Yup, you read that correctly. 70 percent. This means your body's response to infection, viruses, inflammation, allergens and essentially anything that requires an immune response, is impacted by your gut health.
MOOD: The gut-brain links are many, and one of the most relevant to those of us that have battled depression and anxiety is the link between gut health and mood. The micro-organisms in our gut are partially responsible for manufacturing mood regulators like dopamine and serotonin (90 percent of serotonin is made in the gut. Woah.). When things are out of balance in your gut, you're more likely to suffer from the anxiety, depression and other mood disorders that plague millions of Americans.
COGNITIVE FUNCTION: Changes in gut bacteria have been linked to improved or decreased cognitive function, performance, attention span and even short term memory.
WEIGHT MANAGEMENT: Your appetite, metabolism and absorption of macro and micronutrients are all affected by your gut bacteria and intestinal permeability. A balanced microbiome is crucial to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
INFLAMMATION AND DISEASE: The Human Microbiome Project started in 2007 and has inspired a healthy obsession with the influence our gut bacteria has on inflammation and disease. Since then, links between compromised gut health and obesity, Alzheimer's, autism, heart disease, ADHD and more have been discovered and are being further researched.
HORMONE REGULATION: This is another one that strikes close to home for me. Compromised gut health alters estrogen metabolism and elimination and has an impact on thyroid health. In other words, a happy healthy microbiome plays a big role in hormone balance and regulation.
I believe I ate a total of 3 broccoli florets before the age of 23. My dad was SUPER strict when I was young and I'm pretty sure refusing to eat vegetables was my way of exercising my right to choose something. I don't recall if I was actually repulsed by the taste of vegetables or if the epic hour-long standoffs over boiled Brussels sprouts were born of pure stubbornness, but I will say in my own defense, my plate was simply too full of white things to bother with the green ones. Potatoes, white bread, white rice, white cereal, vanilla ice cream, toaster pastries, cookie (dough), pasta, bread stuffed with white things, and pasta stuffed with white things always seemed to take up valuable real estate on my plate. Now that I think about it, its really remarkable how many white things I managed to eat in the first 22 years of my life.
After maxing out on booze and Au Bon Pain bread bowls in college, I finally started to learn about the importance of nutrition in weight management and overall wellness in my early 20's. I spent the next decade or so atoning for the food sins of my youth by learning to love vegetables (thanks to my husband), and slowly eliminating processed foods, but I unfortunately didn't understand until a few years ago that a healthy diet isn't enough to keep your mind, body, and gut healthy. That delicately balanced ecosystem between your belly and your bum needs a whole lot more gentle loving care than I was ready, willing or able to give it in the first 2 decades of my life.
Yes, what I put into my mouth was increasingly nourishing and clean, but that's not the only part of the gut equation. For much of my 20's, I still struggled with somewhat frequent bouts of disordered eating that undoubtedly wreaked havoc on my entire digestive tract (eating too much or too little were basically my only coping mechanisms). I never learned how to properly deal with the increasing stress in my career - also tough on the body and the gut. I leaned on oral antibiotics to remedy acne flare-ups and on an ineffective SSRI to mask depression - both things known to compromise gut bacteria. For as long as I could, I ignored annoyances like returning seasonal allergies, emerging food sensitivities, lymph edema and back pain - all signs of inflammation in the gut. By the end of the decade I was eating like a health nut, bouncing between yoga, pilates and coastline hikes on the weekends and glowing like a picture of Cali health. But there isn't a vegetable or pair of stretchy pants powerful enough to counteract all the damage I had been simultaneously doing to my gut all along.
I'm pretty sure the final blow was when I had to have back surgery around the time I turned 30. Despite nauseating pain that interrupted my sleep and drove me a little batty, I refused to take opioid pain meds because: control freak. I needed to mentally feel like myself if I couldn't physically feel like myself. Instead I loaded up on daily NSAID's for about 3 months while I tried to pretend something wasn't very wrong. After about 2 months of 800 mg or so of ibuprofen per day, I started seeing blood in my stools. And a lot of it. I was so blinded by pain at that point that it was the least of my problems. 4 days after an MRI revealed I had a 2 cm piece of disk inside my spinal canal, into surgery I went.
After surgery I started to experience more severe bouts of constipation and digestive discomfort. The back pain came back after only 6 weeks, so again I ignored the digestion issues. Then it got to a point where I couldn't comfortably eat seeds, beans, brown rice, corn or the trough-sized salads I lived off before surgery. I also experienced extreme discomfort (stabbing pains) in my abdomen if a restaurant gave me dairy by accident. My food sensitivities got out of control. I would get rashes and sinus infections from dairy, alternating diarrhea and constipation from gluten, awful headaches from soy, nasal allergy attacks from tomatoes and eggplant. Even my beloved tahini became a problem. I felt like crap a lot of the time after eating and it felt impossible to pinpoint what was causing it. A part of me thought I was going crazy. Or imagining things. Or both. I can't believe I let it get as bad as it did. (If you've had a chance to read this post, you'll understand there was A LOT going on at the time.)
As my wedding drew near, I grew desperate to feel like myself again. I wanted to look and feel healthy, but more than anything I wanted to eat and dance comfortably without paying for it with digestive and back pain. This desperation is what inspired me to try the Clean Program (which I'll cover soon in another post, or 10, because I'm obsessed), and pursue other healthcare modalities like acupuncture and functional medicine. Learning the importance of gut health the hard (and painful) way was a pivotal point in my wellness journey, but the steps I took next were even more pivotal, as they opened my eyes to a whole new world of "how the hell has no one ever told me this before?!"
I don't know what I would have done with the above "MF Funadamental" information had I known it at the time, but there's little use in looking back now. Especially since I'm more concerned with what YOU are going to do with it!
PS, Don't worry, I'll help you figure that out in my next post :)