A Functional Medicine Approach to Gut Health

The lining of our digestive system comes into direct contact with our environment every day: the food we eat, the beverages we drink, supplements or prescriptions we take, and any toxins we consume in the process. And because the lining of our gut is only ONE cell thick, gut damage, digestive issues, and ‘leaky gut’ syndrome are becoming more and more common as the insults of our unhealthy diets and lifestyles add up.

Our gut is also where *billions* of mutually beneficial microbes live, called the microbiome. This colony of microbes:

  • improves our digestion and gut motility

  • produces vitamins and short chains fatty acids (vital fuel for colon cell health)

  • enhances toxin metabolism and immune function

  • is weight and mood regulating

  • protects the gut lining

  • prevents pathogens and bad bacteria from taking over and making us sick

The bottom line: Gut health has a MAJOR influence on our overall health & mental wellbeing. Take care of your gut and your gut will take care of you!

Some Helpful Things to Know

  1. Your microbiome is highly reactive to incoming “information” and is constantly shifting and changing based on what you are consuming day-to-day.

  2. Dysbiosis: The growth of potentially harmful microbes over their beneficial counterparts, the changes in metabolic activities of the microbiome overall, and/or overgrowth of microbes in areas of the GI tract where they shouldn’t be are all forms of gut microbiome dysbiosis. (One example of dysbiosis: LPS (lipopolysaccharides) are undesirable gut bacteria promoted by diets high in fat and sugar and low in plant-based fiber that damage your gut. LPS can then enter the bloodstream via a leaky, damaged gut leading to mitochondrial damage, fatigue, allergies, insulin resistance, chronic systemic inflammation, enhanced cardiovascular risk, etc.).

  3. Gut Lining Damage: the surface of your gut looks like a grass field of microscopic, finger-like projections (villi) that are responsible for absorbing nutrients broken down by digestive enzymes. Villi can be damaged by toxins in our food, dysbiosis, infections, gluten, and inflammatory diseases of the gut. When villi are so damaged they are no longer able to do their job, you end up with nutrient deficiencies, poor digestion, GI symptoms, chronic inflammation, and poor overall health.

  4. Leaky Gut: tight junctions form between each cell lining your GI tract that prevent large particles of food or other molecules from entering the bloodstream. This forces digestion to be a tightly regulated process where nutrients and food particles are shuttled through the cell walls by very specific pathways. However, these tight junctions can open up under certain conditions: stress, toxin exposure, injury, surgery, and eating gluten allowing large food particles, chemicals, and other molecules into your bloodstream. Your immune system is then forced to manage these particle invaders, which can lead to immune overactivity that damages tissues and organs all over the body and contributes to autoimmune disease.

  5. Skin Issues: The gut lining is also made from the same type of cells as your skin (epithelial cells), so there is often a correlation between diet, an unhealthy gut, and skin conditions like acne, eczema, and dermatitis.

  6. Gut-Brain Connection: The cells lining your gut and the microbiome both produce neurotransmitters (chemical messengers of the nervous system) & other beneficial brain compounds just like the brain does, influencing both the brain and gut function. If your gut health is compromised, your mental health will be negatively impacted, too!

Common Signs and Symptoms of Poor Gut Health

  • GI symptoms: abdominal pain, bloating, excessive gas, belching, constipation/diarrhea

  • Brain symptoms: brain fog, trouble concentrating, memory loss

  • Body symptoms: fatigue, pain in joints, skin irritations (eczema, acne, dermatitis), chronic inflammation, recurring yeast infections

What to Avoid To Prevent Dysbiosis and Gut Damage

  1. Diets high in refined carbs and sugar

  2. High fat or high protein diets/meals can cause bad bacteria to flourish in your colon :(

  3. Diets low in plant fiber and phytonutrients - your microbiome’s two best friends!

  4. Dietary and environmental toxin exposure, including artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and additives

  5. Antibiotic use, antimicrobial herbs/supplements, antimicrobial soaps and cleaning products

  6. GI infections: food poisoning, traveller’s diarrhea (e.g., salmonella and E.Coli), and parasites

  7. Proton-pump inhibitors (e.g., Prilosec, Nexium) and NSAIDs (e.g., Advil, Motrin)

  8. C-section delivery and lack of breastfeeding as an infant both predisposes you to dysbiosis

  9. Acute or Chronic Stress (life stress, surgery, injury, etc.)


The Functional Medicine Approach to Gut Health: The Five Rs

  1. Remove the stressors (stress, infection, toxins, inflammatory foods)

  2. Replace under-produced digestive secretions due to damage as needed (e.g., enzymes, bile, HCL)

  3. Restore a healthy microbiome with whole foods, fiber, probiotics and prebiotics (MYTH: pro-biotics do not colonize the gut - they only provide transient benefits; pre-biotics encourage resident good bacteria populations to flourish)

  4. Repair the lining and integrity of the gut with targeted nutrients & supplements as needed

  5. Rebalance with a healthy lifestyle to maintain gut health (whole food nutrition, restful sleep, movement, and stress management)


How to Support a Healthy Gut & Microbiome

  1. Adopt a fiber-rich, low-glycemic, whole foods diet high in polyphenols - what gives whole food its color. Nature has your back! :)

  2. Eat specific foods that act as prebiotics & colonic foods to feed the good bacteria in your microbiome: e.g., flax seeds, plant fibers, apple pectins, psyllium, almonds, dark cocoa, green tea, beans, brown rice, onions, garlic, artichokes, chicory, beet, dandelion, and resistant starches (e.g., cassava, sweet potato, oats, cooked and cooled white potatoes, green bananas).

  3. Fermented foods (e.g., yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut) have health benefits, but not as important as prebiotics, polyphenols, and fiber.

  4. Remove common toxin exposures and alcohol from your diet.

  5. Only use antibiotics and NSAIDs when absolutely necessary (and take with probiotics).

  6. If you suspect food allergies or sensitivities - try an elimination diet for 21 days.

  7. Probiotics: Take with food for best results. Benefits are STRAIN-SPECIFIC, so working with a health practitioner to determine the best strain for your specific condition is recommended. In general, probiotics containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains are beneficial to overall health.

  8. Rebalance your lifestyle with restful sleep & mindfulness-based stress-reduction.

  9. Stay adequately hydrated & exercise to improve GI tract motility and daily bowel elimination.

Benefits of working with a functional medicine health practitioner:

  • Consultation: comprehensive lifestyle evaluation and health history to identify contributing factors; personalized protocol & meal planning; coaching support & goal setting; address nutrient deficiencies; improve gut health & lining integrity; and address chronic infections.

  • Gut-Healing Supplements: can be helpful or necessary in some cases (e.g., omega 3s, L-glutamine, collagen, zinc, antioxidants, bone broth, aloe juice, herbal antimicrobials & anti-fungals, IgG)

  • Functional Labs: a Stool Analysis can reveal microbiome (im)balances, presence of pathogens or yeast overgrowth, and various markers for intestinal inflammation or poor digestion to determine the best therapeutic treatment options.


Want More Guidance & Support?

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I look forward to walking with you awhile on your healing journey. We'll stop and smell the wildflowers. Smile a lot. And wander down the road less-traveled.

Be Well & I'll See You in the Wild,

Aj


Angela Juhl, MS, CHWC, CYT

Master of Science in Human Nutrition & Functional Medicine

Wellcoaches™ Certified Health and Wellness Coach

Wild Woman Project Circle Leader

Certified Yoga Teacher


Wild at Heart was founded on the mission: to take a stand against unsustainable cultural norms by empowering others to (re)align their lifestyles & mindset with the wisdom of nature for healing mind.body.heart & soul (im)balances and (re)kindling a soulful relationship to the natural world...for themselves, their loved ones, our communities, and our beautiful planet.

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Medical Disclaimer: All information on wildatheartconsulting.com is intended to inspire and motivate you to make your own diet, lifestyle, and health decisions after consulting with your health care provider and is not intended as medical advice. I am not a licensed dietitian, licensed nutritionist, naturopathic doctor, medical physician, or other licensed health care professional. The information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat diseases, disorders or conditions, is not intended to prescribe any intervention for a particular symptom, illness or disease, and is not a substitute for medical care. No information on this website should be understood as a basis to avoid diagnostic work-up or discontinue any medical treatment. You should follow-up with your physician or medical provider to discuss any modifications you intend to make to your lifestyle, health, or diet.