By Mark Hyman M.D.
There might be something wrong with your inner tube, and it could be making you sick and overweight. You may not even realize you have a problem…But if you have health concerns of any kind, or you are overweight, your inner tube could be the root cause. Of course, I’m not talking about a beach toy. I mean the inner tube of life — your digestive system.
It is likely that you suffer from (or have suffered from) some type of digestive disorder — irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn or acid reflux, gas, and other things too gross to mention in print. And you are not alone. More than 100 million Americans have digestive problems. Two of the top five selling drugs in America are for digestive problems, and they cost us billions and billions of dollars. There are more than 200 over-the-counter (OTC) remedies for digestive disorders, many of which can create additional digestive problems.
Visits for intestinal disorders are among the most common reasons for trips to primary care physicians. And that’s not even the worst news. Most of us (including most doctors) do not recognize or know that digestive problems wreak havoc in the entire body, leading to allergies, arthritis, autoimmune disease, rashes, acne, chronic fatigue, mood disorders, autism, dementia, cancer, and more.
So, having a healthy gut means more than simply being free of annoyances like bloating or heartburn. It is absolutely central to your health. It is connected to everything that happens in your body.
That’s why I almost always start helping people treat chronic health problems by fixing their gut, which is what I want to help you do today.
Fixing your digestion is the 4th key of the 7 Keys to UltraWellness, or functional medicine, and it is absolutely essential that you heal this critical system in your body if you want to achieve optimum health.
How your gut keeps you healthy or makes you ill
The health of your gut determines what nutrients are absorbed and what toxins, allergens and microbes are kept out. It is directly linked to the health of your whole body. Intestinal health could be defined as the optimal digestion, absorption, and assimilation of food. But that is a big job that depends on many other factors. Let’s look at a few of them …
First, there are bugs in your gut that form a diverse and interdependent ecosystem, like a rain forest. In fact, there are 500 species and three pounds of bacteria in your gut which form a huge chemical factory that helps digest food, regulate hormones, excrete toxins, and produce vitamins and other healing compounds that keep your gut and your body healthy. This ecosystem of friendly bacteria must be in balance for you to be healthy. Too many of the wrong bacteria, like parasites and yeasts, or not enough of the good ones, like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria, can seriously damage your health.
Second, there is your gut-immune system. Your entire immune system — and the rest of your body — is protected from the toxic environment in your gut by a lining that is only one cell-thick layer. If spread out, this lining would take up a surface area the size of a tennis court, covered entirely by a sewer! If that barrier is damaged, you can become allergic to foods you may normally be able to digest perfectly well, you will get sick, your immune system will become overactive, and it will begin producing inflammation throughout your body. Filtering out the good molecules from the bad molecules and protecting your immune system is yet another important factor in gut health.
Third, there is your second brain — your gut’s nervous system. Did you know your gut actually contains more neurotransmitters than your brain? In fact, the gut has a brain of its own. It is called the “enteric nervous system” and it is a very sophisticated piece of your biology that is wired to your brain in intricate ways. Messages constantly travel back and forth between your gut-brain and your head-brain and, when those messages are interfered with in any way, your health will suffer.
Fourth, your gut also has to get rid of all the toxins produced as byproducts of your metabolism, which your liver dumps into bile. If things get backed up when you are constipated, you will become toxic and your health will suffer.
And, last but not least, your gut must break down all the food you eat into its individual components, separate out the vitamins and minerals, and shuttle everything across the one cell-thick layer mentioned above so it can get into your bloodstream and nourish your body and brain.
Your gut has quite a lot to manage. Even in a perfect world, it is hard to keep all of this in balance. But, in our modern world, there are endless obstacles that can knock our digestive system off-balance, making it that much more difficult to maintain excellent digestive health.
How to know if your gut is out of balance
To fix your digestion, you first need to understand what is sending your gut out-of-balance in the first place. The list is short:
- Our low-fiber, high-sugar, processed, nutrient-poor, high-calorie diet, which causes all the wrong bacteria and yeast to grow in our gut and damages the delicate ecosystem in your intestines
- Overuse of medications that damage the gut or block normal digestive function — things like acid blockers (Prilosec, Nexium, etc.), anti-inflammatory medication (aspirin, Advil, and Aleve), antibiotics, steroids and hormones
- Undetected gluten intolerance, celiac disease or low-grade food allergies to foods such as dairy, eggs, or corn
- Chronic low-grade infections or gut imbalances with overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, yeast overgrowth, parasites or even more serious gut infections
- Toxins like mercury and mold toxins, which damage the gut
- Lack of adequate digestive enzyme function, which can come from acid-blocking medication use or zinc deficiency
- Stress, which can alter the gut nervous system, cause a leaky gut, and change the normal bacteria in the gut
What happens then is obvious: you get sick.
But what’s important to understand is that many diseases that seem to be totally unrelated to the gut — such as eczema or psoriasis or arthritis — are actually caused by gut problems. By focusing on the gut, you can get better.
Seven steps to optimal digestive health
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Make sure to include plenty of fiber from foods like vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Eliminate food allergies. If you think you have food sensitivities, try an elimination diet. Cut out gluten, dairy, yeast, corn, soy, and eggs for a week or two and see how your gut feels and what happens to your other symptoms.
- Treat any infections or overgrowth of bugs. Parasites, small bowel bacteria, and yeasts can all inhibit proper gut function. You must treat these infections if you want to heal.
- Replenish your digestive enzymes. When you don’t have enough digestive enzymes in your gut, you can’t properly convert the foods you eat into the raw materials necessary to run your body and brain. Take broad-spectrum digestive enzymes with your food to solve the problem.
- Rebuild your rain forest of friendly bacteria. Take probiotic supplements. They will help you rebuild the healthy bacteria so essential to good gut health.
- Get good fat. Take extra omega-3 supplements, which help cool inflammation in the gut.
- Heal your gut lining. Use gut-healing nutrients such as glutamine and zinc to repair the lining in your gut so it can resume its normal function.
Fixing your digestion may take some time, but it can be done. And it is absolutely essential if you want to achieve vibrant health. So work on your inner tube of life using the steps above and watch as your symptoms (and those extra pounds) disappear.