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7 Critical Steps to Re-Establish Gut Health

Ask yourself the following questions (even if you feel fine overall).

Do I take medications – including oral birth control pills? Have I used antibiotics in heavy doses or in the recent past? Do I notice fatigue or “foggy” thinking on a frequent basis?  Do I have skin problems? Am I depressed? Do I get frequent infections (e.g. colds)? Do I experience uncontrolled hunger, heartburn, gas, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation? Have I been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition?

Your answers can beg the further question: what’s the state of your gut?

The fact is, we’re only beginning to understand the pervasive role of our gut health in virtually every process of our overall health. We tend to think of our “gut” as simply responsible for digestion and, perhaps, elimination. Yet, this intricate combination of organs is home to critical bacteria that also regulate metabolism and comprise over 75% of our immune system. (Keep that in mind during the upcoming cold/flu season!)

Although we host ten times more bacteria than human cells in our bodies, it doesn’t take much to negatively impact our bacterial atmosphere. As our gut health goes, so goes our overall health – with implications for our metabolism, mood, appearance, immune response and energy.

Unfortunately, our conventional Western lifestyles are filled with factors that constantly kill off our healthy bacteria and thereby create a perfect environment for parasites and bad bacteria. As a result, we put ourselves at greater risk for various conditions associated with poor gut health, including inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia and depression.

I think of a previous client whom I’ll call Peggy. She came to me initially for help with losing weight. Peggy considered herself an overweight middle-aged woman who suffered from fibromyalgia and severe fatigue. She was overly stressed at home and work. This all led to poor movement and nutrition habits. At a loss, all she wanted when she first came was a meal plan. After further discussions and experimenting with lifestyle changes, Peggy came to realize that nearly all of her negative symptoms were significantly improved by focusing on re-establishing her gut health. Not surprisingly, her eagerly desired weight loss came as a result of those improvements.

Her example underscores the truth that we can reestablish our gut health even when it’s been compromised by years of poor choices, illness or medication use. Let’s look at 7 critical steps to regain healthy gut function.

Detect and remove the toxic culprits.

The most effective way to discern exactly which foods (even healthy, whole foods!) could be compromising your gut is to get lab work done. You should ideally not only test for food allergies but also for food sensitivities, as both of these have major repercussions for the gut.

The next best strategy is to start eliminating common inflammatory foods entirely, to give your gut a chance to stop further destruction and attempt to heal itself (using means described in the upcoming steps). Common culprit foods include: gluten, cow dairy, eggs, sugar, alcohol, corn, soybean, peanuts, and – for many people – caffeine.

Commit to eating clean.

A key reason the majority of Americans have digestive problems (e.g. GERD, acid reflux, irritable bowel, bloating, etc.) is simply the “food” they eat. Our grocery stores have over 40,000 products to choose from, but think how many of those have an ingredient list with over 20 items most of us can’t even pronounce. Much of the time, however, we don’t think twice about putting these into our bodies.

We scoff at the high price of quality foods, yet we’ll pay at least double that cost at the pharmacy to medicate our diet-driven conditions and not think twice about it. Ever wonder how many of those medications you wouldn’t have to take if you made lifestyle changes? Ever stop to think the last time you actually felt genuinely good?

For most people, eating clean isn’t an overnight, cold-turkey change. The majority of my clients have the greatest long-term success when they first add in a few servings of vegetables each day and build from there. Swap out the daily sodas for sparkling water, snack on nuts or fruit, and eat better quality meat. It won’t take long before sugar cravings subside and reaching for the healthier alternatives will come naturally because you come to love how you feel.

Re-establish proper dining habits.

This step seems laughably simple, but so few actually follow through that it’s hardly easy. How rare is it these days to have a home-cooked meal, to eat together as a family with no T.V. or other electronics allowed, to gather at the actual dinner table, and to take at least 15-20 minutes?

Why is it so important to aim for more mindful eating? Digestion functions most optimally when our bodies recognize the food we eat (real rather than artificial, processed foods), when we’re less stressed (sitting down without distraction), and when we slowly chew our food. Those small, easy steps can actually support good digestion and, by extension, good gut health!

Feed your good gut bacteria.

One of the biggest boons to our health is probiotics. It would be next to impossible to overestimate their influence, in fact. These little workers in your gut that actually digest food, maintain your metabolism, offer protection from bad bacteria, and keep you regular are bacteria - good bacteria called “probiotics.” Daily supplementation with a quality probiotic greatly boosts your gut function and overall health (particularly when you’re battling poor choices or medication use) – and helps bolster your immune system!

These guys do a lot of hard work for us on a daily basis, and they, too, need proper food to keep them healthy. Their “food” per se is “prebiotics” or non-digestible carbohydrates. That’s where our food choices come into play and can make or break the ratio of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Adding a modest portion of beans, legumes, potatoes, or resistant starch to your diet will serve as fuel for the good bacteria.

Fill in the inevitable gaps.

Even in a perfect world where we eat 100% whole foods, get adequate movement and exercise, aren’t stressed (impossible, by the way), and are free of disease and other health complications, our bodies are typically still running short on many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals that allow our thousands of bodily processes to function).

Our bodies run on nutrients, not just on calories. These nutrients are easily depleted, whether it’s from poor food choices, stress, medications, or inadequate sleep and stress recovery. Before we know it, our energy is non-existent. Great additions to your day include a quality multivitamin, fish oil, and potent probiotic as the foundation to maintaining good gut health.

It’s important to note, however, that the majority of Americans currently deal with gut issues. Therefore, most people need that “foundation” of wise supplementation plus some added help from other nutrients such as L-glutamine (to help repair the gut barrier wall), and even an HCl complex. Talk to a registered dietitian for more information about these supplement options.

Balance out your stress.

Our endless attempts to juggle work and home life, all while maintaining good health and relationships leave us vulnerable to stress. In addition to personal tensions, our bodies experience the stressors of inadequate sleep, allergenic foods, environmental toxins, and even poor exercise habits.

Stress does more than wear us down emotionally. It also impacts us at the physiological level. Stress is one of the main contributing factors to subpar gut function, increasing inflammation, and heightened risk for chronic conditions and disease.

Although there are some stressors we can’t control, we can always better gauge and ameliorate our stress. Go for short walks throughout your day to get away from your desk. Minimize screen time. Enjoy a yoga class, or try Pilates. Indulge in a massage or fit in a daily mini-meditation session. These practices will make a world of a difference!

Make sure you’re moving!

Ensuring adequate movement throughout our day significantly aids overall digestion! Keeping ourselves active also helps our digestive system's movement as well. I can personally vouch that my digestion is much more regular when my activity level is higher.

This doesn’t mean you have to become an avid runner or exercise hours each day. In fact, for some of you, that would be less beneficial. Just focus on increasing your steps each day, ideally hitting the sheets each night with at least 10,000 under your belt.

Consider which one of these seven steps would be easiest to focus on starting today, and make this your weekly goal. Take on one additional tip at a time, and see a club dietitian for guidance and support. Regain optimal gut health to support your metabolism and well-being today!

In health, Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Assistant Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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