The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) runs from mouth to anus and is the largest mucosal surface in the body. Effectively, it takes in food and converts it into useable energy, breaking it down into nutritional building blocks. It also is a significant barrier that protects us from the outside world, forming an integral part of our immune system's first line of defence.
Damage to the GIT lining can have significant consequences contributing to the incidence of infection and inflammation locally and systemically.(1)
The gut lining is made of:
- a mucous lining of varying density. The mucous is soft, sticky and wet, providing a lubricating and protective effect but also functions with specialised cells to produce immunological factors and a cozy nutrient-rich home for healthy gut bacteria(2,3,4)
- a gel-like fibrous layer called the gycocalyx. This keeps the GIT strong yet flexible, technically preventing the GIT from digesting itself and also produces digestive enzymes
- skin-like tissue called the epithelial cells, which are squished up against each other forming what is known as "tight junctions". Think of this like a layer of semipermeable "glad wrap" sealing off partially digested food from adjacent body cells, selectively allowing nutrients and vital fluids in and keeping damaging toxins out.
- a fibrous protein layer called the extracellular matrix. This is made of a mesh of collagen and elastin which allows for healthy movement and a strong foundation for the epithelial cells to adhere to and survive, also playing a role in regulating healthy cell behaviour.
The structure and function of our gut lining is complex and vital to our overall health.(5)
My top five tips for keeping your gut lining healthy and strong so it can provide its essential immune and digestive functions without uncomfortable symptoms are:
1) Reduce the impacts of stress
The impacts of stress and applied mindfulness practices like meditation and their effects on the human microbiome have been well studied.
Stress is known to increase our need for essential nutrition. If we are deficient, our body will start drawing on and depleting its stored reserves.
Less available nutrition means less is available for the body to function optimally and repair itself, resulting in compromised gut integrity.
When we are stressed, by default we don't often make the best food choices. Generally, times of high perceived stress will result in an increased intake of alcohol and highly processed, high sugar, high fat and pro-inflammatory foods.
Mindfulness techniques such as breath awareness, journaling and meditation may assist as well as developing a healthy sleep and exercise routine. A naturopath may prescribe herbs and extra nutrition known to improve your resilience and ability to cope and recover during times of stress.
From pure clinical observation in practice, I have often observed lowered gut integrity in clients with poor boundaries from a somatic mind-body perspective. This is where tools such as EFT and flower essences can be supportive in improving awareness of power plays in our relationship dynamics and getting our needs met.
2) Include gentle daily exercise
Studies have shown that just six weeks of moderate exercise (three hours per week of brisk walking or swimming) increases bacteria levels in the gut that improve gut structure and function by reducing inflammatory factors.(6)
Exercise also helps in reducing stress as well as providing functional movement. Physical movement is required to get healthy nutrient-filled and tissue-repairing blood circulating, as it assists with carrying away toxins via lymph fluid as well as stimulating muscles which aid in the normal, regulatory squeezing of the gut tube (peristalsis).
Effectively, this helps get food from end-to-end more efficiently, stops undigested food from sticking to and fermenting where it shouldn't, and encourages healthy stool formation and bowel motion.
So: stop sitting and slouching at your desk, keeping everything cramped up in there! Get moving! If you spend long hours driving, ensure you stop for regular breaks to walk around.
3) Reduce intake of excess medications
It is a misconception that antibiotics are the only medications that we need to be wary of when it comes to fostering a healthy microbiome.
Studies have shown a range of common medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, chemotherapy, metformin, laxatives, proton pump inhibitors and antidepressant substances and even vaccines can change the chemical constitution and pH in the gut, leading to alterations in species diversity and lowering bacterial colony counts. This can lead to susceptibility to infection and increases in inflammatory factors, which degrade the gut lining.(7)
If you need to take medications daily, ensure you take a broad-spectrum probiotic and be conscious of strengthening your gut health. Speak to your GP about being on the lowest practical level of medication for the shortest amount of time. Chat to a naturopath or other complementary health practitioner who may be able to support you in finding solutions to protect your gut health in the long-term while reducing your reliance on medications.
4) Reduce your intake of alcohol and pro-inflammatory foods
Alcohol itself promotes the growth of non-beneficial bacteria and increases endotoxin production. This directly degrades the tight junctions and epithelial cells, leading to increased intestinal permeability and inflammation. In fact, in animal studies, alcohol is used as a simulant when researchers need to study and require an example of a typical inflamed and degraded gut environment.(8)
When it is fermented, sugar converts to a type of alcohol in the gut (remember, that's how wine is made!) so it has similar effects as a substance that weakens the gut lining.
Processed foods, by their very nature, are lower in nutrients that strengthen the gut lining. These much-needed nutrients are necessary for normal and proper functioning and repairs, such as essential vitamins and minerals, fibre, collagen and fermented cultures. Processed foods are also higher in sugar and laden with artificial chemical additives (to enable them to have extended shelf life and help them taste good).
For example, there is a direct link to the chemical nitrates used to preserve deli meats (such as salami and bacon) and bowel cancer.(5) Processed snack foods such as instant noodles, crisps, cakes and biscuits contain cheap heat-treated oils that can damage gut tissue. A diet high in spices such as chilli and salt can similarly be corrosive over time to this sensitive tissue.
If you are intolerant to any known foods, it is best to speak to a naturopath or nutritionist to ensure complete elimination to minimise inflammation. It is also essential to replace critical nutrients that may be lacking from omitting such foods and then find a pathway towards eventual reintroduction once gut integrity is secure.(5)
5) Increase intake of foods and nutrients known to support a healthy gut lining
Vegetarians, those with impaired digestion from chronic inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chron's disease and IBD, or even chronic dieters, are groups of individuals at risk of protein deficiency. Adequate protein intake has been shown to be essential for gut repair and healthy, strong gut function.(5)
Fibre can be both soluble (gel-like and lubricating) or insoluble (slow to digest, supporting stool formation and bowel movement and creating an environment conducive to a healthy microbiome).
A healthy microbiome loves us feeding it variety. This includes:
- adopting a core diet of whole foods, including complex carbohydrates
- having a balance of cooked and raw fruit and vegetables and leafy greens
- leaving on as much of the fibrous skin and structural internal parts as possible
- consuming moderate animal and vegetable sourced protein
- minimal use of salt sauces and spices
- a bounty of healing fats such as deep-sea fish, raw seeds and nuts.
7) Matsui H, Shimokawa O, Kaneko T, Nagano Y, Rai K, Hyodo I. The pathophysiology of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)- induced mucosal injuries in stomach and small intestine. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2011 Mar; 48(2): 107–111.
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