|Dr. Angie Martinez, M.D
Functional Medicine Doctor
Gut & Digestive Health Expert
“All Disease Begins In The Gut.”
-Hippocrates, the father of medicine
Health starts in the gut. The Ancient Greeks understood this and modern research continues to confirm it. Almost all diseases can be traced back to an origin in the gut. The gut can heal, the gut can hurt. In this article, I will share with you the reasons why digestive health is so important to overall health, common issues that arise in the gut, and natural ways to help heal and promote good gut health.
Why Is Gut Health So Important?
Most people believe that the only role of the gut is to digest and absorb nutrients. Although this is critical and important for overall health, the gut does much more than just digest our food.
The digestive system is the core of our immune system. It is the place where our immune health starts. In our complex lives, our body is constantly looking to find a balance between inflammation and repair. Most of the ability to stay in balance comes from our gut.
The gut is also home to its own unique microbiome, or trillions of bacteria. We’re finding out that the microbiome is so important to our health, it is almost its own organ. The microbes in our gut make vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. They are essential for healthy immune function. You can even attribute bacteria to brain health, so you can see how far-reaching their impact is.
You may have heard that the liver is the organ that is in charge of detoxing the body by neutralizing and removing harmful chemicals. Well, to complete the elimination process, the liver dumps these toxins into the gut. Therefore, the gut plays a key role in our ability to effectively get rid of the toxins we are exposed to.
The Gut-Brain Axis
Although the brain is the most important organ in the body, I would argue that the digestive system is second. The connection between the brain and the gut is what controls our health.
The gut delivers nutrients through the blood to the brain. These nutrients are needed for a healthy brain function.
On the flip side, the brain also has a lot of control over gut health. You can take all the supplements in the world and eat the best diet, yet still have digestive problems. This happens because good digestion requires your body to be in the parasympathetic or relaxation mode. So many people are so busy running the rat race that they never relax enough to allow the body to rest, properly digest foods and heal. Mindfulness, meditation and good sleep cycles are critically important. If you can’t balance your daily rhythms to include relaxation, you may never achieve optimal gut health.
Common Health Issues Related to Poor Gut Health
Poor gut health can cause a lot of health problems, some you may not even realize are connected to digestion. But, let’s start with the digestive symptoms first. The obvious symptoms are gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation.
Gut Health & Digestive Symptoms
Digestive problems can be caused by genetics, chronic conditions, a bad diet, ongoing stress, or other lifestyle factors. They can also be related to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. This is known as gut dysbiosis and can cause the symptoms described above.
Chronic stress on the gut can also lead to a condition called leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability. Leaky gut is when small gaps open up along the digestive tract caused by poor food choices, excessive stress, and undiagnosed food intolerances. This results in undigested food particles, toxins, and other unwanted substances leaking through the intestinal wall. Leaky gut can not only trigger digestive symptoms, it is also an underlying cause of autoimmune disease.
Gut Health & Non Digestive Symptoms
It’s easy to understand how digestive issues are related to poor gut health. You may not always think of gut health, however, being the cause of non-digestive symptoms.
I see a lot of patients with autoimmune or inflammatory disorder such as Hashimoto’s or rheumatoid arthritis. Sometimes its nonspecific inflammatory problems like joint pain, bone-on-bone arthritis or seasonal allergies that may look at first like a localized event. In my practice, I find that many of these cases end up as issues related to leaky gut or dysbiosis.
I often see patients with high levels of anxiety and gut health issues. My first line of treatment is to determine the influence gut health might be having on their mental health. The gut-brain axis is a two-way street. Sometimes their anxiety is leading to their gut problems but long-term exposure to gut problems has led to anxiety. As you can see, there are times when the connection of an issue to the gut may be complex.
Lastly, gut health can also impact hormonal health. I see a lot of women for example, who are estrogen-dominant and because of poor gut health their bodies don’t metabolize estrogen very well. Excess estrogen is excreted via the gut, therefore poor digestion can lead to excessive estrogen build up in the body. Gut health can also impact other hormonal problems like difficulty losing weight, or insulin resistance which can lead to type II diabetes..
What is Causing Poor Gut Health?
If you wonder why we suddenly have all these gut issues, the answer may be related to our modern life, especially to poor nutrition. A few of the main diet-related causes of poor gut health are:
- Nutritionally void processed diets, lacking critical vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients
- Inadequate intake of healthy fats, particularly anti-inflammatory omega-3s
- Excessive intake of inflammatory omega-6 fats
- Exposure to inflammatory foods, such as gluten, that may trigger leaky gut
- Glyphosate exposure, a common herbicide, that leads to bacterial imbalance
- Exposure to antibiotics in meat and dairy that kill healthy bacteria
- Chemical and environmental toxins that impact gut health
If you think about it, we haven’t been exposed to the stress of these modern foods for that long. The more we process foods, treat them with chemicals, and continue to grow hybrid or genetically modified foods, we are harming our bodies and our gut. Our bodies simply aren’t able to keep up with the changes our environment and modern life are giving us.
Chronic Stress: I am going to mention ongoing stress and the gut-brain axis one more time. Chronic stress can be a trigger for leaky gut. Even the healthiest people can eventually end up with poor gut health because they are unwilling to jump out of the rat race and slow down.
Lack of sleep is also a major trigger for poor gut health. Most people don’t get enough sleep. Many spend too much time on electronic devices late at night, which may result in an irregular circadian rhythm, disrupting sleep further. Poor sleep, paired with stress, can negatively impact gut health, leading to multiple health problems.
As you can see, there is so much that can influence our gut health. In our next article, we will discuss how functional medicine addresses healing the gut by taking a whole life wellness approach.
Dr. Angie Martinez sees patients in her clinic in Westminster, Colorado.
Latest posts by Dr. Angie Martinez, MD, IFMCP (see all)
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