Natural Healing Foods
In medical school, I learned at least a dozen different ways to help people poop, and none of them (except for Metamucil, somewhat) had anything to do with food.
In fact, years ago, I had a conversation with a gastroenterologist regarding the role of food in digestive problems. I proposed that because we consume pounds of stuff every day which comes into contact with every inch of the 30+ foot tube of the digestive system, would it be possible that what we consume could affect irritable bowel, reflux, or inflammatory bowel diseases? He thought the idea was intriguing. At that time, there was not even a word for the microbiome.
Turns out the microbiome, the magical kingdom of microbes residing in you, might be the most important organ in your body. Bacteria in your microbiome outnumber your own cells 10 to 1, and bacterial genes outnumber your own genes 100 to 1.
Your microbiome consists of both beneficial as well as pathogenic bacteria (among viruses, fungi, and various other microorganisms, which is actually a good thing), and as long as the beneficial bacteria outweigh the pathogenic bacteria, your microbiome helps keep you healthy and protects your gut lining.
An unhealthy and unbalanced microbiome, on the other hand, can contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, autoimmunity, dementia, allergies, asthma, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's, skin disorders like acne, asthma, eczema, and psoriasis, in addition to all the digestive disorders including irritable bowel, reflux or colitis. Fixing your gut environment can help improve those conditions and can support your health.
The trick is knowing how to tend to your inner garden.
Is Your Food Medicine or Poison?
Pathogenic gut bugs grow for two reasons: eating too many gut-busting foods and not eating enough of the foods that feed the good guys.
The biggest culprit is gluten. Modern wheat has powerful inflammatory proteins called gliadin that can damage the lining of your gut, developing the possibility of something we call a leaky gut. A lot of wheat today is sprayed with the weed killer glyphosate at harvest to dry it out. Your morning Cheerios have more glyphosate than they do vitamin B12 and vitamin D (which are actually added to the cereal). Why is that bad? Apart from being a known carcinogen, glyphosate ruins your microbiome.
Other common gut-busting foods include sugar and starch. The bad guys love it the same as you do. Excessive sugar and starch promote the overgrowth of toxic bacteria and yeast and are the reason for feeling bloated and experiencing a "food baby" after a meal.
Refined oils, which make up around 10 percent of our calories, can also create inflammation in your gut potentially leading to a leaky gut and can cause something called metabolic endotoxemia. In other words, our metabolism can be poisoned by hazardous byproducts of pathogenic bacteria, which can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and a whole slew of other problems. Omega 3 fats do the opposite. (Healthy fat is not the enemy!).
Along with unhealthy and highly-processed fats, we over-consume additives as well as preservatives. Some of the worst are the thickeners and emulsifiers in the majority of processed food, including carrageenan and gums. They are detrimental to our microbiome, the lining of our guts, and our overall digestion.
These are just a few examples of common gut disruptors in the Standard American Diet (SAD) diet.
Fortunately, there are a lot of healthy and delicious foods that our beneficial bacteria enjoy.
Natural Healing Foods.
While we know that the wrong bugs and the wrong foods can break down your gut barrier and result in an unhealthy microbiome, we also know the right gut bugs and the right food help keep your gut barrier lining intact and keep your gut healthy.
So, what do the good bugs eat? They munch down on the fibers in our food-- particularly foods that have a special kind of prebiotic fiber. Some foods have high levels, like artichokes, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, plantains, seaweed, and others. Any kind of fiber-rich foods help feed the beneficial bacteria and keep the inner garden healthy. This means consuming a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and beans.
Probiotic-rich foods also help support a healthy gut. My favorites are conventional fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, miso, natto, and kimchi. Polish women residing in Poland are known to consume 30 pounds of sauerkraut a year. When they move to the United States, they have a tendency to consume considerably less or quit eating it entirely. Polish women living in the US have significantly higher rates of breast cancer than their cousins in Poland eating the kraut.
Some of the interesting discoveries around the microbiome include the role of polyphenols, the colorful phytonutrients located in plants. The good guys love them, feed on them, and in turn, those bugs protect us. For instance, one such bug, Akkermansia, loves cranberry, pomegranate, and green tea. When it is in abundance, it creates a protective layer in the gut helping to protect against a leaky gut, autoimmune diseases, and also heart disease and diabetes. Turns out this bug is also essential for some cancer treatments to work, such as immunotherapy. So, consuming cranberries, pomegranate, and green tea help increase the Akkermansia in your gut and help keep your gut healthy.
Your gut also requires other nutrients to work well. Zinc from pumpkin seeds and oysters is essential for digestive enzyme function. Omega 3 fats from fish such as sardines or herring are needed to manage inflammation and help heal a leaky gut. Vitamin A from beef liver, cod liver, salmon, and goat cheese is also necessary for cellular health and supports the lining of your gut. Foods with collagen, such as bone broth, contain glycosaminoglycans also help shield the gut and keep it healthy.
It is clear that food is the most essential regulator of your microbiome. Don't forget next time you take a bite that you are not just eating for your own health, but the health of your inner garden. How many of these gut-healing foods will you incorporate?
Linette Williamson MD is a Functional Medicine and Integrative Medical Doctor, who specializes in helping her patients identify lifestyle factors that affect their everyday medical issues. Dr. Williamson uses cutting edge testing to find imbalances that are related to your health problems. She will spend time with you to find out what specific issues you have and help you develop a specific plan that is unique to you.