If intestinal distress is cramping your style, read on for lifestyle and supplement solutions for this common ailment.
DID YOU KNOW?
How many people do you think get sick from food-related illnesses every day? Would you believe more than 200,000? According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million Americans per year suffer from food poisoning.
But our problems go far beyond tainted peanut butter and beef. Multiple environmental toxins, an increase in imported food, overuse of antibiotics, airline travel, and other factors have dramatically increased the incidence of parasites and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Add to that the rising—but often undiagnosed—occurrences of yeast sensitivities, gluten intolerance, and food allergies, and our intestinal tracts need serious help.
While intestinal distress most often manifests in unmistakable symptoms, such as gas, bloating, indigestion, constipation, or other disorders, the signs may be more subtle. A toxic gut may also contribute to many other conditions, including skin disorders, weight gain, unexplained headaches, mysterious aches and pains, and even mood swings and depression.
“If you’ve been battling some kind of chronic health condition that has no apparent cause, there’s a good chance your gut is involved,” says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS.
The goal then, is to identify and eliminate food allergens, and heal irritated and inflamed digestive systems. Here’s how:
Arm yourself with allies.
Many of us are lacking in the essential compounds we need to properly digest and absorb food and keep the gut balanced. Some basics that can help:
Hydrochloric acid (HCl), or stomach acid, not only helps digest food, but also fights off bacteria and parasites. Low levels of HCl are caused by aging, stress, and other factors, and can cause chronic indigestion, malabsorption of nutrients, and an underfunctioning liver and pancreas. Gut remedy: take two or more HCl tablets with pepsin with meals.
Digestive enzymes are the catalysts for food absorption that break down the carbohydrates, protein, and fat in food into smaller molecules that can then be absorbed. Partially digested food can create toxins as they travel through the system, resulting in food allergies and the overgrowth of pathogens. Gut remedy: up to four digestive enzymes, derived from pancreatin or plant sources, with meals.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that inhabit the walls of the small intestine and the colon, forming a protective barrier that makes it harder for pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli to take root. Stress, sugar, alcohol, pharmaceutical antibiotics, second-hand antibiotics in food, and other factors destroy probiotics, so most people are severely deficient. Gut remedy: look for a probiotic that has at least 5 billion each of the main organisms and lists a strain, such as DDS 1 or NCFM, after the name. Probiotics naturally get into the body by riding on food, but stomach acid can destroy them like it destroys other organisms. So take them with food once or twice a day.
Fortify your gut.
Why do some people resist pathogens, while others fall ill? “Terrain is everything,” says Gittleman. “If your internal environment is balanced, healthy, and not hospitable to pathogens, you won’t get sick.”
Fortifying your internal terrain is crucial to warding off foreign invaders. And if your gut isn’t overburdened by toxins, you’ll also be less susceptible to food sensitivities, hidden allergens, gluten intolerance, and/or yeast overgrowth. Some steps to bolster your inner resources:
- Start by boosting friendly bacteria in your intestines to keep harmful bugs in check. In addition to taking a broad-spectrum probiotic, you’ll add one probiotic food, such as plain yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or miso soup, to your diet every day.
- Have two servings a day of prebiotics—nondigestible sugars that feed good bacteria without causing the bad bacteria to flourish. Some examples: chicory, asparagus, burdock root, shallots, onions, garlic, oregano, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, jicama, and other high-fiber foods.
- Lose the sweets. Sugar, artificial sweeteners, yeast, molds, refined grains, and white flour are the main food supply for candida yeast and many pathogens. Cut them out of your diet entirely. Even fruit can encourage the overgrowth of candida; avoid it altogether for two weeks to give your system time to fortify itself against yeast and pathogens.
- Increase soluble fiber intake. It supports the beneficial bacteria that nourish your system. Add at least two sources of soluble fiber a day: try oatmeal, vegetables, nuts, and flaxseeds.
- Add omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract and bolster immune system function. Eat fatty fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon or sardines, twice a week, munch on walnuts, and take 1,000 mg a day of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil.
Feed your gut.
Once your gut is fortified against pathogens and flushed of any remaining offenders, it’s time to rebuild. Do it mindfully: if you’re adding back foods you’ve avoided during the first two stages, do it slowly and one at a time to avoid flare-ups. And focus on healing foods, herbs, and fiber to build a strong gut lining. The most important steps include the following:
- Eliminate fruits for a couple of weeks to give your body time to fortify itself against yeast overgrowth. After two weeks, you can add fruit back to your diet in limited amounts—no more than two servings a day. The best choices include pears, apples, berries, plums, peaches, nectarines, cherries, grapefruit, oranges, and avocado.
- Slippery elm is an herb traditionally used to treat inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal complains. When mixed with water, it forms a mucilaginous residue that soothes irritation and may keep toxins and microbes from coming into contact with the gastrointestinal lining. Drink at least two cups a day of slippery elm tea; make it by adding 2 teaspoons of dried slippery elm powder to a cup of boiling water.
- Eat foods that offend pathogens. Parasites, for example, don’t seem to fancy certain compounds in pumpkin seeds—in Germany, they’re used to eliminate tapeworms. Other bug-fighting foods include kelp, sauerkraut, almonds, and radishes. Add them to your diet every day.
- Focus on high-quality protein; it’s essential for a healthy gut. Protein can stop pathogens and parasites from entering the bloodstream, and reduce intestinal inflammation; it also protects smooth muscles in the intestinal wall that move food down the GI tract. Eat 8 ounces a day of lean grass-fed beef, organic poultry, or wild caught fish, plus one to two organic eggs and up to two whey-based protein drinks.
- Vegetables are packed with insoluble fiber, which helps prevent constipation; they’re also protective against food-borne parasites and other pathogens. Eat at last five servings a day of colorful, nonstarchy vegetables such as asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, tomatoes, and others.
Try the two recipes on the preceding page. Both contain high-quality protein, soluble fiber, prebiotics, and antioxidant-rich vegetables. Your gut—and your taste buds—will thank you.
Adzuki Bean Salad with Yellow Pepper, Basil, and Avocado Serves 4
PER SERVING: 365 CAL; 11 G PROT; 19 G TOTAL FAT (3 G SAT FAT); 40 G CARB; 0 MG CHOL; 299 MG SOD; 10 G FIBER; 5 G SUGARS
Cumin-Seared Sea Scallops with Cilantro and Parsley Pesto Serves 4
PER SERVING: 591 CAL; 41 G PROT; 44 G TOTAL FAT (5 G SAT FAT); 12 G CARB; 88 MG CHOL; 586 MG SOD; 2 G FIBER; 2 G SUGARS