It’s no surprise that we associate our gut with our intuition. It is the foundation of our entire wellness, a flourishing microbiome that supports our energy, sleep, and spirit.
Or at least, it should be. Gut problems affect 62 million Americans per year, causing intestinal distress, poor digestion, and lethargy. Diseases of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract have even been linked to depression and anxiety. But why is gut toxicity so common, and how can we fix it?
Meet Your Microbiota
You’ve probably heard the phrase “probiotics,” especially when shopping for your favorite kombucha or yogurt. As you may know, fermented foods actually contain beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These are among the same bacteria that should be present in your gut, where they help break down food.
Probiotic organisms produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), specifically acetate, propionate, and butyrate. Each of these has a vital role in your overall health:
Acetate metabolizes cholesterol, helps create fatty tissue for energy reserves, and regulates your appetite.
Propionate heads to the liver and helps convert glycogen into energy.
Butyrate converts glucose to energy and kills cancer cells that may develop in the colon.
If your gut microbiome is depleted, all these processes become impaired. Unfortunately, beneficial bacteria are easily killed by dietary toxins, certain pharmaceuticals, and synthetic chemicals in our environment.
Signs of Gut Toxicity
Our gut’s beneficial microbes can easily go out of whack, causing chronic illness. Countless Americans have mysterious symptoms that can’t be explained by harmful microbes, genetic issues, or cancer. And the problem is that no one has taught us how to truly nourish our bodies.
Common symptoms of GI disease include:
- Persistent gas pains
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Excessive weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
Sadly, Western physicians tend to treat only the symptoms. And yes, all of the above are symptoms of a greater problem, not diseases in their own right.
When doctors look for microbial causes of disease, they focus on the negative ones. Many will prescribe antibiotics in the blink of an eye. As the name suggests, antibiotics kill germs … and they’re essentially the opposite of probiotics. Antibiotic treatment disrupts your gut’s natural microbiome.
Worse still, doctors don’t bother to look for an imbalance of gut bacteria. The Western view of medicine tends to silo the body systems and treat disease with an excisional approach: removing and counteracting pathogens rather than restoring balance.
That’s why gut toxicity can cause such lingering health issues. As long as we’re just treating the symptoms, the gut can never perform at its optimal level. You can’t properly absorb nutrients from the food you eat, so you’re left with both metabolic issues and general discomfort as your poor gut tries to expel the waste.
Who Killed the Microbiome?
Your gut microbiota can fluctuate wildly within a matter of hours. The good news is that you can start replenishing your biome fairly quickly. Scientists have found that high-fiber fruits and vegetables are especially helpful for this and actually have more of an impact than your nutritional profile alone.
The bad news is that a poor diet can quickly derail the progress. And if you tend to skip meals, eat strangely (e.g. for weight loss or bodybuilding), or load up on supplements, you’re essentially putting diesel in the gas tank — the wrong fuel, packed with additives and at the wrong time.
One of the main dietary culprits of gut toxicity is high-fructose corn syrup. Found in countless processed foods and beverages, HFCS contributes to long-chain fatty acid (LFCAs) buildup in the gut. Remember above how we said that short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are a chief benefit of probiotics? Well, LFCAs are the classic insoluble fats, and they contribute to harmful gut bacteria such as Desulfovibrio (possibly linked to Parkinson’s) and Bilophila, which impairs nutrient absorption and promotes inflammation (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/mi/2019/8495913/). Worse, they seem to decrease levels of probiotics such as Bifidobacterium (including the Lactobacillus found in your favorite yogurt).
Also, those harmful bacteria love sugar and fat in general. They make quick work of simple carbohydrates, while probiotics flourish when they have plenty of fiber to chew on. When you’re feeding yourself, you’re feeding your gut’s microbes. The question is, which ones?
When so many of our foods are laden with refined flours and sugars, long-chain fatty acids, and preservatives, we’re bound to disrupt our gut’s microbiome. For example, trehalose, commonly used to sweeten and preserve food products, promotes the growth of *Clostridioides difficile. C. diff* infections can be fatal.
And remember, a healthy gut is all about balance. Excessive probiotics can also contribute to gut toxicity. For example, propionate is also used as a preservative, so when we get too much of it, its role in glucose metabolism backfires and can actually contribute to insulin resistance!
Heavy metals and environmental chemicals such as BPA and phthalates have also been linked to gut toxicity. They have similar effects to a high-fat diet, perhaps because they coat the intestinal lining and disrupt the pancreas and liver cells.
And finally, be wary of your pharmaceuticals’ effects on your gut health. Many people do not know they need to replenish their beneficial gut bacteria after a course of antibiotics. Also, certain medications, including NSAIDs (e.g. acetaminophen) and antipsychotics (e.g. clozapine) seem to disrupt your microbiome. This means that as you seek relief from inflammation, depression, or anxiety, you may also be feeding harmful bacteria that contribute to those conditions!
Also, don’t assume that your nutrition shakes and vitamin supplements will save you! Many of these products contain artificial dyes, hydrogenated “trans” fats, heavy metals, and fake sweeteners. Even “healthy” smoothies and protein drinks such as SlimFast have some toxic ingredients, including carrageenan, artificial sugars, and high-fructose corn syrup. So, if you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle, skip the fitness shakes and fuel up with complex carbs and lean protein instead.
In short, we are what we eat. And while doctors may eagerly prescribe medications to treat our symptoms (or brush them off with a shrug), we can take charge of our health by taking charge of our gut. Cutting back on processed foods and consuming plenty of fiber-rich whole foods will protect our beneficial bacteria. And when they thrive, it’s harder for the nasty ones to survive.
You can and should boost your gut microbiome with probiotic foods. Anything fermented, such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut is a good option. But don’t go overboard, and be sure to check the labels for any toxic ingredients. Your gut will thank you.
This article is inspired by an interview with Steve Wiltshire, a bodybuilder-turned-holistic health coach and the founder of Body Temple Health & Wellness.