Was Hippocrates right? Does all disease start in the gut?
Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.”
And while this may not be 100% true for every disease in every person, more and more research shows that our gut (digestive system) plays a bigger role in many diseases than we used to think. And we're not just talking about heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, IBS, IBD, etc. We're talking about all kinds of issues like allergies, pain, mood disorders, and nutrient deficiencies.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Our gut is the portal to the outside world. It's here where we take in disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. We also take nutrients (and toxins) through our gut. The nutrients we ingest and absorb are the building blocks of every single part of our body. Think about it…
The foods we eat become our blood,
Our blood becomes our cells, which create our tissue, and muscles.
We truly are what we eat.
Research underlines the important connections between our gut and other areas of our body, like our brain. Not just our gut per se; but also its friendly resident microbes. These friendly bacteria play a crucial role in our gut and overall health. Let’s look at this in more detail.
Our gut’s role in our overall health
Our gut’s main role is as a barrier protecting the ‘inside world’ from the ‘outside world’, or said another way, this barrier is meant to ensure that things that shouldn’t get into our bloodstream stay out (the same way our skin ensures to keep the bad stuff out). Think of “absorption” of nutrients as things we want to let in; and “elimination” of waste, or toxins that we consumed through our foods, as things we want to pass right through and out.
This seemingly simple role is super-complex! And it can break down in so many places.
For one thing, our guts can "leak." Yes, like a long tube with holes in it, it can allow things to get into our bloodstream/bodies that can wreak havoc (bacteria, undigested food, and toxins). You name it, whatever you put into your mouth can be absorbed by your gut and get into your bloodstream, even if it's not supposed to. And when your gut wall gets irritated by consuming processed, high-sugar or other irritating foods, it can "leak." When this happens, you get inflammation, which is a starting point for many diseases.
Did you know that about 70% of our immune system lives in and around our gut.
A healthy gut doesn’t leaky. It maintains its barrier and shuttles things through to be eliminated. Maintaining a healthy gut barrier is the first pillar of gut health.
The second main part of your gut are the billions of friendly health-promoting microbes. Gut microbes help us digest and absorb nutrients. They fight off disease-causing microbes, make some vitamins for us, and have all kinds of other health benefits, supporting mental health, reducing inflammation, and stabilizing blood sugar.
How to improve gut health
Let’s start with things to avoid. It’s always best to eliminate the cause, so let’s stop giving our guts junk to deal with. Eliminating added sugars, processed foods (most food-like-products that come in a bag, box, or bottle, or have been otherwise altered from its natural state), and alcohol is at the core of establishing a healthy gut liner? Try that for a three weeks, and you may be amazed at how much better your body (and gut) feels.
You may also want to eliminate other gut irritants. Dairy and grains contain common compounds known to irritate lots of people’s guts. Sometimes you only need to eliminate them for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference for your health. I used to drink milk all the time, but a few years ago I took a month break. Then one day a friend brought me my favorite Chi Latter and after a few sips I was shocked when I felt my esophagus and tongue swell up…I’ve avoided dairy ever since.
Then let's add a few things. By eating nutrient-dense foods, we allow ample macro- and micro-nutrients into our gut to maximize the chance for absorption. These nutrients help our bodies build and repair our gut, and every other body part as well. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, colorful fruits and veggies, and fish.
The second pillar of gut health is our microbes. By ingesting probiotic-rich foods and drinks, we can help to replenish our gut microbes. These are found in fermented foods like kombucha (tea you find in the fridge section of your store), kefir (found where other dairy products are kept cold), miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Make these a part of your daily diet.
Whole foods are full of gut-friendly fiber. Not eating enough fiber increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Fiber plays lots of roles in our gut, including whisking away the bad bacteria and toxins so they can be eliminated. Fiber also feeds our friendly resident microbes that help us absorb and digest our food better. What foods have a lot of fiber? Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even cacao.
And don’t forget that other lifestyle factors like getting enough sleep, stressing less, and getting the right amount (and intensity) of exercise for you. It’s easy to forget some of the simple, but important links there are between what we do with our bodies and how well they function.
The function of your gut is key to your overall health. There are two pillars of gut health: maintaining a good barrier and maintaining healthy gut microbes.
The main ways to improve both of these naturally is by eating nutrient-dense whole foods. Foods filled with nutrition, probiotics, and fiber. And eliminating common gut irritants like added sugar, processed foods, and alcohol.