The health of our gut is extremely important to our overall health. Think of the gut as a hollow tube that is a central connector between both ends of your body.
What passes through the mouth and exits through the anus does not actually enter our body. In order to enter the body and reach our bloodstream, the food has to pass through the wall of the intestinal tube and actually pass the intestinal barrier.
What is the intestinal barrier?
The intestinal barrier consists of cells lining the intestine, a layer of mucus and a layer of the immune system. The intestinal barrier prevents the penetration of non-food substances and various pollutants from the intestinal cavity into the bloodstream. Imagine the intestinal wall as a sieve (a fine straining device) with very small holes that allow only small molecules to enter the bloodstream.
When there is damage to the intestinal barrier, larger holes break in the filter and unwanted substances can enter the intestinal cavity into the bloodstream.
This condition is known as “leaky gut.” In the case of leaky gut, the substances that penetrated the intestinal cavity into the bloodstream stimulate the immune system, which sees these substances as foreign bodies, and this leads to an inflammatory process that can be local or in more distant organs.
What is the microbiome?
Our gut contains over 100 trillion microorganisms known as the microbiome. A proper balance of the bacteria in the gut is important for both our gut health and our general health. A proper balance of intestinal bacteria plays a key role in the development of our immune system. An imbalance of the intestinal bacteria leads to an inflammatory condition in the intestine and can contribute to the development of various chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel diseases, diabetes, obesity, and colon cancer.
In order for the intestine to be healthy and function properly, 2 things must exist: a proper intestinal barrier and a proper balance of the intestinal bacteria.
What can damage the intestinal barrier?
1. Gluten: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten leads to inflammation in people with celiac disease. In people with celiac disease, gluten leads to damage to the intestinal wall, symptoms of the digestive system and phenomena outside the digestive system such as rashes and anemia.
There is also a large group of people who suffer from a sensitivity to gluten that is not celiac and they can also have symptoms in the digestive system or outside of the digestive system following eating gluten. In people who are sensitive to gluten, the gluten causes the release of a protein called zonulin leading to damage to the intestinal immune system and leaky gut. If you suffer from celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity you must avoid eating gluten.
2. Industrial seed oils: Industrial seed oils are processed oils such as canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil. These oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids that promote inflammation. Consumption of these oils was found to be associated with inflammatory processes in the intestine as well as damage to the balance of bacteria in the intestine.
3. Processed carbohydrates: Processed carbohydrates are present in products such as flour and sugar. On the other hand, unprocessed carbohydrates are present in natural products such as sweet potatoes and fruits. The processed carbohydrates encourage inflammatory processes and harm the balance of intestinal bacteria. On the other hand, the unprocessed carbohydrates encourage gut health because these foods feed the desired gut bacteria.
4. Artificial food additives: A study carried out at the Weizmann Institute in 2022 showed that artificial sweeteners led to changes in the composition of intestinal bacteria and disruption of sugar tolerance. Another substance called maltodextrin and used to thicken food products and preserve processed foods encourages the attachment of harmful bacteria to the intestinal wall.
The substance carrageenan extracted from algae and used to thicken and standardize food encourages flare-ups of inflammatory bowel diseases. The substances polysorbate 80 and carbomethylcellulose are two of the most common thickeners in the processed food industry, and both increase the leaky gut phenomenon. The substance titanium dioxide that is used for whitening and polishing encourages inflammatory processes in the intestine. To maintain a healthy gut it is recommended to avoid all these substances.
5. Stress: Prolonged mental stress damages the intestinal barrier and allows unwanted bacteria and their products to enter the bloodstream and this can lead to local or widespread inflammation.
6. Lack of physical activity, overtraining: Regular physical activity encourages the proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the gut, including bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids that contribute to gut health. In contrast, the lack of physical activity was found to be associated with an increase in inflammatory processes in the intestine. It is important to note that while regular exercise contributes to gut health, excessive exercise leads to leaky gut and changes the composition of gut bacteria for the worse.
7. Sleep disturbances: We all have a biological clock that works in cycles of about 24 hours. When there are sleep disturbancesA violation of the biological clock occurs. It turns out that the intestinal bacteria also work according to our biological clock and a violation of the biological clock leads to a violation of the normal balance of bacteria in the intestine and encourages inflammatory processes.
It turns out that even two consecutive nights of poor sleep can lead to negative changes in the composition of intestinal bacteria. That is why it is extremely important to ensure good sleep so that your biological clock works properly.
8. Treatment with antibiotics: Antibiotic use can negatively affect the gut microbiome. The antibiotics lead to a reduction in the variety and richness of the desired intestinal bacteria, and allow the proliferation of unwanted bacteria such as the bacterium Clostridium difficile which can cause diarrhea and serious illness. In addition, the antibiotics can encourage the development of bacteria that are resistant to the treatment. That is why it is important not to take antibiotics in the absence of a clear medical indication.
9. Antacids: Medicines used to treat heartburn of the hydrogen channel blockers type, (such as Controloc and Omeprazole), reduce the secretion of acid in the stomach. When the stomach secretes enough acid, it prevents the entry of unwanted bacteria into the intestine. The use of drugs that prevent acid secretion leads to a decrease in the acidity of the stomach and as a result unwanted bacteria can penetrate the intestine, thrive in it and lead to an inflammatory condition.
10. Toxic substances in the environment: We are exposed to an increasing variety of chemical substances in our environment. One of the results of this exposure can be damage to the intestinal bacteria and an inflammatory process in the intestine. The bisphenol A substance found in plastic dinnerware, and in receipts printed on thermal paper, harms the balance of bacteria in the intestine, and leads to inflammatory processes in the intestine.
The substance triclosan found in hand sanitizers and other hygiene products also damages the balance of intestinal bacteria and leads to inflammatory processes. Pesticides used in agriculture contain a substance called glyphosate which damages the intestinal bacteria and actually acts like an antibiotic in the intestine.
What steps can we take to improve gut health?
- Eat real foods rich in nutrients and avoid processed foods. Be sure to eat food rich in dietary fiber which provides food for the intestinal bacteria.
- If you are sensitive to a certain food such as gluten, be sure to avoid it.
- Manage your stress well. Continuous stress can harm your gut health, so it is important to have good methods for reducing stress such as meditation or deep breathing.
- Exercise regularly but avoid overtraining.
- Take care of good sleeping habits and regular sleeping hours.
Do not take antibiotics on your own, always consult the doctor. Limit your exposure to toxic substances in the environment: politely refuse to take receipts, use glass or stainless steel utensils for your food, eat food that is not sprayed with pesticides, and use cleaning agents and cosmetics made from natural materials.
Dr. Dalit Dariman Medina is an expert in family medicine, integrative and functional medicine