The foundational role that our gastrointestinal health plays in our overall health is just starting to be appreciated by science. A large part of what constitutes a healthy GI tract involves the integrity of the lining of our gut, which helps to keep harmful substances out of our bloodstream, as well as the bacteria that live in our large intestine, which affect our health in a multitude of ways not yet fully understood. Fortunately, you have significant control over your GI health. Read below to learn some habits you can avoid to prevent day-to-day assault on this all too important system.
1. Eating a Fiber-Deficient Diet
Adequate fiber intake is absolutely mandatory for a healthy gut. It serves multiple functions, including feeding your good bacteria, also called your microbiome. When you don't eat enough fiber you quite literally starve the friendly bacteria whose job it is to keep your gut healthy. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are not getting enough fiber. Ensure adequate fiber intake by eating a whole foods, plant-based diet.
2. Drinking Alcohol
The breakdown products of alcohol cause damage to the cells that line your gut. It also promotes the growth of harmful bacteria. Keep alcohol intake to 3-4 drinks per week or less.
3. Taking an Antacid
Antacids, especially proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec and Nexium, wreak havoc on your GI tract. They do this in multiple ways including by promoting the growth of bacteria in your small bowel where it shouldn't be, negatively affecting the type of bacteria in your bowels, and increasing your susceptibility to pathogens such as Salmonella and C. diff. If you need an antacid for the occasional heartburn opt for something milder such as Tums. If your symptoms are severe enough to need a PPI, schedule an appointment for a consultation to find out why and what else can be done about it.
4. Taking a Pain Pill
NSAIDs are commonly prescribed and commonly taken pain relievers that include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). They work well for acute pain and can help prevent the need for stronger pain medications such as narcotics. However, when used more regularly they too will damage your gut. That's because NSAIDs damage the connection between the cells that line your gut, called the tight junction. When the tight junction is not as strong as it should be a leaky gut results. This allows harmful food components and substances into the inner layer of your GI tract and your bloodstream where they shouldn't be, resulting in inflammation. NSAIDs also decrease the protective coating on your stomach that protects your stomach lining from your stomach acid. This increases your risk for ulcers.
5. Taking an Antibiotic (you probably really don't even need)
When you take an antibiotic, you don't just kill off the bad guys, you kill off the good guys too, especially the good guys in your gut. In the appropriate circumstance antibiotics can be life-saving. Unfortunately, many antibiotic prescriptions are written inappropriately. This is often because the condition being “treated” is viral, not bacterial. The vast majority of upper respiratory infections (the common cold, bronchitis, sinus infections, and so on) are viral, which means they cannot be treated by an antibiotic and will eventually resolve on their own. If you have symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, don't assume you need an antibiotic. Instead, treat your symptoms the way your mom would have recommended, with lots of fluids, rest, and general TLC.
6. Letting Stress Get the Better of You
Most of us have had the experience of a stressful event affecting our gut. Stress damages our gut in multiple ways, including by releasing chemicals that make our gut more leaky and by affecting the types and numbers of bacteria residing in our GI tract. When under a lot of stress, try to manage it in healthy ways such as through regular exercise, talking with a supportive friend, or meditation. Your gut will thank you.
If you suffer from chronic gastrointestinal discomfort such as IBS, or, from a chronic disease that has an unhealthy gut at its core, such as autoimmune disease and allergies, schedule a consultation with me to learn what you can do to heal yourself.