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The 5 Pillars of Gut Health

Jul 12, 2022

If you think about it, everything inside of our gastrointestinal tract is kind of outside of our body. Isn’t that wild? The gut is truly the gateway to the rest of the body. Think about it like a straw. Either something is inside of the straw or outside of the straw. With that analogy, it’s easy to see how influential gut health can be in supporting your overall health. But how do we support gut health? In this post, we will discuss the different body systems influenced by the GI tract, the 5 main pillars of GI health, and the best ways to support your gut health.


Gateway to the Body


We’ve already talked in another post about how 70% of your immune system lies right within your GI tract, known as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT. 


But why is the GI tract so important? What different bodily systems can it affect? Here’s the short list.


  • GI tract - nutrient malabsorption, constipation, diarrhea
  • Brain - stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia
  • Skin - acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis
  • Thyroid - Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, weight fluctuations 
  • Immune system - frequent colds, autoimmune disease, allergies, asthma, inflammation
  • Cardiometabolic system - type 1 diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and belly fat
  • Liver - non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, detoxification capacity (and therefore toxic burden)
  • Overall health - headaches, fatigue, obesity



The Pillars of Gut Health


Digestion and absorption


Digestion begins in the mouth with food choices and eating hygiene. Nutrients are moved from the stomach to the small intestine and eventually to the large intestine. This is where we break down and absorb nutrients. When this pillar isn’t functioning properly, you can have resulting low energy, indigestion, decreased metabolism, food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, brain fog, and an increased risk of chronic disease. 


Elimination and detoxification


Most people understand that the GI tract eliminates food waste through stool, but it’s also tasked with removing toxins and byproducts of hormone metabolism from the body. Most of this takes place in the large intestine through signals from the brain. When these signals are not being properly transmitted, then you can suffer with constipation, diarrhea, toxic buildup, and inflammation. 


Microbial balance


More than 100 trillion microscopic organisms reside in the large intestine and include bacteria, yeast, and viruses. Collectively, this ecosystem is known as the microbiome. And make no mistake about it, it’s an ecosystem in that for the most part, everyone plays together nicely on the playground. The microbiome benefits from the foods we eat and in turn, it regulates digestion, absorption, immune function, prevents GI-related illnesses, produces nutrients, vitamins, and neurotransmitters (like serotonin), and even regulates weight. When the microbiome isn’t balanced, overgrowth of bacteria, yeast, and parasites can occur. 


Barrier Function


Remember how the contents of the GI tract are technically outside of your body? This is because the GI tract encounters more foreign substances in one day than your immune system encounters in your lifetime! It’s a harsh environment out there, so good fences make good neighbors. The goal is to allow for the absorption of nutrients while defending against toxins and possible invaders. If the fence (barrier) isn’t working properly, increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) may occur. Think of a hole in the fence. Would that do a good job of keeping things in or out? No way! Leaky gut is essentially a widening of the tight spaces between cells in the GI tract and it can allow for potentially harmful organisms and large food particles to enter the bloodstream. This can create confusion and alarm in your immune system, possibly leading to autoimmune disorders and inflammation in the long run. 


Gut-Brain Connection


The last pillar is arguably one of the most important because there is a strong relationship between stress and the GI tract. The brain releases hormones in response to stressors that can directly alter the function of the GI tract. This can affect things like motility, or the movement of waste products through the GI tract. Stress-induced motility changes usually lead to constipation and downstream effects with the gut microbiome. They can have a heyday with excess food. This can lead to leaky gut, overgrowth of potentially harmful organisms, and imbalances in the immune system. The resulting inflammation can be a potent driver for this imbalance. The stress causing the GI tract imbalances causing more stress causing more GI tract imbalances. This feed-forward relationship needs to be addressed simultaneously for best results. You can’t fix one without addressing the other. 



Considerations for the 5 Pillars of Gut Health


Digestion and absorption

  • Prepare and enjoy food to help begin the digestive process
  • Consider a Mediterranean diet
  • Chew your food thoroughly to decrease the burden on the stomach


Elimination and Detoxification

  • Sweat regularly to help promote elimination of toxins through the skin
  • Consider a formal detoxification protocol with a functional medicine provider once or twice a year to support the liver


Microbial Balance

  • Limit exposure to antibiotics from water, food, and medications
  • Limit consumption of sugar which can feed harmful organisms in your GI tract
  • Reduce stress which can lead to microbial imbalance and possibly anxiety or depression


Barrier Function

  • Remove potentially allergenic foods from your diet to allow the GI tract to heal and reduce your risk or severity of autoimmune disease
  • Limit medications, such as aspirin, antibiotics, and NSAIDs that can cause inflammation in the GI tract


Gut-Brain Connection

  • Make time for relaxation to allow the body to regenerate and heal itself
  • Practice mindful eating habits such as eating with others to improve the gut-brain connection
  • Practice meditation and deep breathing to improve the relaxation response 
  • Consider measuring heart rate variability (HRV) or regular counseling as strategies for stress management and feedback 


If you suffer from any of the above-mentioned symptoms, consider the following lifestyle interventions to support the pillars of gut health.



Overall Support for Gut Health


Healthy lifestyle choices

  • Eat slowly
  • Sweat daily
  • Manage stress
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Don’t smoke
  • Maintain a healthy weight


Emphasize daily

  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Fiber
  • Adequate protein
  • Water
  • Sleep


Limit daily

  • Processed foods
  • Fried foods
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol 


Potential food allergens to consider removing for a short period of time

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Peanuts
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Sugar and sugar substitutes


Optional supplements

  • Digestive support
  • Probiotics
  • Prebiotics
  • L-glutamine


And if you’ve tried a sampling of these but you still can’t find any relief, then consider working with a certified functional medicine provider. As an IFM-certified provider, I help people get to the root cause of their issues. A big part of how I help people is by showing them how to support their gut. If you would like to apply to work with me, please visit the Services page on the website.