Usually when people hear the word “gut,” digestion or a “beer belly” often come to mind. But did you know that the gut makes up about 75% of the immune system? Gut health plays a crucial role in immunity through the presence of beneficial bacteria, or microflora, which colonize and nest in the mucosal lining of the intestines. When these microflora aren't thriving within the gut, immunity is greatly compromised.
The microflora in the gut form a barrier that protects against invaders by competing with harmful bacteria and viruses. These microflora actually communicate with the immune system, prompting it to attack bad bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites, and to prevent more bacteria from taking up residence. When microflora aren’t thriving, these harmful agents are left free to take over, as in the case of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Microflora also play a role in the gut by helping digest and metabolize food. Patients who have suboptimal microflora often experience compromised digestion and typically are deficient in valuable nutrients such as vitamins A, D and B6, as well as in minerals such as zinc, selenium, potassium, iron and iodine. These patients frequently suffer from leaky gut syndrome due to the weak, thin lining of the intestinal wall, leading to food allergies or sensitivities, eczema and inflammation. And inflammation caused by leaky gut syndrome often leads to autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Celiac disease or gluten intolerance, chronic fatigue, and more. Scientific evidence also supports the relationship between gut microflora and mood and the ability to handle stress. Microflora also may play a role in obesity, cholesterol and heart health.
Poor gut health can also play a role the development of hypothyroidism. Up to a third of thyroid hormone conversion takes place in the gut. When gut health is compromised, the thyroid hormone T4 often will convert in excess to Reverse T3 – which blocks thyroid hormone receptors on the cells – instead of converting to T3, the active thyroid hormone which is used by the cells. The resulting imbalance in RT3 to Free T3 can result in hypothyroidism.
Symptoms of Gut Dysfunction
Symptoms of gut dysfunction may not be overt in the beginning, but often can precede serious health issues. Some symptoms include:
- Irregular bowel movements
- Abnormal-looking stools
- Intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut Syndrome)
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Joint pain
- Eczema and other skin disorders
- Memory issues, brain fog
- Mood swings
- Nutritional and mineral deficiencies
How to Support Gut Health
Patients can increase and support gut health and immunity by making sure their gut microflora are thriving and making sure digestion is working optimally. Some sure-fire ways to help include:
Patients can protect and heal the gut by trying to create an environment where beneficial bacteria thrive. This includes eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in foods that will encourage the growth of healthy bacteria, and limiting or avoiding foods that will cause an imbalance of good bacteria to bad bacteria and weaken the intestinal walls. Foods to avoid include processed foods, refined sugar, excessive alcohol, and grains, especially those containing gluten such as wheat, rye and barley.
Those with food allergies or sensitivities are wise to strictly avoid the offending foods and reduce further damage to the digestive tract. Some elimination diets involve a process for determining which foods are problematic.
Taking probiotic supplements and consuming fermented food and drink will help ensure and restore proper colonization of gut microflora.
Patients with low gut flora and leaky gut often have low stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Supplements like hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes can help break down food properly during the digestion process.
Supplements for Inflammation
For patients suffering from inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body, supplements like turmeric, quercetin, bromelain, and L-glutamine may help.
Limit Antibiotic Use
There are times when antibiotics are necessary, but avoiding the overuse of antibiotics is important since antibiotics eliminate not only harmful bacteria but also healthy ones. If you must take antibiotics for an infection, taking additional probiotic supplements can help prevent yeast infections and overgrowth of bad bacteria in the digestive system.