This great guest post was written by Dr. Serena Goldstein, a naturopathic doctor specializing in natural hormone balance! I encourage you to go check out her website!
Have you ever found that while one person can lose weight and clear up their many different health concerns on one diet, the moment you try that diet it either doesn’t work or make you feel worse? Or even post-cleanse and eating relatively healthier things return to the way they were before? These are all extremely common scenarios as we are all very different people. 23&me genetic testing can give us an idea of where our ancestors used to live, as cultures can have their own dietary preferences, but on the other hand we are all very mixed to varying extent making even a cultural diet perhaps difficult to follow. We also have genes that influence our sensitivity to how we metabolize foods, feelings of satiation, blood sugar regulation, and the composition of our complex gut bacteria. Factor in our unique lifestyle (e.g. living environment) and health concerns/health goals, and the ‘right diet’ starts to resemble that of a treasure hunt.
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Our microbiome is made up of millions of organisms, including four pounds of gut bacteria that all need to be balanced. For example, E. coli & H. pylori can contribute to gut and perhaps systemic issues, but it is part of our normal flora make-up when in balance. Our gut bacterium helps synthesize vitamins, minerals, hormones, and neurotransmitters, keep a proper immune system, and aid in digesting food. ‘You are what you eat’ is a common phrase in motivating people to be mindful of their food choices, however, a more accurate phrase is ‘you are what you absorb.’ Mucilaginous compounds protect the cells that make up the gut, and their different roles for proper function, from any foreign contents (e.g. food). Tight junctions reinforce this layer by inhibiting passage of any unknown objects into our system (Tlaskalova-Hogenova, et al., 2011). However, disruption may be due to high stress, poor sleep, hormone imbalance, multiple health concerns, chemical exposure, and poor diet, as these can compromise its integrity and contribute to the common phrase ‘leaky gut’. In addition, the integral relationship between tight junctions and the epithelial cells under the mucin means that other cells like those that will tighten junctions again, improve immune health, and improve gut integrity will all be handicapped. To further complicate, all these cells and the various strains of our gut bacteria (bacteria found everywhere from our oral cavity down to our anus, as well as other combinations in our urinary tract, nose, skin, and vagina in women) can be influenced by our genetics (O’Hara & Shanahan, 2006).
In all this variation between genetics and our environment, just as there isn’t a single diet for one person, there isn’t a single healthy microbiome. In fact, there are many long-term studies going on that also deem we are just scratching the surface of recognizing strains associated with cancers, heart disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, and hormone dysregulation, yet just because someone has these strains does not mean they will develop these conditions. We are in a time of disease where chronic conditions are incredibly multifactorial in both risk factors and treatment that even isolating another potential contributor to dis-ease still has to be put as part of the picture of that person in this current paradigm of individualized medicine.
While these recommendations work for most, it’s imperative to listen to our body both for gut related symptoms like gas, bloating, and irregular bowel movements, as well as more systemic symptoms like irritability, joint pain, headaches, low energy, poor sleep, weight gain, which can happen post consumption, or even a few days later. If any or all of these symptoms occur, consider a diet diary to see if there’s a recurring food (may be an intolerance), or perhaps speak with a Naturopathic or Integrative practitioner to further investigate for potential gut bacteria imbalance/infection. Another common, yet subtler symptom of craving carbohydrates and/or sugar may be psychological, but also very much due to changes in our gut bacteria make-up and other genetic susceptibility. Removing soda, alcohol, cigarettes, artificial ingredients (e.g. food dyes, preservatives, sugars), and usually gluten and dairy (especially if in the United States where it’s poorer quality than in most places) can be very helpful in both the healing and optimal maintenance of our gut function.
Nonetheless, most people can follow general guidelines of a proper amount of fiber (35-40 grams), which helps nourish good bacteria, balance blood sugar, promote regular bowel habits, consuming a rainbow of vegetables, eating until 80% full, and emulsifying each bite. Also add in stress management, eating in a relaxed environment, and proper sleep (both mostly through the night and going to bed before 11 pm so cortisol, our stress hormone, can sufficiently drop). Drinking enough water, allowing food to sufficiently digest (usually waiting at least 3-4 hours), and once again, truly listening to your body both internally and noting any external changes as well (e.g. pimples, rashes, hives, bloating, heavier menstrual bleeding, puffiness) are imperative for understanding how our body can be our own ideal function.
- O’Hara, A.M. & Shanahan, F. (2006). The gut flora as a forgotten organ. EMBO reports. 7:688-693. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1038/sj.embor.7400731/full
- Tlaskalova-Hogenova, et. al., (2011). The role of gut microbiota (commensal bacteria) and the mucosal barrier in the pathogenesis of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases and cancer: contribution of germ-free and gnotobiotic animal models of human diseases. Cellular and Molecular Immunology. 8(2):110-120. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4003137/
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