Functional Medicine: A Holistic Approach to Healing Your Gut
Did you know that you have over 100 trillion microscopic organisms (i.e., microbes) in your gut? It’s no wonder that everyone seems to be interested in their gut health these days! In this post, we’ll discuss the importance of the gut microbiome and how you can take steps to heal your gut using a holistic approach starting today (I’ll give you a hint, it takes more than a probiotic supplement!)
What Is the Gut Microbiome?
“Gut microbiome” is the term used to describe the diverse population of microscopic organisms that reside in your gut (i.e., your gastrointestinal tract).
In recent years, we have come to understand the importance of the gut microbiome on our overall health. You may be aware that the microbes in our gut help us break down food, but did you know that they also help us synthesize vitamins and absorb minerals? Certain microbes have even been linked to obesity, suggesting that they impact how we process and store the energy from the food that we eat.
In addition to its metabolic role, the gut microbiome also plays a structural and protective role by helping to maintain the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Dysbiosis, an imbalance in the diversity of the gut microbiome, can lead to the production of endotoxins like lipopolysaccharide (LPS) which activate zonulin, a protein that can make the gut barrier more “leaky” than it should be.
Excessive leakiness (above and beyond what is necessary to absorb the nutrients from our food), is known as intestinal permeability or “leaky gut syndrome”, and it can lead to disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Celiac, and Crohn’s disease. Increased intestinal permeability may also be linked to other autoimmune conditions outside of the gastrointestinal tract.
Furthermore, the microbes in our gut affect the function of our immune system via the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), a collection of structures within the gastrointestinal tract that house almost 70% of our immune system and help us defend against outside pathogens.
What Are the Symptoms of Poor Gut Function?
Signs that you may have poor gut function include gas, bloating, heartburn or acid reflux, cramping, constipation, and diarrhea. Other symptoms can include nausea, abdominal pain, and an inability to digest or tolerate certain foods.
Perhaps most surprising are the symptoms that poor gut function can have outside of the gastrointestinal tract. The role of dysbiosis in several disease states is being actively studied and many associations have been made. One example is the link between gut health and mental health.
Termed the “gut-brain axis”, we now know that the gut and the brain are constantly communicating, and issues in the gut have actually been linked to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Other conditions that have been associated with gut dysbiosis in the literature include obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.
What Is Functional Medicine for Gut Health?
Functional medicine for gut health involves identifying and addressing the root cause of gut issues and bringing healthy diversity back into the gut microbiome using a patient-centred and holistic approach. This may involve testing, nutritional modifications, lifestyle interventions, supplements, or prescription medications. Because of the root cause nature of functional medicine, the treatment protocol used is unique and individualized to each patient, which can be quite different from the conventional medical approach.
A common example used to illustrate this difference is the treatment of heartburn. Many people diagnosed with heartburn are given an antacid or proton pump inhibitor to neutralize or suppress stomach acid to prevent the burning sensation and discomfort caused by acid reflux. In contrast, a functional medicine practitioner would attempt to identify the cause of the heartburn (e.g., some sort of dysfunction within the digestive system) and address this directly.
By improving the function of the digestive system without suppressing stomach acid (a very important and biologically necessary substance!) heartburn symptoms resolve without any negative side effects, and overall health is optimized. (Disclaimer: there are situations in which the use of acid-suppressing medication is completely appropriate and medically necessary! But many cases of heartburn can be addressed without the use of medications).
What Things Are Good for Gut Health?
Many things influence our gut health, so a holistic approach is the best way to support a healthy gut microbiome, starting with what we eat. We’ve all heard that it’s important to eat our fruits and veggies, but do you know what makes them so great? Yes, there are vitamins and minerals that we need in order to nourish our bodies, but fruits and vegetables also contain carbohydrates and fibres known as prebiotics that feed our gut microbes and help them flourish.
In fact, results from the American Gut Project published by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine showed that individuals who ate 30 or more different plant foods per week had a more diverse gut microbiome, and when it comes to the microbiome, diversity is a good thing!
In addition to prebiotics, you can also influence the health of your microbiome using probiotics. And while probiotic supplements are widely available on the market, don’t underestimate the power of probiotic foods like fermented dairy, coconut yogurt, raw sauerkraut and kimchi for providing a powerful (and tasty) dose of healthy bacteria along with additional vitamins and minerals that support a healthy gut!
Your brain also affects your gut health! We all know what a stressful situation can do to our gut, so managing our stress levels and emotional state is important in any gut-healing journey. A great example of the power the brain has on influencing gut symptoms is the use of hypnotherapy for IBS. Hypnotherapy, an intervention that induces a deeply relaxing and focused mental state, can be used to address the miscommunication between the gut and the brain in IBS sufferers and has an impressive response rate of up to 70-80%.
Lastly, ensuring that you’re getting high-quality, restorative sleep is a must for anyone with gut issues. In our busy world it’s easy to overlook a good night’s rest (there are jobs to do and TV shows to binge-watch!) But sleep is a time for repair, and a lack of sleep impacts hormones such as cortisol, which, when chronically elevated, can also negatively affect our gut health.
What To Consider When Choosing Supplements for Gut Health
It may be tempting to grab the latest fad supplement that you keep seeing advertised online, but consider this: not everyone with poor gut function has the same root cause, so that expensive probiotic supplement that works great for your favourite Social Media influencer may not be right for you. Gut repair requires a targeted approach, and although supplements may help, they aren’t always the first step (and they definitely aren’t the only step).
Here are my top tips when choosing supplements for gut health:
- If you can, work with a functional medicine practitioner, naturopath, or other trusted health professional to help uncover the root cause of your gut symptoms. This will help you determine which, if any, supplements should be used.
- Keep in mind that when it comes to supplements, “natural” does not mean inert! Supplements have the potential to cause side effects (including gut symptoms!) and they can interact with other medications. Ask your local pharmacist if your supplements are safe and whether they could be contributing to your symptoms.
- Be mindful of supplement brands or individuals that use blanket statements or extreme claims (e.g., “this one supplement will cure all gut problems!”) There is no one-size-fits-all approach to optimizing health.
- You can’t supplement your way out of unhealthy habits. For best results, use targeted supplementation as an adjunct to healthy lifestyle choices.
Our gut microbiome influences so many aspects of our overall health, and at Body Science Therapy & Performance Centre we’ve seen firsthand how effective functional medicine can be for improving symptoms of poor gut function.
From regulating bowel habits to improving mood, our patients have had amazing results with our approach. If you think your gut health could be contributing to your symptoms and you’re ready to turn things around, book in for a free discovery call today and let’s get started!