It seems like recently, gut health is all the rage on the internet. There are always articles coming across my feed like “10 steps to heal your gut”, or “the best gut-healthy recipes”, or “the top 3 gut healing supplements”.
While these articles can be helpful, I thought it might be useful to take a step back and explore the basics in more detail. Let’s look at the big picture and talk about why you’d need to heal your gut in the first place, why gut health is essential, which diets are most commonly used to improve gut health, and how you’d know which is right for you. Let’s dive in.
Why would you need to heal your gut in the first place?
First off, some of the hype you see on the internet is just marketing. Many companies hop on the bandwagon of a popular health subject to sell products. We see this happen with almost every trendy health topic or fad because the wellness is an industry and is in it for the big bucks.
Ok, rant over. In truth, I do think that many factors that are a part of our modern lifestyles damage the gut.
Some things that contribute to reduced gut health include:
- Chronic stress
- High intake of processed foods
- Multiple courses of antibiotics
- Chlorinated drinking water
- Exposure to pesticides and herbicides
- Chronic alcohol consumption
- Excessive use of antibacterial products (hand sanitizers, etc.)
- Disordered eating
- Taking certain medications (NSAIDs, PPIs, Atypical Antipsychotics)
- Diets high in sugar
- Intake of artificial sweeteners
- Insufficient sleep
- Not enough exercise
- Too much exercise
- Eating foods that you’re sensitive or intolerant to
As you can see from this list (that isn’t even exhaustive), there are quite a few common factors on here that can negatively impact gut health. I list these not to freak you out, but to demonstrate that it’s not just people with Celiac Disease or IBS who likely have damaged gut health.
How do I know if my gut is damaged?
Ok, so how do you know if you have a damaged gut and could benefit from trying to do some healing?
You can always go to a doctor and get some testing done. The downsides of testing are the cost and the fact that it’s not always 100% accurate. However, if you have insurance that will cover it, it could be a useful place to start. The GI-MAP test is a DNA-based stool test with a relatively high rate of accuracy. This test is usually the one I recommend my clients ask for from their doctors.
If you don’t want to go to the doctor, you can also likely venture a pretty good guess based on symptoms. There are obvious ones and some not so obvious ones.
The symptoms clearly related to gut health include:
- Stomach upset
You probably would have guessed those. But other symptoms can be gut-related that aren’t so obvious, including:
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- An autoimmune condition (Hashimoto’s, Celiac Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc.)
- Brain fog
- Thyroid issues
- Hormone imbalances
- Joint pain
- IBS / IBD
As you can see from this list, the health of your gut truly does have a tremendous impact on the health of the rest of your body. Now, just because you have one of these conditions doesn’t necessarily mean your gut is the sole cause. But I would say it could be a good thing to look into because healing the gut will often lead to improvements in these conditions and symptoms.
Why is gut health so important?
You may be wondering, “why does gut health even matter so much anyway?” And it’s a fair question.
It turns out it’s difficult to feel your best if you have an unhealthy or damaged gut. Your gut affects literally every system in your body. So if something is out of whack, there’s a pretty good chance it will have downstream effects somewhere else in your body. Whether that’s allergies, hormone imbalances, mental health issues, or immune dysregulation - even if the gut isn’t the leading cause, there’s a pretty good chance it’s involved somehow.
What constitutes a gut-healing diet?
Ok, so maybe you think your gut could potentially benefit from a bit of a reset. Now what? Well, a helpful next step can be trying a gut-healing diet. Changing the foods you consume can have a very significant impact on the health of your digestive system and is a relatively easy way to make improvements in your health.
There are many variations of gut-healing diets, but I’m going to list a few popular ones, with the details, and what conditions they can help.
The Paleo Diet
The aim of the paleolithic diet (aka a Paleo Diet) is to eat in a way similar to our caveman ancestors. The idea behind it is that is the human body hasn’t evolved to deal with all of the modern food that has emerged from farming practices. Proponents believe that if we eat the unprocessed, nutrient-dense, whole foods that our ancestors ate, we’ll be able to achieve true health and avoid chronic disease.
The reason the Paleo diet is helpful as a template for a gut-healing diet is that it removes common allergens and inflammatory foods.
Foods such as grains, dairy, sugar, legumes, vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, and sugar are avoided. The majority of the diet is made up of meat, seafood, vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts + seeds.
Who can it help? The paleo diet can be a beneficial first step for many people who are looking to change their diets for the first time. It’s probably the least extreme out of all the diets on this list, and many people find they experience dramatic improvement of gut-related issues and symptoms after trying it.
AIP is a more extreme version of the paleo diet called the autoimmune protocol. It uses a diet and lifestyle protocol to help regulate the immune system, which can be incredibly helpful for people dealing with an autoimmune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or IBD.
It follows a paleo template but also excludes eggs, nightshades (aka tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers), nuts, seeds, and many food additives.
The AIP diet is much more restrictive and may not be necessary for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend trying it without trying regular Paleo first or without working with a practitioner to make sure you’re getting enough calories and nutrients. For an in-depth summary of AIP, check out this post.
Low FODMAP Diet
The low FODMAP diet stands for low “Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols.” Wow, that was a mouthful, thank goodness they abbreviated it.
The idea here is that FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that are often poorly digested and absorbed in the small intestine. They don’t affect everyone, but some people have a particularly hard time with them. Have you ever eaten a ton of cauliflower or brussels sprouts and then regretted it later? FODMAPs are probably to blame.
By temporarily removing foods containing high amounts of FODMAPs, the digestive system is given a break and allowed to heal. You can then add them in one at a time and see which ones, in particular, cause you the most problems.
People with certain types of IBS or SIBO can benefit from the low FODMAP diet. Approximately 70% of people with IBS find long-term relief from trying a low FODMAP diet.1 It looks to be most effective for abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
For a list of high and low FODMAP foods, Monash is the leading authority.
SCD stands for the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and in a way, it’s similar to the low FODMAP diet. It also involves removing particular types of carbohydrates based on the idea that complex carbs encourage an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the small intestine if you have IBD. An excess of these bacteria will promote inflammation and cause reduced nutrient absorption, which can lead to additional health issues. By limiting the growth of these bacteria, proper digestive function can be restored.
It’s particularly helpful for people with IBS, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, or IBD, especially people with diarrhea as one of their main symptoms.
For a helpful introduction to the SCD diet, check out this handout.
GAPS stands for Gut And Psychology Syndrome. This is a condition which establishes a connection between the functions of the digestive system and the brain. The GAPS diet and protocol was designed for patients suffering from learning disabilities, psychiatric and psychological disorders, immune system problems, and digestive problems. It was derived from the SCD diet, with some tweaks. So if one doesn’t work for you, it may be helpful to try the other.
People likely to benefit from GAPS include people with severe digestive issues, including chronic diarrhea, IBS, Crohn’s Disease, gastritis, and Ulcerative Colitis. It’s also helpful for people who suffer from neurological conditions, including schizophrenia, autism, depression, and bipolar.
How long should I try one?
Definitely listen to your body. That being said, if it's going to help, you’ll probably see some improvement within the first two weeks. You may want to stay on it longer to allow your digestive system to continue to heal, but the key is going to be tuning in to your body’s signals and going from there.
Some of these diets are pretty easy to try on your own (i.e., paleo), but others are quite restrictive, so don’t continue to do them if they don’t actually make you feel better. If you’re not seeing the improvements you’re looking for, the answer definitely isn’t “do it harder.”
Who shouldn’t try one?
It’s important to note that these diets are not intended as weight loss diets. These are therapeutic diets to help improve your gut health. Some of them, done long-term, could potentially even lead to certain deficiencies, so it’s unlikely you’ll want to do these permanently.
All of these diets involve restricting certain foods for a while. If you have a history of disordered eating or this feels triggering for you for any reason, tread carefully. This dietary change might not be the best idea for you at this time.
How do I know which gut-healing diet is right for me?
Some of the diets above are pretty similar. It can be easy to get overwhelmed when trying to figure out what’s right for you. In reality, we’re all so different. There isn’t one diet that’s going to work for everyone, that’s why so many variations exist. The only real way to know if something is right for you is to try it and then see how you feel. If you’re just starting and have never made any changes to your diet before, it’s probably easiest to try out a paleo diet and see how that goes.
Maybe one of these diets will be helpful for you, perhaps none of them will. Even within each diet, there’s so much variation. Some people don’t digest meat all that well, so they’ll need to eat lower protein. Some people have no problem with rice and will eat it all day long, while others get bloated just looking at it. The lesson here is that even when you try one of these diets, give it a shot for a couple of weeks, but then use it as a template or an outline, not as scripture you must follow to the tee. They’re just starting points to figure out what works for you.
Listen To Your Body
The diets above are only a few of many gut-healing diets that exist on the internet and in the literature. This article is intended as just a starting place to learn a bit more about common diets employed to assist in healing gut issues. Learning to listen to your body and the signals it’s giving you is going to be crucial for understanding which diet is best for you and what foods work for you.
Sometimes diet will be enough, and sometimes it won’t, and further therapies will be needed. If you need help getting to the bottom of your digestive issues, feel free to set up a free 30-min chat with me here.
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