Every time someone asks us about trying to improve or fix a health condition, we start with laying out the basic principles of clean eating – removing additives and chemicals from the diet. It may sound simple, but it’s the most common, and powerful, solution for a reason. But why? What does dinner have to do with headaches and joint pain?
The answer to that question is: a lot. It all boils down to your digestive system, your gut. Want to fix your health? You have to have the gut to do it. Literally. (It often takes having some guts, too.)
In this article I want to spend some time on a few facets of what your gut does with that bite of food. It largely depends on the gut “flora,” the balance between the good bacteria that you need and the bad bacteria that can reek havoc on your body if it becomes dominant. In my next post I’ll talk about how you can control what’s going on inside you and make sure you have enough of the good guys and as little of the bad as possible.
Typically we don’t give our digestive systems much attention unless something’s going wrong, like that spicy Indian food from last night not sitting quite right. But stop for a moment to think about what our guts do for us. It takes whatever we put in our mouths and somehow pulls nutrients out of it and turns them into the fuel to run the most complicated collection of matter ever seen on Earth. It can even use that food to make vitamins that weren’t there to begin with. It’s crazy when you realize what it’s up to all day.
It gets crazier. Your gut is home to over 80% of your immune system. Think about it. Foreign invaders have no easier access to get inside you than through your pie hole. The immune system has to be smart and perceptive enough to let the good stuff go by and know when to go on attack. It primarily gets its clues from the information you tell it through the food you eat. Send your body the wrong information (poor diet) often and long enough and you just confuse the poor thing.
A confused immune system will go on the attack too often. Tissues like your intestinal lining get irritated and inflamed (the body’s tactic in fighting infection). With an improper flora balance, food leaks through the lining without getting fully digested (a condition known as ‘leaky gut’), things that shouldn’t get into your blood stream do, and now you get the whole body’s immune system fired up.
An irritated immune system and how your gut is handling your food can manifest in headaches, acne, allergies, or other less severe issues that are just annoying. If you’re one of the unlucky ones, it can turn against you and destroy things it shouldn’t (joints, nerves, skin, etc., etc.), and now you can officially be diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. But in almost all cases the root cause can be found in issues within the gut – inflammation caused by an unhealthy gut flora balance.
On top of the food we eat, our gut also has to deal the rest of our modern living. Stress, environmental chemicals, and medications all have the ability to throw off our digestive system. All of these factors can kill off the good bacteria in our gut and create an environment where the unfriendly bacteria and yeast can thrive.
With that kind of workload, our intestines can only take so much abuse. Try it on your car. It can handle bad fuel and oil for a time, but after a while there are going to be some buildups and breakdowns that demand repair. Same thing with your digestion. It’s an incredible system that can do amazing things dealing with what we ingest. But for most people, if it’s on non-stop active duty, eventually problems come up that force us to the doctor.
Often we can’t figure out why things are going wrong because there’s no clear cause and effect, a day on the calendar that you can point to and say, “Ah, I broke my body right there.” It’s a matter of your body simply doing the best it could for as long as it could, but the years of overwork finally made it cry uncle and beg for mercy. Typically we address it by taking a pill for the symptoms that have shown up, we irritate the system even more, more symptoms come, more pills prescribed, and by this point we’ve got the body so confused it doesn’t know what to do. It needs a timeout and a reset.
The frustrating part for me is that I have no idea if my body will ever break like that. I could be one of those lucky people who get to eat whatever they want for 90 years, still jump out of airplanes at their 85th birthday, have a brain that’s sharper than ever, than die peacefully in their sleep with a smile on their face.
Considering the other more likely scenarios that means older years full of doctor’s visits, medications, dementia, erectile dysfunction and so on, and with no way of knowing how my body will respond in the future, I’m willing to make a few adjustments now. By that I mean eating well as the norm, exercising, doing my best to deal with stress, hoping to live energetically until I die at 90, or get hit by a bus somewhere in between. (I’ll be ticked if I go early like that – before my body had a chance to break – and I could have been eating anything I wanted the whole time! Though in saying that, I know that I immediately feel better and more energetic eating good food than the crappy alternatives.)
Here comes the fantastic news: since we have the ability to break our body, we have the power to put it back together. Give your body the fuel it wants, get rid of the toxins already in there, and you can literally push the reset button on your health and take control of how you feel. This should make you feel pretty good. It’s empowering to know that you can take control of your health to a very large degree simply by the choices you make.
And this applies to both preventing breakdowns, which is what I’m trying to do, and repairing damage already done, like Kelli’s doing with her rheumatoid arthritis. In her situation of having RA show up at 6 years old, we can look at early years of non-stop antibiotics, a genetic predisposition (her mom and many aunts and uncles have RA), severe personal trauma within the family (stress) at that age, and then snap, the immune system went haywire. She didn’t have much of a chance in that scenario, but it’s been thrilling for her to know that she can help keep it in check simply by making the decision to change how she eats.
However, because Kelli’s immune system “armor” now has this chink in it, while it can be patched, it’s unlikely it will ever be as good as new. She’ll always have to be careful to keep the arthritis under control, where I might be able to get away with a few more liberties. And the reason is simply because I drew the lucky genetic straw that said my immune system was strong enough to deal with all the Mountain Dew, Red Vines, and Hamburger Helper I threw at it in my earlier years.
If you see a certain pattern of disease in your family, that’s a clue you may be less lucky. It doesn’t mean you have to develop the same issues by any means, but it does mean you may want to be a little more vigilant.
You have a significant ability to determine how you’re going to feel and how fully you’re going to live out your days. Your gut is the foundation of a healthy body and it certainly warrants giving it some love. We always start with diet for a reason. No amount of supplements or medications will have lasting effects if things are not right in the gut/immune system relationship. You have to fix your gut to fix your health. Healing the gut is step one.
So we’ll wrap up here for now. On Friday we’ll go into detail about what you need to do to push that reset button, kill off the bad guys in your gut, and get the good guys flourishing.