The more I experiment, struggle, fail and succeed with my own health, the more I appreciate the intensity of the gut/brain/life connection. In fact, if I’ve learned one thing in this whole crazy Paleo adventure, it’s that most disease – and the state of health in general – relates to your gut. And what goes in it.
This understanding of the gut/health connection yields the pivotal difference between the modern medical community’s symptomatic approach to medicine, which prescribes individual pills and treatments for disease, versus the functional medicine community’s holistic approach, which aims to address the root cause of the problem. It explains why a person’s state of health is so much determined by lifestyle and diet choices, rather than anything else. It also explains why Paleo can act as a “cure all” in a prescription world of pill popping, mysteriously resolving everything from skin issues to arthritis.
Heal your gut, and you heal yourself.
In this 3 part series, I will attempt to explain, in a concise manner, the whole gut/health thing. (I say concise, because one could clearly write novels on it!) Part I will look at the the relationship between the gut and immune system, Part II will look at the gut microbiome, and Part III will provide some hope via supplements and dietary changes to support health.
THE GUT AND INFLAMMATION
When I was little, I was fascinated by advil. My kindergarten self found it odd that one pill could cure everything that ailed me. Shouldn’t there be separate headache pills, stubbed toe pills, etc? It just didn’t make sense. But now it does. And it all goes back to one thing: inflammation.
Inflammation is your body’s response to a perceived trouble. (You’ll understand the “perceived” part in little bit.) There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is an immediate inflammatory respose to a physical injury, which yields swelling and raised temperature. It’s like a stubbed toe. It’s a useful (albeit painful) reaction. All of the pain and redness galore are signs of your body flooding the injury with nifty things like granulocytes (white blood cells) to ultimately heal it.
So that’s acute inflammation, which is the way inflammation was intended to be. On the other hand, we’ve got chronic inflammation, which is much different… and much worse. Chronic inflammation occurs when inflammation remains constant, as the body erroneously instigates the immune inflammation response against itself. Chronic inflammation is essentially a state of self attack. It manifests as headaches and arthritis. Acne and rashes. Joint pain and IBS. Asthma. It’s ADD and Alzheimers. Perhaps it’s even cancer. The whole “autoimmune” condition refers to just this: self-inflicted ailments caused by a sorely confused immune system, no pun intended.
What causes the immune system to freak out and attack itself in the first place, persisting in its inflammatory state? Here’s where the gut/disease connection enters the picture. The inflammatory response is the body’s “gut reaction” to a perceived threat, to something in the body which shouldn’t be there. Think:
When we are constantly exposed to environmental toxins, or eat toxic proteins (like gluten) and processed foods which register as foreign invaders (or even attack our cells), the body iniates a high alert state of attack. On the more benign end, this can create constant, chronic inflammation which wears down vital organs; on the more extreme end, the body may begin confusing invader proteins with its own proteins, and literally begin attacking itself. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
Once the body enters this inflamed state of attack, all hell can break loose.
“But that’s silly!” you may say. “There’s no way my headache is related to my stomach – my stomach is fine!” However, inflammation from ingested food can materialize in seemingly unrelated body systems, without any immediate gastrointestinal distress. This means, for example, that ingesting gluten may give you brain fog or joint pain, even though your digestion is deemed dandy. As Dr. Mercola says, “It has been shown that many of the inflammatory diseases we suffer from are gut mediated but not presenting as gut issues…. people show gluten sensitivity by having problems with brain function despite having no gastrointestinal problems whatsoever. ”
And it gets worse.
THE GUT AND YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
The cell wall of your gut, separating all those potentially ingested food and environment toxins which freak out your immune system, is a mere cell walk thick. That’s right. A single cell separates the outside world from, well, you. Ingested toxins and the resulting autoimmune responses often lead to a condition called “Leaky Gut,” in which holes form in the intestinal lining. This allows food and toxins to readily enter the blood stream where they should NOT be, making you feel like crap, and causing even more inflammation. With leaky gut, even normal healthy foods can potentially cause problems. It’s also a double whammy, in that the body not only suffers from leaked toxins and inflammation, but also becomes less adept at assimilating nutrients.
Because that’s what it’s all about… or was supposed to be about. Nutrient absorption. Taking in food and energy to not only survive, but thrive. But this just can’t happen if you the system is broken.
Beyond that, consider that 80% of your immune system is in your gut. Yep. 80% So whether or not you catch a cold more likely involves the state of your digestion and gut microbiome (to be discussed), than exposure to a cold virus in the first place. When the body’s main immune system is damaged, or weakened and overworked by constantly attacking ingested food, it looses its perceptibility and ability to focus on the actual bad guys. As a result, you’re more likely to get sick from infectious disease, on top of any pre-existing degenerative disease!
A majority of the diseases we see today are degenerative, meaning they originate within the body. Unlike infectious diseases, where a foreign invader causes sickness (like a virus or cold), the majority of ailments experienced by the body actually start within the body, from “faulty machinery” or improper bodily responses. The body’s “gut reaction” to food and environmental toxins, as well as plant proteins such gluten, determine the body’s overall state of inflammation. An inflammatory state can manifest in many different ways, from headaches and allergies, to more serious issues like arthritis and heart disease.
And there’s another piece of the puzzle to come…