4 Ways to Improve Gut Health & Reduce Inflammation
In your small and large intestines—the human gut—you host trillions of microbial cells. These microorganisms make up the microbiome, the bacterial community that affects how you digest food, process nutrients, and interact with every aspect of the physical world. For everyone, but especially people living with chronic metabolic conditions like Gaucher disease, the gut microbiome plays a crucial role in managing inflammation.
Lori Fish Bard, MS, HHC, is a clinical nutritionist and board-certified integrative health counselor. She develops personalized, highly supportive blueprints to help individuals and families identify and accomplish their health goals. Through her practice, Healthy Heartbeet, she uses a holistic, functional, and integrative approach to help people develop sustainable habits to live healthy, nourished, and balanced lives. She spoke with us about how gut health affects our overall health, especially for people living with Gaucher disease and other chronic conditions.
What Is the Microbiome?
Hippocrates—considered the father of modern medicine—said, “All disease begins in the gut.” For thousands of years, few people focused on the gut, but today, science understands that the gut microbiome is crucial to the way our bodies work.
The intestinal tract contains trillions of microbes. In fact, gut bacteria are so plentiful that they outnumber your own cells.
These tiny microorganisms help your body function in many ways. The environment in your gut enables your body to make vitamins, protect against infection, manage your metabolism (the body’s energy use), and communicate with every cell in your body.
“You can think of it as a bacteria community. The community includes good guys, bad guys, and indifferent guys. And in our body, these bacteria rule the school,” Bard explains. “Ultimately, the health of our microbiome determines our overall health.”
Chronic Inflammation in People Living With Gaucher Disease
Understanding inflammation is crucial to managing Gaucher disease. Inflammation is the way your body responds to the stimulus of an unidentified cell or other material.
When your body notices signs of intrusion, such as a virus, bacterium, allergen, or injury, it reacts by swarming the area with immune cells. These cells surround and attack the intruder, causing swelling, redness, and a rise in your temperature.
After a small injury, a healthy immune system calms the inflammation within a few hours or days. Your body clears away the excess cells and you return to your usual condition. Chronic inflammation develops when your body can’t effectively eliminate the issue that’s causing the inflammation.
Gaucher disease brings with it a higher-than-typical level of inflammation, researchers have found. When your body also reacts to other stimuli because of gut inflammation, it could also exacerbate Gaucher symptoms.
For people with Gaucher disease, the immune system may overreact to just about any stimulus, causing a state of chronic inflammation that can even worsen Gaucher symptoms.
How Inflammation Affects Gut Health
Scientists have estimated that about 70% of the immune system lives in the gut microbiome. The function of the immune system is to protect us from invaders—to tell apart the cells of our own body from other cells that don’t belong to us.
“If the immune system thinks the body is being invaded, it will mount an immune response,” Bard says. “In some cases, that immune response happens too often in reaction to foods we eat as well as environmental chemicals known as endotoxins. Inflammation is the manifestation of an immune system that’s out of balance.”
This ongoing overreaction can affect the balance of bacteria in the gut and even the integrity of the gut lining—that is, how well the gut lining does its job. Endotoxins and undesirable bacteria products eventually may leak through the gut lining and into the bloodstream. The immune system identifies these substances as foreign and mounts an attack, causing chronic inflammation.
What Are the Effects of Gut Inflammation?
Ultimately, inflammation that stems from continuous immune attacks can decrease your ability to absorb the nutrients you need. The inflammation disables the gut microbiome so that it can’t effectively run your metabolism. When that happens, it affects digestive health. This state of being out of balance is called dysbiosis.
“Honestly, most people I see have some form of bacterial dysbiosis,” says Bard. “It’s hard to avoid in the world we live in.”
Dysbiosis can manifest in many ways, Bard explains. It may cause digestive problems, such as gas, constipation, diarrhea, or other signs of irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or colitis.
Other signs of problems with the microbiome are less obviously related to the gut. People may experience:
- Brain fog or inability to focus
- Joint pain
- Skin rashes
While you might not connect a skin problem to something you’re eating, Bard points out that “skin is an organ, and a rash is telling us we’re out of balance.” She adds, “In my practice, to get to the root of an issue, we start with the gut 99% of the time.”
How to Improve Gut Health Naturally and Reduce Inflammation
Because inflammation is at the root of so many issues, resolving that inflammation through natural means will improve gut health in many ways, explains Bard.
“Chronic inflammation just makes everything harder,” she says. “The organs have to work harder when everything’s out of balance. The body wants to achieve homeostasis (balance). With inflammation, it can’t do it. Cleaning up the gut can help reduce some of the chronic inflammation in the body.”
As a nutritionist, Bard emphasizes that “what we eat and drink directly affects our gut microbiome.” She believes that a diverse, whole-foods diet that feeds the good bacteria in the gut is the best way to minimize inflammation and maintain a healthy gut microbiome. That means “foods that come from the earth or animals that have sacrificed their lives for us to eat.”
Here’s how to improve gut health through exercise, stress management, and a healthy diet centered on protein, healthy fat, and healthy carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
1. Eat probiotic foods to boost good gut bacteria
Probiotic foods have live bacteria in them, so eating probiotic foods stocks your gut with these supportive microorganisms. Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Yogurt and kefir with live and active cultures—choose low- or no-sugar varieties (sugar impairs healthy bacteria)
- Fermented pickles
- Apple cider vinegar
Supplements can help, but to support your gut, a probiotic needs to bypass the acid in your stomach and reach the colon, where beneficial bacteria live. “Many of the probiotic supplements on the market don’t get through the stomach acid,” Bard says. “Food works best [to deliver probiotics to your body] because of how it’s digested and absorbed.”
While the American diet often doesn’t include a lot of fermented foods, these foods offer powerful support for your body. “If you’re not a fan of fermented foods, I advise that you find a food you are willing to have—such as Greek yogurt with no sugar. Then mix in some tasty additions, like frozen berries and ground flax seeds, which are a prebiotic,” Bard says. “As you eat it, focus on the good you are doing your body. And maybe take a high-quality, multi-strain probiotic to fill in the gaps.”
2. Add prebiotic foods to feed the gut microbiome
Prebiotics are foods that fuel the healthy microbes in your gut. These foods are usually high in prebiotic fiber that microbes are going to munch up, Bard says. Prebiotic foods include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Legumes (lentils, peas, chickpeas, and beans)
- Whole grains, such as oats
- Vegetables such as asparagus, artichokes, garlic, and onions
Be sure to consume a diverse diet with all types of fiber. “We want our gut community to be diverse,” Bard points out. “There are many strains of good bacteria, and there are some bad bacteria in there, too. Our goal is for them all to live in harmony.”
3. Practice stress-management techniques
Stress can influence the microbiome, too. Constantly having high stress-levels contributes to a poorly functioning gut.
The body’s longest nerve, the vagus nerve, goes straight from the gut microbiome to the brain. Research has found that, similar to having lots of toxins in your environment, having very high-stress blocks the vagus nerve’s function. Ultimately, ongoing stress prevents your gut from working the way it should.
Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and getting adequate rest can help. Find out more about stress management and the importance of self-care.
4. Stay active to keep your body healthy
Exercise and physical activity can help your gut, too, and not only by supporting a healthy weight. “We’ve seen research that the more active someone is, the more positively it affects the microbiome,” Bard says.
As with everything, moderation is key. Gentle activities, such as walking, cycling, yoga, or swimming, can keep you moving and improve your overall well-being. Learn more about exercise for people with Gaucher disease.
When Should You Consult a Nutritionist for Help With Your Gut Biome?
Changing your approach to something as complex as eating to support your gut microbiome can be challenging. Having the support you need improves your chances of making necessary changes, Bard says. “A nutritionist can help you develop a game plan and help you notice the positive changes that result.”
A nutritionist can help by:
- Recommending a probiotic: Not all probiotics are equal. A nutritionist can steer you to a high-quality probiotic that fits your needs.
- Designing an anti-inflammatory diet: Designing a specific anti-inflammatory diet is a process. An expert can advise you on what might help your particular symptoms.
- Offering behavioral support: A nutritionist can guide you in making the behavioral choices that go along with healthy foods. “It’s hard to change habits,” Bard says. “Having somebody on your team can give you the tools and support to clean up your diet and make changes that specifically target increasing your gut health to lower inflammation.”
- Choosing supplements: A nutritionist can evaluate nutritional supplements to help with symptoms such as joint pain and fatigue. After testing your micronutrient status, such as vitamin B12, an expert may discover that supplementation could support your overall health and help you monitor the resulting changes.
Ultimately, it’s a strong step forward to think about your gut as a part of your body that you can feed and support. “Improving your gut microbiome is something you can take action around, and that empowers people,” Bard says.
- Blue Turtle Bio – probiotic therapeutic company: http://blueturtlebio.com/Gaucher.html
- Engineering The Microbiome – The Next Frontier – Global Engage: http://www.global-engage.com/life-science/engineering-the-microbiome-the-next-frontier/
- Frontiers in Neuroscience – The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5808284/
- Healthline – Does All Disease Begin in the Gut? http://www.healthline.com/nutrition/does-all-disease-begin-in-the-gut
- Healthline – Why the Gut Microbiome Is Crucial for Your Health: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gut-microbiome-and-health
- Science Alert – Here’s How Many Cells in Your Body Aren’t Actually Human: https://www.sciencealert.com/how-many-bacteria-cells-outnumber-human-cells-microbiome-science
- Scientific Reports via Nature.com – Gene expression profile in patients with Gaucher disease indicates activation of inflammatory processes: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-42584-1
- National Gaucher Foundation – 4 Natural Ways to Boost Your Immune System: Managing Inflammation and Gaucher Symptoms: https://www.gaucherdisease.org/blog/4-natural-ways-to-boost-your-immune-system-national-gaucher-foundation/
- National Gaucher Foundation – Bone Disease, An Often-Overlooked Complication of Gaucher Disease: https://www.gaucherdisease.org/blog/bone-disease-an-often-overlooked-complication-of-gaucher-disease/