by Dr. Bill Rawls
I recently read a startling statistic that less than a third of people with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) consult their doctor. On the one hand, that shocked me: IBS is no fleeting tummy ache. The symptoms — painful abdominal cramping, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and more — can be downright debilitating. On the other hand, it didn’t surprise me that people tolerated the symptoms and pressed on through life.
I’m no stranger to ignoring the body’s warning signs that something is seriously wrong. As an OB-GYN working long hours and night shifts every second to third night for years on end, I began experiencing some symptoms in my late 40s that should have signaled me to slow down.
At first, fatigue, brain fog, and body aches made it hard to do my job some days; then, every day felt like a battle with the flu. Constant acid reflux, bloating, gas, and constipation became an accepted part of life. Next came burning and tingling in my hands, rashes, joint and chest pain, heart palpitations, and poor sleep. But I kept working through it, for years, until I simply no longer could, and I had to stop my medical practice.
What ensued was a years-long journey of trying everything under the sun to overcome what turned out to be chronic Lyme disease and fibromyalgia, both of which I blamed for all of my digestive symptoms. It made sense at the time — nausea and loss of appetite are common among people with Lyme. And about 70% of people diagnosed with fibromyalgia also experience IBS symptoms, according to UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders.
But after much research and personal trial and error, I realized that it wasn’t that simple. Instead, the same factors that left me susceptible to chronic illness were also to blame for my gut symptoms: Nothing would improve until I addressed those underlying causes.
Since then, I’ve discovered that the majority of digestive health issues — including IBS, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), leaky gut, chronic constipation, food sensitivities and allergies, and more — can be traced back to the same four factors that were making me sick. I call them gut disruptors, and if you feel like you’ve tried everything to overcome your gut issues, getting to know them could be the secret to finally restoring your digestive and overall health.
The Top 4 Gut Disruptors
To be sure, not all digestive disorders share the same root causes, and some things we simply can’t control — particularly genetics. They can play a major role in certain diseases, including colorectal and pancreatic cancers and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a group of diseases, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, which involve chronic inflammation in the digestive tract.
But the four gut disruptors below are things you can help control. Ignore them, however, and it can lead to serious gut dysfunction that not only makes you feel terrible, but can also impair your immune system and increase your vulnerability to different chronic illnesses.
1. A Modern Convenience Diet
How we eat today bears little resemblance to what our ancient ancestors did to subsist. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans foraged a wide diversity of foods — roots, tubers, leaves, mushrooms, wild fruit, berries, bark, bird and reptile eggs, and whatever game we could kill. The ancient human diet was bitter, calorie sparse, and hard to come by. But it was highly diverse, nutrient-rich, and packed with plant phytochemicals, providing antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immune-enhancing properties.
Things gradually started changing 10-20 thousand years ago, as humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer existence to farming. We primarily farmed grains and beans, but they didn’t go down easy at first. We had to learn that grains are not digestible without being dried, husked, ground into flour, fermented, and baked, and that many beans are highly toxic without being soaked and boiled.
Today, modern food production methods make it easy to have grains and beans at every meal. Gone are the protective chemical substances found in wild plants, and in their place, just a few food sources: highly processed forms of corn, wheat, and soybeans and domesticated meat and dairy fed from those same food sources. The human digestive system, however, is still stuck in the ancient past — it simply isn’t built to tolerate what comes with today’s diet. Though the list is long, here are three troublemakers you should definitely know about if you don’t already:
Overconsumption of carbs in the form of grains, added sugar, and refined, processed foods is GI enemy #1. It compromises digestion, stimulates the growth of “bad” bacteria in the gut, raises blood sugar levels, disrupts all hormone systems in the body, contributes to high cholesterol (more so than eating fat), and disrupts immune functions.
Gluten and Other Storage Proteins
Found in the inner parts of the seeds of grains (called the endosperm), storage proteins provide a unique composition of amino acids that are typically hard to digest and can be very irritating to the gut of foraging animals. They’re also much more allergenic than proteins from other sources. Gluten — the storage protein in wheat and related grains (rye, barley, ancient forms of wheat) — is the worst offender.
Another type of specialized plant protein, lectins, is present in all plants, but seeds have the highest concentrations. They bind to molecules in the cell membranes of the intestinal tract and irritate tissues. Humans have some built-in natural protection to lectins: our gut cells are coated with a protective mucous barrier.
But problems arise when lectin concentrations are so excessive that they erode and compromise that barrier — this is a condition called leaky gut, and it can stimulate the immune system into overdrive, resulting in food sensitivities and allergies, and possibly playing a role in rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. Primary sources of food lectins include:
- Tree nuts
- Nightshade vegetables
- Dairy from cows raised on corn and soybeans
2. An Out-of-Whack Microbiome
The microbiome is the sum of all the microbes that inhabit the body, including normal flora (microbes that cause no harm) and potential pathogens (disease-causing microbes). The health of the gut microbiome is dependent on high microbe diversity and prevalence of friendly flora, which suppresses potential pathogens.
Compared to today, our ancient ancestors had an extremely diverse microbiome — which is key to keeping pathogens in check — thanks to their diet. The dietary fiber from foraged foods was just the right type for cultivating favorable bacterial flora in the gut. Foraged plants were also loaded with protective phytochemicals that suppressed pathogens in the gut and promoted the growth of friendly flora. Fermented foods were also common, which helped support the good gut bacteria.
In comparison, modern diets are sterile. An occasional cup of yogurt is about the only fermented food most people consume. Our very sterile living and eating environment makes for low microbe diversity.
And then there’s our love of modern grains. Bran from whole grains cultivates a different spectrum of gut microbes than vegetable fiber and is hard on the digestive tract. Refined grain products (crackers, chips, cereal) don’t provide any significant fiber and are loaded with carbohydrates that feed the bad bugs. All this, plus we’re woefully deficient in protective phytochemicals that were so prevalent in foraged natural foods.
3. Our Chronic State of Stress
Feeling constantly stressed has taken on badge-of-honor proportions in America — and not in a good way. Putting all other quality-of-life issues aside, chronic stress seriously compromises gut health. It slows the movement of food materials through the gut so your body can put its energy and resources elsewhere — a biological throwback to when stress signaled a true physiological threat (tiger!) as opposed to today’s perceived ones (work deadline).
Stress also adversely affects the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s important for peristalsis (the movement of food materials through the intestinal tract). The end result is a sluggish digestive system that allows things like lectins and gluten to sit in the gut longer, compounding their erosive damage.
4. Invisible Systemic Toxins
This includes the toxins we ingest — artificial pesticides and herbicides and mycotoxins from mold spores that grow on food — and those that make their way into our system via the air we breathe or through our skin, namely petroleum residues that come from driving cars, creating plastics, mining, and chemical plants. So how do these toxins cause harm?
For starters, all unnatural toxic substances must be processed by the liver, and extra pressure on the liver may have a negative effect on digestion. They also bind to our DNA and proteins and disrupt cell membranes, plus they act like free radicals and cause serious inflammation, which compromises your immune system, disrupts homeostasis, and allows bad bacteria and microbes to flourish.
Your Path Back to Gut Health
You might have noticed that all four gut disruptors are pretty ubiquitous — which would explain why so many of us suffer digestive issues. But the good news is, they’re also surmountable. There are two key steps to overcome them:
1. Minimize Your Disruptors.
Notice I said minimize, not eradicate. It’s unreasonable to think you can completely ban processed food, bad microbes, stress, and toxins from your life — not to mention, enjoying the occasional doughnut or bowl of pasta is a big part of what makes life so great! But significantly reducing them can go a long way in rebooting your gut health. Here are five simple ways to make a big difference:
NOURISH: Focus on filling at least 50% of your plate with vegetables, and you’ll automatically cut your carb and processed food intake drastically. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you might also want to consider eliminating gluten and lectins from your diet for two weeks (or more) to see if you feel significantly better (a reminder that top sources include grains, legumes, tree nuts, nightshade vegetables, and dairy from cows raised on corn and soybeans). As you feel up to it, slowly add one of the foods back to your diet every few days and take note of any symptom flare-ups — it could signal a sensitivity or allergy.
PURIFY: Steer clear of toxins when you can: Choose organic foods; filter your water and air; and opt for non-toxic cleaning and beauty products (the Environmental Working Group is a great source for finding these).
CALM: Dedicate some time every day to easing stress — exercise, laugh, nap, or whatever works for you to ease tension. This might sound silly, but try putting some daily de-stress time in your digital calendar. I find that when I do, and my reminder pops up, I’m much more likely to get up from my desk and take that 15-minute stroll than if I promise myself I’ll do it later.
ACTIVATE: Remember that stress, inflammation, and low function in general cause food materials to get backed up in the body, and the longer they sit, the more damage they can do. One way to get things moving is to get your body moving — as in, exercise. It doesn’t have to be extreme; walking, a simple yoga flow, and qigong all count. But if you’re simply not feeling up for exercise, a far infrared sauna can have similar benefits.
DEFEND: To support the good microflora in your microbiome and keep pathogens in check, eat more like our ancient ancestors. Get ample fermented foods (kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut) and fresh produce, and avoid refined carbs to limit the sugar that lets bad bacteria thrive.
2. Apply Restorative Therapy.
To understand why restorative therapy works, it’s helpful to know about the other two therapeutic options. The first is heroic therapy, meaning medical procedures and prescription drugs. These are great for acute problems like surgery and chemotherapy to target cancer cells or antibiotics to overcome an acute infection. But they’re not so great for chronic digestive issues or illness because they don’t address the underlying causes. Antibiotics might help kill a pathogen that’s causing GI distress, but they also kill good microflora, which only throws your microbiome further out of whack. And they do nothing to ease stress, nix toxins, or erase that burger and fries you had for lunch.
The second approach is symptomatic therapy, which is as it sounds — taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs that ease symptoms. But like heroic therapies, they don’t address what’s causing your symptoms and can make things worse. For instance, if you take antacids to ease GERD or heartburn, you’re only temporarily neutralizing the acids in the stomach that are causing you pain. Plus, you’re stopping digestion cold, which means whatever you ate is now sitting in your gut and doing more harm. Anti-diarrheal medications can have a similar effect: they slow motility, so waste sits longer in the intestines — sometimes to the point of causing the opposite problem of constipation.
Restorative therapy, by comparison, is the one I’ve found works best for gut dysfunction. My preference to restore gut function is herbal therapy. Herbs have multitasking capabilities that support homeostasis (natural balance in the healing systems of the body), optimize immune function, and control any threatening microbes in the body through natural and holistic methods. In other words, you’re going straight to the source of your digestive issues, so your body’s ability to heal itself is recovered, and painful and annoying symptoms diminish in stride.
My top herbs of choice for a happy, healthier gut include:
A bitter constituent found in foraged plants, berberine naturally stimulates bile secretion and promotes healthy gut flora because of its antimicrobial qualities that fight the bad microbes and let the good ones be. Many herbs have antimicrobial powers, but berberine isn’t absorbed by the intestines when taken orally, so it’s particularly valuable for restoring balance in gut microflora.
Cardamom and Fennel
Muscle spasms in your stomach contribute to abdominal cramps, and tight tissue in the smooth muscles of your digestive system can cause constipation. For this, I recommend carminatives, herbs with volatile oils that help ease inflammation and relieve painful spasms. Cardamom and fennel are my top choices for total GI system calming. The phytochemicals in these herbs help soothe the digestive tract and promote healthy gut bacteria.
A nutrient-dense, freshwater green algae, chlorella supports digestive health, including the gut microbiome, and encourages natural detoxification and nutrient absorption. Plus, it’s brimming with protein, peptides, vitamins, alpha and beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin (linked with eye health), omega-3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes — truly a superfood!
If you don’t like bitter food (and most of us don’t), the simple and effective solution is to take bitter herbs, such as dandelion extract, with every meal.
The bitter root and leaf of dandelion supports liver and gallbladder function and soothes the digestive system. Dandelion also provides support for occasional constipation.
Digestive enzymes enable the gut to break down food and properly absorb nutrients, and assist in the conversion and excretion of waste. A dysfunctional gut can’t produce enough digestive enzymes to break down food at a healthy rate; replacing those enzymes until you can restore your body’s capability to produce them on its own can help reduce stagnant food in your gut and speed your recovery.
Enzyme examples include: protease, amylase, alpha-d-galactosidase, lipase, lactase, and cellulase.
Slippery elm The mucilage found in slippery elm bark is a demulcent that soothes and supports the lining of the GI tract.
If you suffer from life-disrupting digestive distress, don’t make the same mistake I did and wait for an official diagnosis to start taking steps to feel better. Because whatever you call your symptoms, you can see the path to restoring digestive health is virtually the same: Minimize your gut disruptors, embrace the right restorative therapies, and a happy, healthy gut is within your reach.
1. Canavan C, West J, Card T. The epidemiology of irritable bowel syndrome. Clin Epidemiol. 2014;6:71-80. Published 2014 Feb 4. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S40245
2. The Association of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders website. https://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/wp-content/uploads/sites/450/2017/10/Fibromyalgia-and-IBS.pdf