Managing Gut Health and Disorders
Medically reviewed by Leann Poston, M.D. on 9/28/20
In recent years, it has become more and more apparent that gut health is linked to overall physical health. Though that may seem a bit paradoxical – how can the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system impact your overall physical health? – there have been countless scientific studies proving that is the case. At the same time, it doesn’t require much of a stretch of the imagination to know that gut problems can impact your quality of life significantly. For these two reasons, it’s imperative that people learn proactive strategies and specific treatments in order to manage their gut health and gut health disorders.
Below, we’ll take a look in greater detail at the links between gut health and overall physical health. We’ll then spend some time on some of the major gut disorders and problems that afflict people today. We’ll also look at common gut problems that we all experience from time to time, as well as some problems that can develop from the use of common medications. Then, we’ll examine treatments for both disorders and common gut health problems. Finally, we’ll suggest some lifestyle changes or modifications that you can make to better manage your gut health, gut disorders, and overall physical health and well-being.
Gut Health Links to Overall Physical Health
Obviously, gut health can have a direct effect on the different aspects of the digestive system. Problems like constipation, diarrhea, and nausea usually have causes and effects that confine themselves to the digestive tract. But science has shown gut health can impact things as far-flung as cancers in other parts of the body, autism, mental health, the nervous system, and more. Recent studies validate these theories, and while research is ongoing, it is believed that gut health plays an important role in the development of obesity, and may be somewhat responsible for the obesity epidemics in industrialized nations.
This is not a new theory, however. Hippocrates, from whom the Hippocratic Oath derives, was considered the father of modern medicine and lived some 2,000 years ago. He postulated that all diseases begin in the gut. While he wasn’t quite correct, there’s far more wisdom in that theory than there is flaw.
Current Medical Understanding
The current understanding of how gut health impacts health in other areas of the body goes something like this:
- The gut bacteria and lining of the gut, if healthy, don’t negatively impact your health.
- However, certain types of bad bacteria can create byproducts called endotoxins.
- Endotoxins can leak through the gut lining, especially if it is compromised in certain ways (more on that later), allowing them to enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body.
- The immune system responds as it is supposed to, attacking them. However, this leads to increased inflammation in the body, which has been cited as a cause for diabetes, or at least insulin and leptin resistance that can cause or contribute to diabetes and obesity.
- The hyperinflammatory state and constant activation of the immune system can cause other changes throughout the body, in the nervous system, etc. It may trigger auto-immune conditions, increase blood pressure, decrease blood flow, and contribute to metabolic syndrome, heart disease, depression, and cognitive conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Two gut disorders, which both operate on different pathologies, can cause significant disruption to life. Irritable bowel syndrome (abbreviated as IBS) and ulcerative colitis are not synonymous, even though they often get conflated in people’s minds.
IBS is a muscular and central nervous system condition, in which the large intestine contracts far more frequently than is normal. This can cause pain, gas, bloating, bowel urgency, constipation, and diarrhea.
Ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, is an inflammatory condition. It, along with Crohn’s disease, are two inflammatory bowel diseases or IBDs. Ulcerative colitis is characterized by inflammation and open sores on the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. The disease starts in the rectum and moves up into the large intestine. The inflammation of the colon results in cramping, bloody diarrhea, and nutritional deficiencies. Phase 2 clinical trials were underway to evaluate the benefits of BPC 157 for treating ulcerative colitis but were not completed.
Both of these conditions generally impact only the large intestine rather than the stomach and small intestine as well. But the gut, formally, is the entire system from your mouth to your anus, so these definitely qualify as gut disorders.
Common Gut Problems
Some of the most common gut problems today stem from changes in the gut flora or the microbes that live in the gut. Others stem from the deterioration of the lining of the gut – the tissue and mucous membranes that line them. There are a few, somewhat rare health conditions that can cause these problems. However, by and large, the most common causes relate to medications and medication usage.
Many people are familiar with having stomach problems after a course of antibiotics. This is because the antibiotics not only kill off the bad bacteria, such as that which is causing your strep throat or an ear infection but the bacteria in your gut as well. By altering the mix of bacteria in your gut, there is a greater chance that so-called bad bacteria, the ones that produce endotoxins, can take up residence. This changing of the gut flora may also impact how your body processes food and absorbs nutrients.
There are other medicines that also cause similar problems but in a different way. Rather than directly affecting the gut microbes, they impact the gut lining. Common, over-the-counter painkillers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) when used long-term can cause lesions, ulcerations, and compromise of the lining of the stomach and intestines. Certain steroidal medications also have these same results. This results in increasing the permeability of your gut lining to the endotoxins, a condition that has been dubbed Leaky Gut or Leaky Gut Syndrome.
Treatments for Gut Disorders
The two specific gut disorders we mentioned – IBS and ulcerative colitis – are not caused by this same disease pathway, and therefore the treatments for them are more specific to those disorders. Therefore, it’s critical that IBS and ulcerative colitis patients receive a diagnosis and treatment plan from their doctor.
There is a range of medications available today to treat these conditions. While they are not cures, they can dramatically reduce the symptoms in many sufferers. In some cases, surgical intervention may be required to address these gut disorders.
Ulcerative colitis Treatment
Most often, treatment for ulcerative colitis involves the administration of 5-aminosalicylic acid or corticosteroids. While effective, these drugs can lead to the same common gut health issues we discussed above. Immunomodulators may also be prescribed, as there is believed to be an immune response component to the disease. Antibiotics are also sometimes used, along with nutritional supplementation, since absorption of nutrients can be compromised.
IBS patients typically receive instructions on lifestyle modification or trigger removal for the foods or behaviors that can cause IBS. Specific medications for IBS are also available, along with certain antibiotics that may sometimes be prescribed. Like other gut health conditions, the use of antibiotics and over-the-counter painkillers to deal with the condition can lead to the same gut flora and gut health issues we’ve discussed above.
Treatments for Common Gut Problems
Because of this cross-over between gut disorders and general gut health, wherein all cases people may develop gut microbiome or gut lining problems, it’s important to understand the treatments available for common gut problems as well. If you don’t have IBS or IBD, these treatments and additional lifestyle changes (which we’ll discuss in the next section) may be all you need to improve your gut health and overall physical health. If you have IBS or IBD, these treatments may help treat some of the symptoms. That includes symptoms that are a result of your IBS or IBD treatments themselves.
- Working with a nutritionist or gastroenterologist, you may be tasked with journaling your food intake, and attempting to determine triggers for your gut health issues so that you can reduce or eliminate those triggers from your diet.
- Prebiotic or probiotics, either in pill form or in food such as yogurt, can help to replenish the “good” bacteria that belong in your gut and restore your gut health.
- Overuse of antibiotics or infection with certain organisms (such as C. difficile) may require medical intervention afterward to resolve gut health issues, up to and including fecal microbial transplants.
- Supplements designed to improve the health of the gut lining can often reduce or eliminate many common gut health symptoms. BPC-157 is an example of one of these supplements.
Lifestyle Changes to Improve Gut Health
There are also some basic lifestyle changes or guidelines that can be followed to help improve gut health. They can also help resolve or reduce symptoms from recurring gut issues. Many of these changes will promote overall good health as well. For most individuals, these guidelines should be followed regardless of whether or not you are suffering from gut health problems.
- Increase the amount of dietary fiber you ingest each day to keep things moving.
- Exercise regularly. Being active aids digestion, helps keep things moving, and helps decrease gas buildup and other uncomfortable consequences of indigestion.
- Cut back on hard-to-digest or constipating foods, such as dairy.
- Reduce stress, either through meditation, mindfulness, therapy, and/or medication as warranted.
- Don’t overuse laxatives, antacids, or similar.
- Ensure you are properly hydrated. Dehydration can lead to a lot of gut issues.
- Consider trying alternative prescription medications if your gut health issues may be partially due to medication side effects. This is common with antidepressants and narcotic pain medications, as well as some supplements containing significant amounts of iron.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Don’t start your day with extremely acidic or oily foods on an empty stomach.
- Be sure the food you eat is properly cooked, to appropriate temperatures, and has been stored properly. With leftovers, when in doubt, throw it out! Food poisoning is not fun, and causes long-term damage to the gut microbiome. That leads to gut health issues for weeks or months afterwards.
- Talk to your doctor about any significant and recurring or chronic changes to your digestion and bowel habits.
Gut health issues range from formal disorders to more common afflictions and difficulties. Increasingly, scientists and doctors are seeing the connection between gut health and overall health. Changes to the microbial makeup of the gut and gut lining can result in a lot of ill health effects. These effects may spread throughout the body and are not limited to digestive health. Lifestyle changes and proactive management can help prevent gut health problems. They are also highly effective in reducing the occurrence and severity of gut health problems in many adults.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.