There’s been a lot of news lately on the connection between gut (stomach and intestinal) health and inflammation in the body- you may have read that fascinating article in the Times last week, The Boy With A Thorn in His Joints (and if not, please do!). In the article, a mother tells the story of her son’s diagnosis of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) and the struggle to get him into remission. The boy’s JIA ends up going into remission using a combination of conventional and alternative treatments, including probiotics, Chinese Herbs and avoiding possible trigger foods. Although there is no way to know whether his medication or the supplements and diet changes were primarily responsible for the improvement, the story raises some important issues. Scientists now believe that the health of the bacteria in your digestive tract is responsible for much more than good digestion- immunity, arthritis and several autoimmune diseases are being investigated for a possible connection. A condition scientists call “Increased Intestinal Permeability” (or Leaky Gut Syndrome), in which the intestines are so damaged they leak bacteria and other proteins out into the rest of the body, is theorized to be responsible for inflammation and many autoimmune conditions. In many ways, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is right in sync with this line of thinking- read on to learn how, as well as tips on the best ways to benefit your gut health.
In TCM, digestion is ruled by the Spleen and Stomach. The Stomach “rots and ripens” the food before sending it on to the Spleen, which is responsible for “transformation and transportation”. Basically, the Stomach breaks down the food; the Spleen extracts nutrients and sends the good stuff on to the other organs of the body where blood, qi (chi), and fluids are produced. So you can see how in many ways the Spleen is analogous to the beneficial bacterial population of your entire digestive tract.
In TCM, in order for the Spleen to do this important work, it must be warm and unencumbered by “dampness”- a buildup of fluids which cause it to be sluggish and inefficient. The Spleen’s preference for warmth means that too many cold or raw foods can be harmful, and its dislike of dampness means that excessive intake of fried, fatty or dairy containing foods are harmful.
Here are my top 4 recommendations for maintaining your gut’s healthy bacterial population:
1) Probiotics– These are readily available at most all health food and vitamin shops. I recommend refrigerated brands only: they contain a greater proportion of live bacteria and simply give you more bang for your buck. Many of the liquid probiotics contain sweeteners and milk, so if this is what you prefer be sure to read the ingredient list carefully. Otherwise, capsules are your best bet. I recommend taking a course of probiotics for about a month, after which your gut bacteria population should be quite healthy. See #2 and #3 for how to maintain the population.
2) Fermented Foods– These seem to be having a “moment”, despite being eaten for thousands of years. Unsweetened yogurt, aged cheeses, kefir, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut are all wonderfully rich in beneficial bacteria and are best eaten daily for gut health maintenance. Remember that these foods shouldn’t be cooked- doing so will destroy the delicate bacteria. From a TCM point of view the fermenting process is like partially digesting the food- just like cooking. Therefore fermented vegetables, even if they’ve never been cooked, aren’t considered raw. Some fermented foods don’t contain the beneficial bacteria, such as sourdough bread, beer and wine- because they have been either cooked, pasteurized or filtered.
3) Avoid Unneccessary Antibiotics– Antibiotics are powerful in killing off ALL bacteria in your system, good and bad. This is why common side effects include digestive upset, diarrhea, and yeast infections. In the last few years doctors seem to be doing much better with avoiding over-prescribing, but keep in mind that if you have a cold or the flu in most cases you should not be taking them. If you do take antibiotics be sure to take probiotics at the same time (about 2 hours apart) and continue the probiotics for 1 month total.
4) Pay Attention to Your Trigger Foods– It is definitely possible to have a sensitivity to gluten without having full-on Celiac, and sensitivity to dairy without the typical symptoms of lactose intolerance. It is up to you to pay attention to which foods seem to trigger inflammtion (pain, skin rashes, digestive upset, etc) in your body and adjust accordingly. In an ideal universe, if your gut is healthy you can digest almost anything, but this is not always the case. Your primary focus should be on nourishing the gut: secondarily focusing on identifying and avoiding trigger foods.