THE BLOG
02/18/2014 10:26 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Want Optimal Health? Time for a Gut Check

I have a little secret to share with you. It's not normal to constantly have gas, bloating, burning, or stomach pain. Yet Americans pour billions and billions of their hard earned dollars down their gullets in the form of over-the-counter and prescription drugs aimed at easing digestive distress. Although the unruly actions of the digestive tract are not topics of cocktail party or dinnertime conversation, there are droves of people who suffer from these types of issues. Hippocrates, ancient philosopher and physician credited as being the father of medicine, cautioned that all disease begins in the gut. There is much to be said for improving general health as you take steps to reduce your digestive distress.

Why would Hippocrates say such a thing? His wisdom intuited what modern research has teased out. The digestive system interacts with every single system, organ and cell in the body, acting like Central Station. It has direct links to the immune, the central nervous and endocrine (hormonal) systems, and is the avenue through which nutrition is taken in, broken down, absorbed, assimilated and incorporated into our bodies. Without the digestive system working in top notch condition, reaching optimal health is difficult.

While the drugs that we so readily consume to ease our gastrointestinal tracts may quell symptoms in the short-term, they fall short at getting to the actual root of the problem. In some cases, may actually exacerbate the underlying issues as well as be detrimental to overall health.

In order to kick gut problems to the curb for good, I invite you to do an experiment -- with yourself as the subject -- to find the root cause and get rid of your symptoms once and for all. These steps, done in conjunction, will put you on the path to both digestive nirvana and better overall health:

1. Don't eat foods that don't work for you. I'm willing to wager that the bulk of people suffering with digestive complaints have a sensitivity to some food that they may or may not be aware of. To determine which foods could be a problem, I recommend an elimination diet for two to four weeks of the most common foods that can cause digestive distress. Foods that top this list include gluten, milk products, beans and legumes (like soy and peanuts), processed sugar and artificial sweeteners (including those found in protein bars, protein powders, gum and mints). If you eliminate these common problematic foods for several weeks and then re-introduce them one at a time -- four days apart -- you will have a good idea as to how your body responds to them.

2. Support your microbiome. Your micro-what? There is this enormous colony of bacteria that live in your body: four pounds worth -- or a rather robust 100 trillion-cell strong population of healthy, beneficial bacteria. Their job is to help you digest and assimilate food, balance your immune system, optimize body composition, balance high blood sugar and cholesterol, protect against lactose intolerance, environmental allergies and even spruce up your mood! Diets low in fiber and high in processed sugar, alcohol and grain, antibiotics, acid-blocking drugs combined with chronic stress all greatly impact our gut flora in a negative way. Taking probiotics, which are the supplemental form of beneficial bacteria, can greatly normalize digestive function (especially ones with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter strains, as these are the predominant types that also live in your gut). Eating vegetables daily helps to nourish your little friends as well. The healthy bugs in your gut feed off the prebiotic fibers found in veggies and in turn help keep your gastrointestinal health and wellness on track.

3. Enhance your digestive fire. Digestive fire is the body's ability to break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats into their basic building blocks of amino acids, sugars and fatty acids. Food should be broken down into these teeny tiny particles to be best absorbed into the body. This process starts in the mouth by chewing thoroughly, and continues biochemically through the use of stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile. If food particles are not adequately broken down, not only does digestion suffer but discomfort can ensue. Gas, bloating, indigestion and pain are the most prominent symptoms of unbroken and partially undigested food molecules in the system. If we are unable to adequately produce the factors that perform this function, even the healthiest of diets will cause distress. Chewing food well and supplementing with a digestive enzyme at mealtimes is a surefire way to aid the body in its breakdown of food, thus ensuring a comfortable passage through the digestive tract.

4. Heal the lining of the digestive tract from top to bottom. The lining of the digestive tract is where the outside world -- the food that we eat -- is not only absorbed into the body, but also interfaces with the immune system. The majority of the immune system resides in the gut. Problems that arise in the lining can be driven by inflammation, the immune response, anatomical changes or a combination of these factors. Ulcers, leaky gut, Celiac disease, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and other conditions related to the lining of the digestive tract can create symptoms of inflammation, pain, indigestion, gas and bloating, and over time create issues of malabsorption, nutrient insufficiencies and potentially autoimmune disease. Luckily, there are several foods and nutrients that are nourishing to the lining of the digestive system. To start, bone broth is a wonderful, functional food chock full of vitamins, minerals and other restorative nutrients. Glutamine, zinc carnosine and n-acetyl glucosamine (NAG) are all amazing gut building nutrients. This is by no means an exhaustive list but an easy place to get started.

Good digestive health is a cornerstone for optimal health and by initiating the above steps, not only will you discover invaluable information about your body, you will strike at the very reason why your gut issues cropped up in the first place.