There’s a much-touted saying that you are what you eat. While this catchy phrase has its merits, it doesn’t give the full picture. More accurately, you are what you absorb. Eating all the kale, free-range eggs and organic berries in the world won’t do you much good if you’re not actually absorbing the nutrition.

So, what might be preventing your body from absorbing the goodness of your Whole Foods diet? A malfunctioning gut. “One of the easiest ways to affect human health is through nutrition and diet,” Andrew W. Campbell explains in this article. “This, in turn, is influenced to a significant degree by the gut microbiota,” he says.

Unglamorous as it sounds, the gut is the foundation of our health, contributing to almost every single bodily process. Ever had a “gut feeling?” Yep, your gastrointestinal situation can affect even your thoughts and moods. Approximately 80 percent of our immune system — our natural defense mechanism against illness — resides in our gut. Our gut microbiota, or “flora,” refers to the bacterial environment we house — how much bacteria and which strains. When we do things (examples below) to damage our gut flora, we subsequently disrupt our immune system, digestion, hormones and more.

We host more than 10 times the number of microorganisms in our gut than make up our body, and one of the primary factors that can alter this microbiota is what we ingest. Scientific studies, such as this one, show that certain dietary choices — like high sugar intake or undiagnosed allergies — can cause a state of chronic inflammation. What does this have to do with absorption? When the gut is compromised by poor diet or other lifestyle factors, the epithelial layer lining the intestines can become permeable — pocketed with small holes and breaks — a state known as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut in the mucosal layer allows food particles to pass through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, inflaming the immune system, which sees the food particles as enemies that need to be attacked, and deprives us nutrients due to improper absorption of the rogue food.

Treat your gut to something healing, such as Laura Lea's Anti-Inflammatory Root Veggie Hummus

Treat your gut to something healing, such as Laura Lea’s Anti-Inflammatory Root Veggie Hummus. Image: Laura Lea Goldberg

Signs, Symptoms & Causes of Poor Gut Health

Some of the first symptoms you might notice are:

  • Acne
  • Rashes
  • IBS (gas, bloating, diarrhea)
  • Food cravings
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Fatigue or mood swings

If damage is left unchecked and malabsorption continues, it can contribute to more serious conditions, such as autoimmune disease, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity and allergies (read more here and here).

Culprits include the following:

  • Excess intake of refined sugar
  • NSAID pain medications (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.)
  • Pesticides, insecticides, fungicides
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda and Sweet’N Low
  • Heavy metals, such as lead or mercury
  • Chemical toxins, found in household cleaners or even beauty products
  • Antibiotics
  • Food allergies and sensitivities, particularly to gluten
  • Hormonal birth control
  • Stress
  • Viruses and chronic infections

How to Heal?

If you suspect you’re struggling with poor gut health and you want to improve your body’s absorption abilities, try the following:

  • Remove processed and packaged foods from our diet as much as possible.
  • Talk to your doctor about taking digestive enzymes, which can improve digestive function and absorption.
  • Talk to your doctor about taking probiotics, which produce compounds that can suppress the growth of “bad” or problematic micro-organisms, populate beneficial bacteria and “enhance the integrity of the intestinal barrier,” as Peera Hemarajata and James Versalovic say in this article.
  • Increase intake of fermented foods; kimchi, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar and kombucha. Some yogurts also contain probiotics and therefore, can have a similar healing effect by adding healthy organisms to your gut.
  • Eliminate refined sugar and minimize overall sugar intake to reduce chronic inflammation. Drink alcohol in moderation, and make desserts an occasional treat instead of a daily splurge and you’re well on your way.
  • Find out if you’re sensitive to gluten, dairy or other foods.
  • Eliminate intake of refined, high-PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) vegetable oils as much as possible (corn, canola, soy, safflower, sunflower). These oils have an inflammatory effects on the body, worsening gut health.
  • Enjoy copious intake of cruciferous and leafy green veggies (lightly cooked for easier digestion).
  • Increase intake of antioxidants, such as Vitamins E and C, which can help repair damage to a permeable intestinal wall.
  • Enjoy moderate intake of starchy vegetables that contain fermentable fibers, such as sweet potatoes, yucca, bananas, onions, dandelion root and fennel (among others). These fibrous foods can promote proper digestion and “cleanse” the digestive pathways.
  • Try gentle exercise to manage your stress, which can cause inflammation and suppress digestion and immune function.
  • Switch to natural beauty and household products that do not contain toxic chemicals. I order most of mine from Thrive Market, which offers healthy products at wholesale prices.
  • Have your home inspected for heavy metals and talk to your dentist about having mercury fillings removed.
  • Avoid quick fixes. Research on the efficacy of multivitamins, powders and health-promoting “superfood” pills is unclear. However, it is clear that too much of one nutrient can be harmful, which is one concern with consistent vitamin or supplement use. In addition, pills take nutrients out of their natural context, meaning we don’t often reap the benefits they promise.

All of this can seem overwhelming and, frankly, a bit dramatic. I am not concluding that your health is in jeopardy if you use hairspray, snack on Cape Cod chips or love a nightly martini. Use this information as a jumping-off point to do your own due diligence and figure out what choices you can make for optimal health and happiness. If something isn’t quite ship-shape and you suspect your gut health needs some TLC and repair, take these tools and make changes to your health!

Laura Lea Goldberg is a certified holistic chef, recipe developer, writer and the force behind LL Balanced, a healthy eating website designed to introduce new ideas about food and nutrition. For more insider knowledge on food and nutrition, email Laura Lea at [email protected], follow her on Instagram @lauraleabalanced or head to www.llbalanced.com

Laura Lea Goldberg is not a doctor or dietitian. Her guidance should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult with one such professional before making major changes to your health.