Inflammation and the Gut: How it’s affecting your digestion
How often do you hear the words “inflammation” or “anti-inflammatory”? As people become more conscious about health and wellness, inflammation is something we hear lots of hype about, but might not fully understand what it is, or what we can do about it. So, let’s dive in.
What exactly causes inflammation? Most often, it’s due to cellular damage from environmental toxins, poor diet, stress, or impaired immune response. Any of these factors can trigger a PRO-inflammatory reaction, which is part of the body’s natural immune response to protect itself from anything it might see as a threat. This immune response can become dysregulated by things like: autoimmune disease; fighting off frequent infections; our nervous system constantly being in fight-or-flight (as with chronic stress); and the typical “Western Diet” – think processed foods and diets high in sugar, sodium and cholesterol. A dysregulated immune response can result in chronic inflammation, which can have many implications in our bodies.
The gut and our immune system
Believe it or not, the gut is where most of our immune system actually lives! Specialized immune tissue is found in the mucus layer that lines the gut wall. These immune cells contain molecules that help identify specific pathogens (harmful microorganisms) or threats to our immune system. Once these threats are identified, they are marked for destruction or deactivation, which triggers the inflammatory response.
Our gut lining also contains enzymes that we need in order to digest food and absorb nutrients from what we eat. If food particles are not properly digested in the stomach and small intestine, these can reach immune cells in the gut lining and be identified as foreign threats. This can cause our immune system to mount a response similar to when these cells encounter harmful infection. Our immune system also has special memory immune cells that help facilitate a faster and stronger immune response the next time they encounter the same substance. This is why you might not experience an allergic or symptomatic response until after eating certain food(s) more than once.
The immune response in the gut is a bit different than our regular immune response. The gut has what’s called higher immune tolerance – meaning it is less responsive to typical immune threats compared to immune tissue elsewhere in the body. This is because our guts are exposed to so many molecules (think about all of the food we eat, and all of the organisms in our microbiomes), that harmless (and helpful!) bacteria or foods could be incorrectly tagged as harmful. So, if immune tolerance in the gut is lowered by things like poor diet, frequent infection, and stress, this can cause increased immune reactions and inflammation.
Symptoms of inflammation
Could you be suffering from inflammation? Exposure to inflammation is more common than you might think, and can present with symptoms that we might not necessarily associate with it. These can include fatigue, bloating, trouble sleeping, change in appetite and weight (increase or decrease), brain fog and headache, irritability or low mood, abdominal pain, changes in bowel movements, and fever. Since chronic inflammation can destroy the enzymes we need to absorb nutrients, it can also cause nutrient deficiencies. If you’re deficient in one or more nutrients, you might notice low energy, dry skin, muscle weakness, or brittle hair, nails, and bones.
Digestion and leaky gut
How does all of this impact our digestion?
The gut lining also has molecules called tight junctions, which are made of tiny proteins that help control intestinal permeability: what’s allowed to pass through the gut wall into the bloodstream. Think of these proteins acting like a strainer – they allow some water and nutrients through, but prevent toxins and food particles from entering circulation and being distributed throughout the body. BUT, since inflammation is often associated with physical damage to the layers of the gut wall, it can destroy some of our tight junctions. This can lead to bigger holes in the strainer and change what molecules are allowed through, causing what you’ve probably heard referred to as “leaky gut”. More foreign particles can then enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response.
So, what can we do about all of this? It’s important to find the root cause of what may be causing your inflammation, but oftentimes dietary modifications and lifestyle changes can make a huge difference!
Reduce the inflammatory response
- Avoid dietary triggers – either based on symptoms, or food sensitivity testing which tests immunoglobulin (IgG or IgA) antibody presence to specific foods.
- Eat foods with SMOOTH textures – when the gut is inflamed, raw fruits and veggies, seeds, grains, and any foods with rough textures are best to stay away from.
- AVOID common immune triggers: gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, corn, and processed foods. Focus on eating nutrient-dense whole foods rather than reaching for something from a package!
- Reduce stress – take some time each day to meditate, try gentle exercise, practice self-care. This is so important! Adaptogenic herbs (such as ashwaganda and rhodiola) can also help the body cope with stress.
- Support the body’s natural detoxification pathways to help eliminate toxins (more on this in another post!)
- Anti-inflammatory herbs – turmeric and boswellia are good go-to’s.
- Carminative herbs – these help ease digestion and combat bloating (such as ginger, fennel, peppermint, chamomile).
Things that can help heal the gut lining
- Sources of Omega-3 – found in wild fish, walnuts, eggs, flaxseed, which have anti-inflammatory properties
- Glutamine: an amino acid that protects tight junctions from damage and helps nutrients get properly absorbed in the gut
- Probiotics: support the diversity and strength of the gut microbiome, which helps protect us against infection and inflammation
- Demulcent herbs (such as slippery elm, marshmallow root, licorice root) – these soothe the gut lining, protecting it from further damage and encouraging healing
- Zinc: helps to repair inflamed tissue
Correct nutrient deficiency
- Nutrient deficiencies often resolve with adequate nutrient intake via diet or supplementation once the gut lining is healed and the enzymes we need for absorption are regenerated.
If you think you might be suffering from chronic inflammation, consult with a naturopathic doctor to assess your concerns and create a specialized treatment plan for you!
In good (gut) health,