Natural Ways To Improve Gut Health


Gut Healing - The What, Why and How

Gut healing is a complicated one, it's not an easy fix. It's a lifetime practice of healing and becoming, and it's a 2 partner. One, we need to stop numbing so we can feel our feelings, so they don't stay trapped in our bodies/gut. Two, the things we are using to numb ourselves with are destroying our gut biome.

I'd like to speak to some of the unseen and unaddressed underlying issues for gut and mental health, which are often ignored by Western medicine.

 

Stress: 

So obvious it barely needs mentioning but when we become overwhelmed by obligations, family, relationship or job problems, it takes a toll on our gut.  Our ability to digest and eliminate properly is easily affected and this can come out as increased loose stools, constipation, inflammation and other factors. Working through stressors is key to help reduce the load on the gut. 

Trauma:

Trauma in the form of emotional abuse, violence, neglect and other stressors can have a lasting impact on our body and our microbiota.

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” - The Body Keeps Score 
With that in min, Working through this held felt tension in the body and the gut can often be helped by somatic therapies such as yoga, qi gong, dance and trauma release exercises.  Traditionally, indigenous people often work through trauma via ceremony, healing rituals and community reintegration that help to release this held/felt tension.

On a personal note, I have very significant childhood trauma. I was not suppose to talk about it when I was growing up and married into another "keep it quiet family." My body eventually, literally could no longer take it. Expressing, speaking- moving, grieving and sharing my trauma improved my gut and overall health tremendously, trauma is not meant to stay trapped in our bodies and often times it lives in our gut. 

Oppression: 

We live in a world where large groups of people are oppressed by low wages, substandard housing, lack of access to good healthcare, good food and adequate school systems.  This leads to a chronic toll on the body that is often felt in the gut in the form of inflammation, a damaged microbiota and poor digestion that then translates into worsening mood and wellbeing.  There are no easy answers to this as it requires systemic approaches to dismantle the widespread oppression that affects billions of people.

Drugs/Alcohol/Medication: 

All forms of medications, drugs and alcohol can have an adverse effect on the gut and tend to slow down and damage digestion. It's key to note that antibiotics and NSAIDS are deeply damaging to gut health and their frequency of administration is often excessive.

Drinking is a numbing agent , we cant feel with our trauma until we stop numbing. We cant heal our gut until we stop drinking. 

Little to no alcohol and allowing our trauma/stress breath, were gonna need some support. When we remove a crutch we must balance it. This is where nervine herbs come in.

 

Gut healing with friends

 

When we think about ways to heal the digestive system, the most common way that humans have traditionally done this is to use herbs.  Herbs are amazing healers for the gut and work on a number of levels.  They can act as anti-inflammatories, nourish and strengthen, promote digestive flow, relax the stomach to help it digest better, improve metabolism and heal the gut lining.   When trauma has impacted the gut, plants act as mediators and keys for transformation. 

   Nervines

Nervines acts on the nervous and limbic systems to reduce overactive stress responses (such as fight or flight) and return the body to a resting, relaxing, digesting, sleeping phase. This means helping to switch the active state from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. Nervines work gently to tonify the nervous system and re-establish normal nerve function and balance. Some may also lift the mood and ease anxiety, but they are not sedating. 

Nervine Tonics (or trophorestoratives) are perhaps the most important contribution herbal medicine can make in the whole area of stress & anxiety, and in strengthening & “feeding” the nervous system. In cases of nervous debility, the nervine tonics strengthen and restore the tissues directly. Note: Adaptogens should also be considered in this group due to their ability to aid the whole of the body and mind to cope with demands made upon it. Some herbal examples include:

Oat straw (its grows everywhere). 

Nerrvine Relaxants are a group that has become increasingly important in our times of stress and tension. They are the closest natural alternative for the orthodox nerve tranquilizers, but should always be used in a broad holistic way. Too much tranquilizing, even that achieved through herbal medication, can in time deplete and weight heavily on the whole nervous system. However, the physical symptoms that can so often accompany the ill-ease of anxiety may be well treated with herbs that work on the anxiety itself. When the physical body is at ease, ease in the psyche is promoted. Note: In high doses many of these herbs can act as sedatives or Hypnotics. Some herbal examples include: 

Lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, skullcap, passionflower, kava kava, aromatics/carminatives. 

These are herbs that you likely already have in your spice cabinet or growing on your back deck and are known as aromatic carminatives.  A carminative herb is one that helps ease digestion and has an uplifting, dispersing quality.  They help when there is stagnation, heaviness, difficulty in digestion and absorption, tend to relax the digestive system and are antispasmodic when there is cramping.  They have volatile oils that give these herbs their distinct aroma and are often turned into essential oils that can be used for aromatherapy as well.   They often have an added function of being calming and uplifting.  This can be especially important for folks who have a lot of stress or who have experienced trauma and are tight and are holding in their bellies.

They include the Mediterranean herbs such as mint, sage, rosemary oregano, fennel and thyme as well as the more warming middle Eastern/South Asian aromatics such as ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander and turmeric. 
These are some of the best go-to herbs for people with digestive problems as they tend to be gentle, easy to digest and can be easily added to meals. 

Herbs to help with gut health 

Bitters

We don’t get much bitter food into our modern diet and this is one of the reasons for poor digestion.  Outside of coffee and the occasional piece of kale, bitter is fairly lacking.  The bitter taste helps things to move and the direction is downward (unless you take a huge amount- then it can be emetic.)   These are herbs that help promote digestive function, improve bile flow and help in the process of assimilation and elimination.   Traditionally bitter plants have been associated with improving liver function.  In Chinese medicine, a stagnant liver is correlated with stored and stuck frustration and anger.  The bitter flavor helps us to feel less stuck and angry and feel like our energy is more easy and free flowing. 

Some classic bitter herbs include the roots of dandelion, chicory, burdock, yellow dock, bupleurum,  angelica as well as the reishi and fomitopsis mushroooms. 

Demulcent

These are herbs that help calm and soothe inflamed digestive systems and are especially helpful for those with ulcers, gastritis and heart burn or chronic constipation. 

Some examples include calendula, licorice, meadowsweet, marshmallow, slippery elm,  and plantain.

 

Basic Steps Towards Healing The Gut 

As we see from research there is increasing evidence that anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions are strongly correlated with gut health. And we are learning that when the microbiota is damaged or with increased inflammation in the gut lining we can develop a wide range of both physical and emotional complaints. 

Though each person’s digestive issues are unique and require specific care, there are some general herbal protocols that can be helpful for most people. Here are some of my basic recommendations:

 1. Reduce irritating foods. These often include coffee(I know, I'm sorry), sugar, processed foods, alcohol, chocolate(even more sorry), tobacco as well as Unknown common allergens such as gluten and dairy. These are the low hanging fruits that can be reduced to help improve gut health and in turn improve mood.   Its also key to avoid cold foods that damage the gut. That means avoid ice, raw salads and frozen foods and beverages.  

2. Increase food and herbs in the diet that promote digestion and absorption.  One of the best Unknownways to do this is by eating fermented foods in the form of miso, kimchi, cultured veggies, kefir, and coconut yogurt. Fermented foods act as prebiotics to promote certain bacterial strains that are beneficial for to the microbiota. Its also great to add herbs to the diet that  include the carminative herbs listed in my previous post. That means add herbs such as fennel, tarragon, ginger and cardamom to your meals. Your tummy will thank you. Bitter herbs are also really helpful in promoting digestive juices and better digestion and absorption.  Some examples include dandelion and burdock.

3. Eat slow.  The more work we do with our teeth, the less work out digestive system has to do. In general we eat faster and eat too much when we are watching the TV, are on the computer and phone. Try to take a break from the screens while eating. 

4. Lower the Stress.  If you are stressed, your gut will freeze up and won’t have the motility needed to digest and absorb food. Lowering stress levels can be next to impossible for some folks, especially for folks who have to work multiple jobs or have poor housing.  But even small changes can be key to reducing stress and in turn taking a load off our gut. Try to not eat when you are actively experiencing anxiety.   

5. Move.  The human species is one that traditionally has lived mostly outdoors and involved in foraging and hunting. That means that a portion of the day was always spent moving outside. Movement helps the digestive system to flow and improves motility and peristaltic function. Try 30-60 minutes of outdoor gentle movement a day such as walking, hiking, biking, qi gong and yoga.  Heavy exercise can also place serious stress on the digestive system so be careful of those daily spin classes.   

6. Nourish.  There are a lot of articles and books about what diet is best for people who are trying to repair and heal the gut.  From Paleo to Vegan, often what is missed is that it can be really hard for people to digest food and its best to try and take in warm food in small amounts that are easy to digest.  So think well cooked meals and soups that emphasize whole foods.Choosing which herbs to use and how to use them as part of a protocol for nourishing and healing the gut can be challenging to know.  The thing I like to keep in mind is that the gut generally likes to deal with things as simple warm liquids.  Pills, capsules, and alcohol tinctures are harder to consume and absorb.  So with that in mind I like to promote people taking in broths and teas primarily.

Thank you for taking the time to educate yourself on your gut health and I encourage you to empower yourself to take action. 

Also know that every body is different. What works for one might not work for another. For a herbal consultation specific for you, click here

Love and immunity,                          

Justine                               


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