2000 years have passed since Hippocrates said that “all disease begins in the gut“. I certainly can’t disagree with that wisdom. That’s why I’ve created the individualized 21-day metabolic reset (a.k.a. the Rejuveo Cleanse) and also my 4-week Eating to Restore Balance class hosted at the Alaska Health Improvement Center.
Overlooking gut health may make or break all other health programs. And gut health depends directly (and, in my professional opinion, only) on what you eat.
Ask yourself these gut-health questions:
- Do you have food sensitivities?
- Do you ever experience brain fog?
- Do you have symptoms of slow thyroid?
- Are your stubborn pounds refusing to budge?
- Do you have any autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), Hashimoto’s, Celiac’s or about 80 more names we give to when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake.
- Do you ever experience stomach or intestinal bloating? gas? constipation? diarrhea? pellet-like stools? all?
- Do you experience heartburn? especially (but not necessarily) after certain foods?
- Are you sick a lot? especially with flu-like feverish symptoms?
- Do you get headaches a lot?
- Is your blood sugar imbalanced? or are your pre-diabetic or diabetic?
- Do you have Autism Spectrum Disorder? “ADHD” or etc.?
Answer “yes” to even one of these questions and you’re among the many people for whom the underlying cause of their health problems may be found right in your gut. Whatever else is going on, and whatever organs need to be repaired, they will repair better when you take steps to solve your gut health, repair the leaks like a good home-owner, and develop lifelong patterns to work as a team with your friends in your gut.
Genes vs lifestyle: what matters most?
For decades, we chased the “you are a product of your genes” byline. Turns out, that’s probably about 10% true. As a molecular biologist and biochemist with a focus on immune system and nervous system function, I am honestly encouraged by how much research attention is being placed on solving imbalanced and leaky guts in order to resolve amazingly diverse health situations.
Some genetic changes, like Down syndrome or sickle cell anemia, lead to diseases that most likely cannot be solved by lifestyle or current medical practices. But these are very rare.
For most of us, a healthy lifestyle trumps inherited risk. Those knee-jerk comments of: “well my parent(s) had this” are being completely disproven by science. Those things we like to blame on our genes, everything from weight control to mental health to substance abuse to diabetes, just aren’t panning out—at least not because of genetic inheritance.
Health: it’s not about what genes you have, but which genes you activate
Most diseases involve many genes in complex interactions; genes that work a little or a lot (or not at all) depending on environmental influences. We know that some people are more susceptible to chemical exposures including medications because of the version of a gene (or genes) they have, for example. But it isn’t necessarily the “chemical exposure” gene per se.
Here’s an illustration: Maybe you struggle with chronic migraine headaches or irritible bowel syndrome or depression. One common genetic variant that influences each of these different situations is having a “slow” MTHFR gene (chemically-speaking that is methyl-tetrahydrofolate reductase—an enzyme that is responsible to chemically modify toxic chemicals and help your body get rid of them.) The methylation process is responsible for:
- Cellular Repair: making proteins, production & repair of DNA & mRNA
- Detoxification and Neurotransmitter Production: converting amino acids into tools for each process
- Healthy Immune System Function: formation & maturation of red blood cells, white blood cells & platelet production
Fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, chemical sensitivity, frequent miscarriage and frequent blood clots are all conditions associated with the MTHFR anomaly. Before you run out and get an expensive DNA test, ask yourself this important question:
If I’m stuck with my genes, can I make them work better?
Yes. Definitely yes. MOST definitely yes! You can’t change a defective gene. But you can help it do its job better and minimize problems.
Continuing with the above example, here’s what a healthy MTHFR gene does for you:
- The MTHFR gene produces the MTHFR enzyme.
- The MTHFR enzyme converts folate vitamins (B9, folic acid) to a helper compound that converts another amino acid into methionine. Your body uses methionine to make proteins, antioxidants, to assist your liver in processing nutrient fats, helps with depression and even inflammation and helps convert estradiol (E2) into estriol (E3) (estrogen family hormones).
- Perhaps the most known system is the liver conversion of methionine into SAM-e (s-adenosylmethionine). An anti-inflammatory that supports your immune system, helps produce then break down key brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine and melatonin, and is involved in the growth, repair and maintenance of all your cells.
In short, MTHFR influences many systems! A functional MTHFR system is vital to eliminating toxins and heavy metals and providing key building blocks.
Risk for cancer, cardiac disease, weight gain, fatigue, and many other health issues are all linked back to how well you methylate—and the story I just told is the very short version.
While by now you may be tempted to run to the vitamin store… please know that it is not straightforward. More B9 or B12 or SAM-e or… may help your neighbor, but it may or may not be the missing link in your situation. Many people accumulate B9 folate because it is not being broken down—taking more folate in supplements further raises this imbalance and causes more of the very symptoms you want fixed. Another half of everyone may benefit by taking a supplement. But which one? Nutrition Response Testing alone can give you a valid answer to what your body might need to correct methylation (or even whether it will self-correct if you fix something else).
Natural, whole food remedies are your front line of defense.
The unanswered question is: Whose genes are producing what we need?
“On a gene basis, 90 percent of the genes in our bodies are actually bacterial, so we’re only 10 percent human. And we have only recently begun to think about how that impacts our health.”
—Charles O. Elson, M.D., Chair of Gastroenterology at University of Alabama Birmingham whose decades of research are aimed at solving immune-mediated intestinal disorders.
In just 5 minutes, get the relationship between your health and hosting healthy bacteria.
Your gut is a complex ecosystem that makes a profound impact on your health.
Different methylation patterns are associated with heart disease, weight gain, and even diabetes. Intriguingly, very recent research found that people with different gut bacteria profiles had different methylation patterns.
The four dominant bacteria groups in the human gut are Firmicutes—and a gold star for you if you knew this group includes Clostridium and Staphylococcus, naturally living in your gut and prevented from living anywhere else (disease) by your immune system—Bacteroidetes, Actinobacteria, and Proteobacteria. Which groups dominate your gut depends on what you choose to eat.
AND methylation patterns that have been associated with cardiovascular diseases, imbalanced fat metabolism and obesity depend on who is living in your gut. Not only that, other functional networks including your inflammatory response, metabolic pathways, and diseases like cancer (mostly gastrointestinal cancers) have known methylation patterns and now these have been associated with which bacteria predominate in your gut.
Massively bigger than the 1990’s push to map the human genome is the current enormous undertaking of mapping our microbiome—the unique gut ecosystem that appears to regulate our health more than we currently understand.
Not everyone can detox easily. And not everyone who has a build-up of chemicals in their body has that because of faulty MTHFR genes. But we do know that the more chemicals build up in us, the more chronic inflammation because we have chosen (or perhaps been subjected to) exposures and/or food that taxes our MTHFR system among other things. And since we know this has something to do with which bacteria live in our gut, let’s do something about it!
The place to launch your healthy gut is with your food:
- Eat more dark, leafy greens such as dandelion, mustard, collard, beet greens, spinach, kale, watercress, bok choy, escarole and Swiss chard, liver-boosting foods with abundant nutrients our bodies need for optimal methylation. Plus, softer vegetables and leaves have “prebiotics” the nutrients that our “good” bacteria use for fuel.
- Also look for food that is a good source of B vitamins: probiotic-rich foods like my coconut milk kefir or garlicky sauerkraut… your gut microbiome makes your B vitamins for you. Or you can eat lots of sunflower seeds, eggs, shellfish, sardines, kippers…, organ meats.
- Read labels and know your Dirty Dozen to spend your money on organic fruits and vegetables where it counts: those that are high in pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. Toxic chemicals disrupt your gut ecosystem and place more demand on your MTHFR system.
- Eat healthy fats from pastured or wild-caught animals, avocados, coconut, chia seeds, ground flax seeds. Your gut ecosystem thrives on healthy fats and there is a whole other story to this story.
Detoxing and methylation are missing links to better health. There is hope; you can take charge of your health by boosting your genes with those of your microbiome.
The sooner you take on healthy habits, the better. But even if you’re already in your 60s or 70s, rebalancing your life helps a lot, and the research shows it.
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Kumar, H. Lund, R. Laiho, A. et al. Gut microbiota as an epigenetic regulator: pilot study based on whole-genome methylation analysis. MBio. 2014 Dec 16;5(6). pii: e02113-14. doi: 10.1128/mBio.02113-14.
Kussmann, M. and Van Bladeren, PJ. The Extended Nutrigenomics – Understanding the Interplay between the Genomes of Food, Gut Microbes, and Human Host. Front Genet. 2011; 2: 21. Published online May 20, 2011 doi: 10.3389/fgene.2011.00021
Structure, function and diversity of the healthy human microbiome. 2012. Nature, 486(7402), 207-214. doi: 10.1038/nature11234