Searching for the source of your fatigue, chronic illness, indigestion, obesity, or even attention deficit disorder? Go with your gut, proposes Dr. Steven Lamm, MD, the "house doctor" on ABC's The View and author of the new book No Guts, No Glory.
No Guts is a relatively short guide that packs a ton of complicated information about the gastrointestinal system and how modern-day humans abuse it -- maybe too much info for people who fell asleep in biology class and want a quick fix for acid reflux. But Dr. Lamm's book really isn't about a quick fix. If you're not up for a lifestyle change, this book is probably not for you. But if you're sick of feeling sick and need a fact-driven push to motivate you to overhaul your lifestyle, No Guts is a great resource.
Dr. Lamm's book could not come at a better time. Supposedly gut-healing probiotic foods and supplements have been drawing a lot of attention over the past few years. As proof of this, one need only note the resurrection and mainstreaming of kombucha -- fermented teas populated by gut-healthy yeast and bacteria, a drink once known only to crunchy vegans and hippies who brewed batches of the funky stuff in their garages. Now the drink is widely commercially available in a rainbow of flavors and constitutes a $200-million-a-year industry that's projected to more than double by 2015. And as a whole, the global probiotic products market was valued at $24.23 billion in 2011.
Why are people suddenly slurping down barrels of salubrious bacteria swills and pills? Probably because they grasp, at least in part, the message Dr. Lamm's new book strives to convey: that our bowels are totally screwed up, that we're paying a dear price for that fact, and that we have the power to do something about it (something more than washing down a probiotic pill with a can of Coke).
Despite his book's modest size (it's 147 pages), Dr. Lamm explains in relative depth the multifaceted issue of gut health. From the day we're born, he writes, our intestines are already populating themselves with colonies of microorganisms. Even our earliest life experiences --- such as whether we're born through the birth canal or by cesarian section, or whether our moms oversterilized our toys --- shape the balance of microbes that will become, in essence, another organ of our digestive system.
"There's a living ecosystem that actually contains more genetic information than we have in our whole bodies, and that's the bacteria that live in our colon," Dr. Lamm said in a phone interview. "And we're starting to appreciate that those bacteria are involved in a lot of bodily functions, from metabolism to immunity to the production of certain vitamins. A lot of stuff."
Of course, not all strains of gut bacteria are health-promoting, and this is where many of the health problems connected to gastrointestinal microbes arise. Lamm says that of the 100 trillion microorganisms inhabiting your gut (a number ten times that of the cells that make up the human body), ideally 85 percent are beneficial, while 15 percent are harmful. This ratio easily allows the "good" bacteria to overwhelm the "bad." Unfortunately, for many Americans, travel, antibiotics (which eradicate disease-causing bacteria but also kill helpful ones), a poor diet, and stress are all factors that contribute to turning that ratio on its head.
When the healthy balance of the intestinal environment is disrupted, it results in a condition called dysbiosis, which the doctor says is the root of many ailments, including asthma and allergies, bloating and gas, small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO), leaky gut syndrome (which can cause autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, chronic fatigue, type 1 diabetes, and even multiple sclerosis), heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
"We're not only hampering our guts and making them work overtime with poor-quality foods, but we're also starving ourselves of the nutrients we need for health. And in the process we're racking up the pounds," Lamm writes on page 49. "It's not surprising that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese -- our modern-day form of malnutrition."
Dr. Lamm even notes that eating the standard American diet, which is loaded with fats and sugars, results in a higher proportion of Firmicutes and a waning number of Bacteroidetes, which are both strains of beneficial gut bacteria that act quite differently on the foods we eat. Firmicutes extract more calories from food than Bacteroidetes can, and they store them as fat, while Bacteroidetes, which are more plentiful in the guts of people who eat plant-based, low-fat diets, extract fewer calories from foods. "It's possible that these bacteria are metabolizing foods differently and are actually promoting obesity," Lamm said. In other words, eating crappy, nutrient-poor, high-fat, high-sugar foods means not only that one probably consumes more empty calories, but it also fosters growth of obesity-causing gut bacteria. Double whammy. (The good news is that making the switch to a low-fat plant-based diet causes the rise of the slimming Bacteroidetes, Lamm writes.)
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The way to restore and keep a healthy balance in our guts, Dr. Lamm says, is a three-step plan he calls the Gut Solution. He maintains that good health, disease prevention, and healing can be achieved through (1) eating a healthy diet composed primarily of natural, unprocessed, plant-based foods like raw vegetables and whole grains; (2) detoxifying by drinking more water, exercising, cutting out addictive substances, increasing sleep quality and minimizing stress; and (3) restoring the digestive system through the consumption of pre- and pro-biotics and replenishing stores of enzymes, which dwindle as we age. In the second part of his book, he elaborates on each of these steps.
Though the gut and the microscopic flora and fauna that inhabit it are anything but simple, Lamm said that the journey to better health can start with a very basic shift in perspective. "Think of yourself as a Ferrari. Would you put low-quality fuel in a Ferrari? You wouldn't," he said. "If you're treating yourself well, you're going to increase the amount of pre-biotics you eat, which are foods that actually feed the bacteria, like fiber and things like chicory and artichokes. This will increase the health of these good bacteria. And if you're also eliminating things that are destroying these bacteria, such as cigarettes and antibiotics that we take for no reason at all most of the time, you're going to promote a healthy eco-system." Lamm said that taking daily probiotic supplements, which often contain millions or billions of live healthy microbes in each capsule, is a good idea too, although research as to the exact efficacy of these supplements is still underdeveloped.
The gut, with its immense colonies of bacteria, is the main site of food breakdown and the absorption of nutrients. There's also significant and complex interaction between the gut and the brain in triggering feelings of hunger and satiation, Lamm said. "So it's the most logical place for controlling metabolism. It's got to be your gut. So if I were to advise someone on how to become well, I would say whatever you do, you've got to preserve the wellness of your gut. And you have control over the health of your gut, because you're doing something five or six times a day that's affecting its wellness." (That thing is eating, for those who are a little slow to "digest.")