By Dr. Lina Sakr 

In the broadest sense, to “trust your gut” means to follow your instincts, to heed your intuition.

In medicine, gut health is the key to gastrointestinal wellness – and paying close attention to its many moving parts – that is to trust (and listen to) your gut – can help us better fight disease and promote wellness.

It’s a realization that Hippocrates latched onto nearly 2,500 years ago: the Greek physician and father of medicine posited that all diseases begin in the gut.

That conclusion may only be a slight exaggeration. The human digestive system is a complex, interconnected network that requires coordination and cooperation among multiple organs: the esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas and small and large intestines.

Gut bacteria and other microbiomes can impact cardiovascular health, obesity , diabetes, cancer and other chronic conditions. Increased intestinal permeability, also known as a leaky gut, can lead to serious disorders like chronic fatigue, brain fog, arthritis, allergies, anxiety and depression.

Diet and food choices clearly impact gastrointestinal health. But all too often, the surface-level symptoms of digestive illness – including abdominal pain, acid reflux, cramps, bloating and nausea – are treated primarily with medication by conventional medicine.

That chase for quick fix doesn’t address the underlying, root causes of an illness.

Functional medicine follows a different path. We take a holistic approach and consider a patient’s overall health and lifestyle, investing the necessary time to assess family history and environmental factors, not just the immediate symptoms.

That means a series of lab tests that help provide a 360-degree view of the symptoms on display. It may include a comprehensive stool analysis to assess gastrointestinal health.

In April, I presented a seminar on this topic at Naples Center for Functional Medicine. Here are some of the key takeaways.

READ MORE: A functional medicine approach to digestive health

Why gut health matters

The gastrointestinal tract serves as a barrier between the internal body and the external world, allowing nutrients to enter while preventing harmful substances from passing into the bloodstream. It houses the majority of the body’s immune system (80 percent of the body’s lymph nodes are around the GI tract) while helping protect against pathogens and regulate the immune function.

The gut also produces microbiomes. Those are a form of helpful gut bacteria that can aid in the production of nutrients, including Vitamins B and K. These organisms help maintain health and functional digestion and absorption, protecting against pathogens.

A leaky gut, as noted, can adversely impact the immune, nervous and endocrine systems. That can create what’s known as dysbiosis, an imbalance of the GI bacteria.

READ MORE: Functional medicine and diagnostic testing

Gut health: the 5R Framework

The functional medicine approach to gastrointestinal wellness relies on what is known as the 5R Framework:

  • Step 1:Remove any food or substance that might be causing inflammation or dysbiosis.
  • Step 2: Replace missing nutrients or digestive enzymes. Depending on an individual patient’s test results, this could entail use of supplements such as digestive enzymes, bile salts or stomach acid.
  • Step 3: Reinoculate the gut with beneficial bacteria, by using proper probiotics and fermented food. This will restore the balance of the gut microbes and improve digestion, immunity and overall health.
  • Step 4: Repair any damage to the gut lining, through the use of L-glutamine, zinc and other supplements that help repair and maintain this essential protection. Glutamine is an amino acid that is the predominant fuel and nitrogen source for the gastrointestinal tract’s mucosal lining.
  • Step 5: Rebalance by embracing lifestyle choices, such as increased sleep and exercise and more effective stress management, all of which can affect gut health.

Trust your gut, change your diet

Dietary changes alone won’t fully restore your gastrointestinal health – but it’s a great start. Consider these gut-health best practices:

  • eat whole foods high in fiber: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes
  • eat foods high in probiotics: yogurt, vinegar, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods
  • limit sugar intake
  • follow a variation of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and high in fiber, and include such staples as olives and olive oil, whole grains and little to no red meat.
  • reduce or eliminate processed food, which is high in sugar, unhealthy fats and artificial ingredients That includes soda and other sugary drinks.

Remember, though: gut health is about more than just your diet. In fact, it’s often a marker for one’s overall health, with surface-level symptoms that may be masking more deeply rooted problems than the immediate source of discomfort.

Take it from Hippocrates, who followed his own intuition – and trust your gut.

Dr. Lina Sakr is a board-certified internal medicine physician at Naples Center for Functional Medicine with nearly 40 years of experience. She specializes in metabolic and nutritional medicine, anti-aging medicine and women’s health. 

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Take the first steps in managing your gut health with functional medicine today!

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