The health of the gut is quickly becoming one of the most critical components in maintaining optimal health. With 80 percent of your immune system located in the gut, it makes supporting gut health incredibly important. But gut health is more than just the beneficial bacteria in your gut; in fact, a healthy gut is made up of trillions of organisms comprised of both good and bad bacteria and fungi. The best way to harmonize your microbiome is by JERFing, or diversifying the foods you eat and incorporating foods you may have previously thought were bad for you like grains and dairy.
Breads, pastas and other grains have recently received a lot of bad publicity due to their impact on health. Countless people have expressed improvements in health after eliminating grains, and in particular gluten, from their diet. While this may be true, a closer look at grains and the reasoning behind why these foods are becoming increasingly problematic is necessary. We have been consuming grains for thousands of years, so why now are there so many health issues?
The struggle stems from a variety of reasons but primarily due to the changes in the manufacturing process. The United States enforces a wheat harvest protocol that inundates wheat fields with Roundup which allows for a much easier and more abundant harvest. Roundup is an herbicide manufactured by Monsanto that contains an ingredient, glyphosate, which has been linked to an alarming number of illnesses, including cancer, gastrointestinal issues like Crohn’s and IBS, autism and Alzheimer’s to name a few. Because of these unnatural and harmful practices, grains, gluten in particular, have been labeled as detrimental to our health. In actuality, it has very little to do with the grain, rather, in the preparation of the grain. For instance, you want to consume grains that are free of harmful chemicals and have been properly prepared like sprouted, soaked, or sour leavened.
Not only are grains full of vitamins and minerals, but they are also essential in maintaining a healthy gut. In fact, eliminating carbohydrates from the diet contributes to a microbial imbalance in gut flora, perpetuating gut complications. When carbohydrates digest in the gut, they ferment, lowering the pH level in the gut, inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria while at the same time providing nutrients for the beneficial bacteria to thrive.
Fats, contrary to popular belief are not bad for your health; they are actually the preferred source of energy for your body. The human brain is comprised of 60 percent fats, making fats incredibly important for optimal brain function. However, not all fats are created equal. Processed fats like trans fats, hydrogenated oils and margarine are damaging to the body, causing high cholesterol and heart disease and also damaging to gut bacteria. The research surrounding fats have been fairly misguided, causing confusion around this particular macronutrient. Previously, most studies did not differentiate between trans fats and saturated fats when linking them to heart disease. Now, we have a better understanding that consuming a balance in a variety of healthy fats is essential for optimal health.
Different fats are important to the body for various reasons. For instance, consuming animal fats like ghee and grass-fed butter actually slows down the absorption of food so that you feel more satiated, meaning you feel fuller longer. Cooking with animal fats also allows you to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K that are also needed for mineral absorption and healthy hormone production. In addition, various tropical fats like coconut oil which contain medium-chain fatty acids have antimicrobial properties that help fight infections as well as anti-inflammatory properties that help support a healthy gut.
Americans are consuming an alarming amount of sugar. In fact, Americans consume an average of 66 pounds per person of added sugar each year! The consumption of low-fat foods and processed ingredients are partially attributable to the rise in sugar consumption due to replacement of fat with high amounts of sugar, making the food more palatable. Sugar has been linked to countless health issues, including diabetes, hypoglycemia and even cancer. With that being said, there are still some healthy forms of sweeteners available that even provide additional health benefits.
Honey is an excellent source of natural sweetener that has many health benefits. For one, studies show that honey inhibits the toxic effect of mycotoxins, poisonous chemical compounds produced by molds, as well as improves the gut microflora. Plus, honey has been known to aid in weight loss as well helps to manage blood sugar levels. Honey can also help with allergies as well as contains anti-inflammatory properties and has been known to aid in promoting restorative sleep cycles.
Stevia is another natural alternative source for sweeteners that has been used by native South Americans for thousands of years for medicinal purposes to treat burns and gastrointestinal issues as well as sweetener in their tea. Stevia is best consumed in its real form like green leaf stevia and stevia extracts as opposed to other highly refined varieties. Stevia has been known to have anti-cancer properties by decreasing certain pathways in the body that contribute to cancer growth. It also has been said to promote weight loss, improve cholesterol levels and lowers high blood pressure.
Dairy is another nutrient dense food that has received a lot of negative press, primarily due to dairy intolerances and digestive issues associated with consumption. However, similar to grains, the intolerances have more to do with the manufacturing process than the actual dairy itself. Typically, milk is pasteurized to prevent contamination but there is no guarantee that the pasteurization process prevents bacterial contamination as many outbreaks of dairy pathogens can be linked to pasteurized products. Additionally, the pasteurization process eradicates the beneficial bacteria in the raw dairy and reduces the vitamin content of milk. Furthermore, conventional milk is produced by factory-farmed dairy cows that are raised in unsanitary living conditions and fed a diet loaded in hormones and antibiotics, which, eventually, is consumed by the public.
It is best to incorporate dairy in moderate amounts in the form of fermented dairy like kefir or homemade yogurt plus aged and fermented cheeses. Consuming dairy is also essential for optimal gut health. Research conducted by Mahmoud Ghannoum, Ph.D., a NIH-funded researcher and expert on fungi and Candida, indicated gut flora being vastly different in those that did not consume dairy. His findings highlighted elevated levels of Zygomycota, a naturally occurring fungi in the gut, in those that restricted dairy. When these levels become elevated, it can lead to serious infections. Dr. Ghannoum noted that, “…when you remove dairy, you’re cutting out a major dietary factor that supports the good bacteria and fungi that live in your gut. This can allow bad fungi to grow unchecked, which can exacerbate digestive issues.”
Carbohydrates seem to get a bad rap primarily from diet trends and the low-carb craze; it seemed like everyone lost weight and morale improved after lowering their carbohydrate intake. While this may be true, it is important to differentiate between good and bad carbohydrates, as they are necessary for a healthy digestive system and help in maintaining stable energy levels.
Dr. Ghannoum noted that eliminating carbs contributed to a microbial imbalance in the gut, further perpetuating digestive complications. Carbs actually ferment in the gut, lowering the pH levels and inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria. They also provide a healthy environment for the beneficial bacteria to thrive. In other words, prebiotics are necessary for a healthy gut which generally stem from carbohydrates such as garlic, asparagus, onions. He recommends that the best kinds of carbs are, “…complex carbohydrate foods, such as sweet potatoes, chickpeas, brown rice, blueberries, bananas, barley, whole wheat pasta, legumes, and whole wheat bread.” Dr. Ghannoum also recommends avoiding carbs from foods that are processed or refined, such as white bread, soda, white rice, and anything packed with sugar.”
After taking a closer look at these top five food misconceptions, it is apparent that the key to achieving optimal health resides in a balanced diet with a wide range of nutrients. It is important to source the best quality foods, free of pesticides and prepared as close to their natural states as possible without harmful additives or manufacturing. The best way to support gut health and boost the immune system is by maintaining a balance of a variety of bacteria through JERFing, or just eating real food!