Why Does Everyone Have Stomach Issues These Days? Dr. Steven Gundry On What’s Going on in Our Guts
Scroll through social media or have a chat about health with your friends these days and there’s a good chance gut health will come up.
On TikTok, you’ll find countless videos about digestive health. (The topic even has its own hashtag on the platform: #guttok.) There’s a continuous stream of new research on the microbiome—the trillions of bacteria living in and on us, the vast majority of which are in our “gut” or colon. And more of us are aware of the connection between our gut health and our overall health—something Dr. Steven Gundry likes to remind people that Hippocrates called thousands of years ago when he said, “All disease begins in the gut.”
“When gut health is out of balance, it affects everything from our immune systems, hormone levels, and mental health to our risk of developing arthritis, psoriasis, diabetes, autoimmunity, heart and neurodegenerative disease, and even cancer,” says Dr. Gundry. “Once we restore the gut to a state of equilibrium, disease often abates or even disappears.”
Dr. Gundry is aiming to help all of us improve our gut health in his new book, Gut Check: Unleash the Power of Your Microbiome to Reverse Disease and Transform Your Mental, Physical, and Emotional Health. This week, The Sunday Paper sat down with Dr. Gundry to get his insight on why gut health has gone mainstream, how that’s a great thing, and the steps all of us can take to transform our gut health for the better.
A CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN R. GUNDRY, MD
More of us are focused on our gut health than ever before—and it seems like more of us have gut health issues. What do you think is going on?
Twenty-five hundred years ago, Hippocrates said all disease begins in the gut. I spent the last 25 years trying to figure out how the heck he knew this, because he was absolutely right. So, the interest in gut health predates us by several thousand years. But I think what’s happened to reignite our interest in gut health is multifaceted.
First, we didn't even know about the trillions of bacteria that make up our microbiome—our gut buddies, as I like to call them—until the Human Microbiome Project finished in 2017. Before then, nobody knew that there were 100 trillion organisms sitting in our gut alone. And we didn't know that there were 10,000 different species living in our gut. It's like finding a complex ecosystem within us, with all these diverse, interrelated ecology.
So, why is everybody so interested in gut health now? Well, we've done a really great job of destroying this ecosystem. We have systematically carpet-bombed it, primarily with broad-spectrum antibiotics. These are effective and remarkable drugs, but they essentially blast everything in the ecosystem that is your gut microbiome to smithereens. When they first came out, we had no idea we were also killing off this entire ecosystem; we didn't even know that ecosystem existed. Now, we know better. We know we are what we eat. We are also what the thing-you-are-eating ate. And 70 percent of the antibiotics in this country are fed to animals.
Not only have the antibiotics we’ve consumed killed off our gut buddies, but we’ve also starved them to death. The bacteria in our gut need soluble fiber to grow. In the good old days, our great grandparents ate whole foods, and they ate them whole. Now? All of the fiber has been stripped out of most things we eat. Our processed food is devoid of fiber, so we can eat and eat and eat but we never actually get anything down to what our gut buddies want to eat. So the good guys die and the bad guys proliferate.
Many of us know we have a vast number of gut bacteria, but we don’t realize they talk to one another and to the rest of our body. Can you explain how they do this?
There's an interesting concept called the gut-centric theory of hunger. If you are feeding your gut buddies what they want to eat, they send messages up to your brain that say, Hey, we're great thanks so much. Got everything we need. You don't need to go looking for anything else. When the brain gets the message, Hey, we're starving down here, go find something—and then the next thing we eat doesn't feed them—problems set in.
Your gut buddies tell your immune system what to be worried about and what not to be worried about. They keep the wall of the gut intact and happy. They make chemicals called postbiotics that drive every part of us.
What exactly are postbiotics?
Everybody knows that probiotics are friendly bacteria, right? And a lot of people are now realizing that probiotics need to eat prebiotics, which are found in soluble fiber and polyphenols. When your gut buddies feed on these prebiotics, they produce compounds called postbiotics. And these postbiotics are literally the language that this galaxy within us—our microbiome—uses to direct what happens to our mitochondria, what happens to our mood, what happens to our brain, what happens to cells in our heart.
One of these postbiotics we’re hearing more and more about, called butyrate, is especially amazing. The cells lining our large intestine, our colon, get most of their nourishment from butyrate. So, if you don’t have enough butyrate-producing bacteria, these colon cells get damaged. And we know people who don’t have a lot of butyrate-producing bacteria have a higher incidence of things like leaky gut, as well as polyps in the large intestine (a.k.a. the colon) and colon cancers.
What makes a microbiome healthy vs. unhealthy?
Number one, diversity is important. In any ecosystem, its hallmark is diversity of species. You have bad actors in this ecosystem, and you have good actors in this ecosystem. And even the bad actors in an ecosystem are important—they’re supposed to be there, as part of the balance of that ecosystem. But they’re not supposed to run the show.
Number two, you have to give your good bacteria what they want to eat—specifically, a combination of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. Prebiotics are food for your gut buddies, such as polyphenols and prebiotic fiber. Probiotics are the gut buddies themselves, which are found in yogurt and fermented foods. And postbiotics are the beneficial products that your gut buddies and bacteria and yeasts outside and inside your gut produce, such as the acetate found in vinegar.
And remember, it’s just as important to eliminate the foods that kill off your gut buddies and the ones that allow the gang members lurking in your gut to overgrow. By feeding the good guys instead of the bad guys, you’ll reach the elusive state of homeostasis. The result will be the type of robust, thriving microbiome that is your birthright.
Steven R. Gundry, MD, is the founder and director of the International Heart and Lung Institute in Palm Springs, California, and the Center for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers The Plant Paradox, The Longevity Paradox, and more.