As the brilliant Greek physician Hippocrates aptly said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Thousands of years later, gut health is finally getting the attention it deserves. We spoke with Mathew J. Silverman, DO, a certified functional medicine practitioner in Valley Cottage, to find out how to keep yours in optimal shape.
Although the gut microbiome may seem like a new concept, scientists have been studying it for at least a century. In the early 1900s, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian biologist Élie Metchnikoff theorized that toxic bacteria in the gut caused aging and senility. Way back then he was touting the benefits of probiotic yogurt.
Our guts contain tens of trillions of microorganisms. “There are more organisms in the gut than there are cells in the body,” says Dr. Silverman, “a combination of bacteria, viruses, yeast, and fungi.” From the time we’re born, our gut produces a diverse colony determined partly by genetics, partly by what bacteria live in and on those around us—and, of course, by what we eat.
Our highly processed, high-sugar, high-fat, low-fiber standard American diet has substantially changed our gut bacteria over time and has contributed to many chronic diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, colitis, arthritis, obesity, allergies and more. “The three things most responsible for altering gut bacteria are ultra-processed food, the overuse of certain medications, and chronic stress,” explains Dr. Silverman. Packaged foods full of chemicals and artificial ingredients cause all the wrong bacteria and yeast to thrive in the gut; anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, acid blocking drugs, and steroids harm the gut; and chronic stress alters the gut nervous system, changing bacteria for the worse.
Environmental chemicals such as pesticides and microplastics are problematic, too—they not only negatively affect gut bacteria, but they wreak havoc with our body’s detoxification systems by overloading our guts with toxins. “We weren’t designed to be exposed to these types of chemicals,” says Dr. Silverman. “They cause inflammation and bacterial imbalance.”
How do you know if your gut is out of whack? According to Dr. Silverman, you’ll likely experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating and bowel irregularity, and potentially suffer from headaches, anxiety, and depression. It should come as no surprise that stomach issues can impact mental wellness. “Irregularities in the gut affect the brain,” says Dr. Silverman. “There is a connection between the gut and brain. The neurochemical serotonin, 90 percent of which is produced in the gut, regulates mood and sleep among other functions.” A “gut feeling” is real.
To rebalance your gut, you need probiotics to increase the number of healthy bacteria. These include fermented foods like kefir, plain yogurt with live active cultures, pickled vegetables, tempeh, kombucha tea, kimchi, miso, and sauerkraut. If you don’t get enough natural probiotics in your diet, Dr. Silverman recommends taking a supplement such as Align or Culturelle. You also need fiber-rich prebiotics to nourish the good bacteria such as plenty of fresh vegetables, low-sugar fruits, whole grains, seeds, and legumes. Dr. Silverman boosts his own vegetable and fiber intake by taking Juice Plus+ capsules and Benefiber dissolved in water.
“Ideally, people should eat a minimum of 4–5 cups of vegetables and fruits a day,” says Dr. Silverman. “A produce-heavy diet is the best way to keep the gut healthy—as many vegetables as you can possibly eat.”
Gut bacteria are critical to health because they:
- Regulate digestion and metabolism.
- Extract and make vitamins and other nutrients from food.
- Build and maintain the gut wall, which protects the body from toxins.
- Produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic processes such as learning, memory, and mood.
- Program the body’s immune system. About 70 percent of the immune system lives in the gut.