The Benefits of Eating Dirt

by Christopher Lovejoy on May 19, 2018

Health, fitness, and vitality are, first and foremost, an inside job that express the orchestration of a vast cast of characters that includes vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, and phytochemicals, acting in tandem with enzymes, probiotics, hormones, and neurotransmitters.

In coming to terms with health, fitness, and vitality over the years, I have grown to learn that if my vitality is compromised, I can always fall back on my health and fitness, and if my fitness is compromised, I can always fall back on my health, but if my health is compromised, …

Certainly, compensations can be made, but then, so can comparisons.

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Eating nutritious, delicious food; getting regular daily exercise; finding the sweet spot between the polarities of eu-stress and dis-stress; and enjoying the benefits of a restful, refreshing sleep are the obvious rudiments of good health for the sake of ramping up fitness and vitality.

None of this is possible, however, without the smooth operation of healthy guts.

It’s a miracle that the body is resilient enough to withstand a daily onslaught of challenges that compromise the gut’s integrity, including the A-bomb of germ warfare that is antibiotics (found in meat and medication) and such gut grenades as fluoride, gluten, pesticides, and triclosan.

A miracle, yes, but perhaps also a tragedy, or at least a tragedy in the making …

Why?

Because, eventually, all of the associated indulgences catch up to the indulgers.

How?

By literally generating bigger holes in the very thing that keeps us alive and well.

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A leaky gut or, if you prefer, the medical term “increased intestinal permeability”, has been thoroughly documented in the medical literature over the past century, and is finally being recognized as a key risk factor for autoimmunity (where the immune response turns on the body’s own tissues as if they were foreign bodies) ~ a devastating condition reportedly on a very scary upswing over the past decade.

By one account, the number of autoimmune conditions is fast approaching one hundred, with forty more being suspected of having a basis in autoimmunity. With the application of leaky gut protocols, however, clinicians of functional medicine are finding improvements or resolutions with many of these conditions: allergies, asthma, food sensitivities, digestive issues, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid conditions, as well as hard-to-treat conditions, such as chronic fatigue and autism. Clearly, the gut is not just a food processor ~ it is at the very centre of health itself. The father of medicine got it right: the gut is central to health.

The ongoing verdict is also clear: this world can no longer take the gut for granted without incurring serious consequences. The good news is that the solutions are surprisingly simple, relatively affordable (for those with disposable incomes), and widely available in modern society.

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A holy gut seems like an oxymoron, but the more I investigate its miraculous nature, the more inclined I feel to treat my guts as sacred, if not divine ~ sacred, because its inviolability is necessary for my long-term health, fitness, and vitality; divine, because it’s the work of a genius.

Many of us already know that the gut serves the causes of digestion and elimination. What we might not know is that the nerve cells in the small intestine complement brain function, generating up to 95% of the body’s serotonin (the feel good hormone), as well as supporting thyroid function, producing inactive T4 cells for the thyroid to convert into T3 cells for immune responses, which act as a second internal line of defense for the body in the event that anything untoward slips through the intestinal lining.

Now stop and think for a moment. If the gut is compromised in any way, not only is nutritional intake compromised, not only is the rest of the body at risk of being paid visits by things that simply do not belong, but mood and energy are at risk of being taken on a roller coaster ride.

Yikes.

Can anyone here say … it takes guts to trust the guts?

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You are a most fortunate individual if you think you can take your guts for granted, but even with some knowledge of what you take into your mouth, your guts remain vulnerable to assaults and upsets, including (believe it or not) the cumulative effects of daily emotional stresses.

The gastrointestinal-urinary tracts are works of pure genius and the bowels themselves do not get nearly enough credit for the work they do to keep us alive and well and to keep us going strong and true.

The intestinal lining itself is a marvel of engineering and the many beneficial bacteria that inhabit the space bound by this lining are worthy of being nominated collectively for the Nobel Prize in Biology.

Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but not by much in my view, if you knew what they can do.

So what, exactly, is going on with this intestinal lining?

And what’s going on in the space bound by this lining?

Aside: one (very powerful) lens can be used to discern the nature of this lining and one (less powerful) lens can be used to discern the activity that is occurring inside the space bound by this lining.

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The intestinal lining is a complex barrier of tissue with microscopic passageways through which nutrients can pass to nourish the body. The integrity of this vital lining is undermined by acute bouts of inflammation, becoming compromised by a chronic condition of inflammation.

Acute bouts of inflammation can be remedied by minimizing or removing the offending causes with support from the healing powers of the body, but if for whatever reason these bouts cannot be remedied, a chronic condition of inflammation of this vital tissue will eventually ensue.

A chronic condition of inflammation will make the tiny holes in the lining bigger, allowing all sorts of things (other than nutrients) to pass through the lining into the bloodstream ~ “all sorts of things” includes toxic waste, pathogens, gluten, and food particles that remain undigested.

What is a body to do with all of this junk? It cries out for help! “Help me!” Seriously, the body responds or reacts in ways consistent with the nature and extent of the toxic load with which it has to contend; the adrenals and thyroid work day and night to keep up with the onslaught.

Early warning signs include bloating, food sensitivities (not to the food per se but to the undigested particles of food that find their way through the intestinal barrier), a subtle persistent defensive tension in the body, unaccountable fatigue (suddenly feeling tired for no apparent reason), all of which progress, if left untreated, to slight aches and pains in the joints, headaches that come and go without any apparent cause, the first signs of distress with the skin, like acne, rosacea, eczema, dermatitis, or psoriasis, as well as mild to moderate anxiety, irritability, or depression, all of which progress even further, if left untreated, to ever more severe aches and pains and issues into the dreaded territory of autoimmunity where the body can no longer tell who is friend and who is foe.

Here, the appellation, holy gut, takes on a whole new meaning (if you get my meaning).

Before I address the major causes of intestinal inflammation that have been researched and reported, I will briefly turn my attention to the second (related) question that I posed above: what exactly is going on inside the microbiomic space enclosed by the intestinal lining?

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By the time your food has passed through the enzymes produced by the salivary glands in your mouth to break down the starches, through the acid bath of your J-shaped stomach to trigger the lining of your tummy to release enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, mixing and grinding what remains of your food into a semi-fluid liquid or paste known as chyme, it finally arrives inside the holy sanctum that is your small intestine (not so small when its undulating form is stretched out to twenty feet in length), where it sends out signals to the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder to send their digestive biles and juices to the billions (yes, billions with a b) of probiotics inside the microbiome of your “small” intestine to break down what remains of your food into the nutrition (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, phytochemicals) that your body needs to function. If all goes well, roughly 90% of the nutrients from the chyme leaving the small intestine for the large intestine (the colon) has been extracted and absorbed. What remains is mostly fiber, fermented by the trillions (yes, trillions with a t) of probiotics inside the colon to extract what little nutrition remains to feed and maintain the health of the colonic wall while protecting the colon from the pathogenic hordes.

The entire digestive process takes 24 to 72 hours to complete (if you’re healthy).

By the way, did you know that probiotics also produce vitamins? Amazing.

So what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, lots … *gulp*

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When I eat a few ripe oranges in the morning (after vigorously scrubbing off as much of the fungicide on the oranges as I can with veggie wash) to break my nightly fast, the citrus goodness enters the digestive tube that is my mouth, esophagus, and stomach. The nutrition from the resulting chyme, however, doesn’t actually enter my body until after it arrives in the holy sanctum that is my small intestine.

The intestinal wall, as I said, is a marvel of engineering, with four layers ~ two structural layers of tissue (connective and muscular) and two layers on the inside of the intestinal wall (mucosal and submucosal) that forms a gateway that performs the role of a master juggler, allowing nutrition to pass through into the bloodstream and tissues, while acting as a protective barrier against allergens, toxins, and microbes.

True, it’s not just the two layers of mucosal lining that are performing this dual role; it’s the probiotics, the beneficial microbiotics that take up residence on the innermost lining to prevent harmful microbes from doing the same, while (a) maintaining a vital balance of 85% to 15% good microbiotics to bad microbiotics; (b) serving as gatekeepers for letting through vital nutrients; and (c) helping to organize just the right level of immune response in the event of a breach by one or more of the bio nasties.

When all is well, the tight junctions (as they are called) in the wall of the gut make all the right judgment calls, allowing friends to go through unimpeded and face palming the foes to keep them away; when an errant virus or pathogen does manage to slip through a hole in the wall, the immune system kicks into high gear and neutralizes this bio threat quickly.

Incidentally, the bad microbiotics are not really bad when they perform the function of keeping the good guys on their toes, not unlike certain shadowy agencies that put hackers on their payroll to test computer network systems for integrity and reliability; there are also neutral microbiotics in the small intestine called commensals that likely serve a useful purpose in the event that an unusual situation arises.

But what happens when the tight junctions in the wall aren’t so tight?

In a word? Trouble, which I must confess is a gross understatement.

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In recent decades, medical researchers have been getting a grip on the causes of loose junctions.

A major turning point in autoimmune medicine occurred in the year 2000, when Dr. Alessio Fasano isolated the only known physiological substance that directly controls the opening and closing of tight junctions in the gut wall, a protein he called Zonulin. When the release of Zonulin is triggered by the presence of a nasty (like salmonella), the tight junctions open up to flush them out of the intestine so that the immune system can do its dirty work of neutralizing it.

As of this writing, exposure to bacteria and exposure to gluten are the only two known agents that can trigger the release of Zonulin, which in turn opens up the tight junctions to undesirable agents that slip through the gut wall and potentially wreak havoc on the body as a whole.

The increase of gluten in the food supply is not just coming from foods made of hybridized wheat (of which there are many), but is also coming from a wide assortment of processed food products that contain gluten as an ingredient, which is generating conditions in the body that encourage a near-constant release of Zonulin, opening up the body to even more undesirables slipping through the gut wall.

The dramatic rise in the use of antibiotic medications and the cultural obsession with cleanliness through the use of hand sanitizers and chemical cleaners undermine microbial diversity, leading to imbalances in the microbiome in favor of the nasties, which again is encouraging a near-constant release of Zonulin, opening up the gut wall to even more undesirables slipping through and inflaming the body.

Add to these two environmental onslaughts the pervasive, chronic emotional stress that characterizes modern societies, which suppresses the growth of probiotics in the small intestine in favor of the other guys, and we begin to get a glimpse of a hidden global pandemic in the making.

With antibiotics, gluten, and stress on the rise, the human gut is becoming more porous than an absorbent sponge, opening itself up to all sorts of undigested food particles, toxic waste products, allergens, and pathogenic microbes. I dare say, it’s a global disaster waiting to happen.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, and judging from the medical stats that I’ve seen on the numbers of people reported to be affected, I would venture to say that it’s a disaster already in progress.

So what can one do by way of response?

  1. if necessary, heal and seal thyself; and
  2. make a simple point of informing others

Truth be told, not everyone is sensitive to the effects of a leaky gut, but everyone is susceptible; just because you have no symptoms doesn’t mean you are not presently eating and doing things that will eventuate in making you sensitive to this syndrome and its many ramifications.

In a world of leaky guts, forearmed is forewarned.

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Do you have a leaky gut? Do you at least suspect? One popular clinician is saying that about 80% of the patients he is seeing right now have some degree of leaky gut. How about you? Keep in mind that there is a broad spectrum of severity where having a leaky gut is concerned.

You have a leaky gut, or you are at risk of getting a leaky gut, if …

  • you take prescription meds or OTC drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen
  • you have a thyroid issue or struggle with having a sluggish metabolism
  • you experience frequent fatigue or you cope with having low energy
  • your stools are coming out loose or running loose on a frequent basis
  • your stools smell like they belong in a sewer (don’t worry, I’m not a clinician)
  • you fart a lot and your farts smell really bad (sorry, I just couldn’t resist)
  • you have digestive issues (e.g., bloating, gas) once or more per week
  • you know (or suspect) that gluten and/or conventional dairy affect you
  • you grapple with seasonal allergies that run interference with your life
  • your bowels movements are no longer as firm as they once were
  • you are going two or more days without having a bowel movement
  • you get sicker more often than usual (i.e., two or more times a year)
  • your physical or emotional stress levels are typically moderate to high
  • you have skin issues like acne, rosacea, eczema, dermatitis, or rashes
  • you experience constant cravings for sweets, breads, pastas, et cetera
  • you are confronted daily with multiple food sensitivities or food allergies
  • you struggle daily with anxiety, depression, irritability, or an inability to focus
  • your tongue is displaying a white coating on top, indicating a candida issue
  • you have yeast or fungal issues that seem difficult or impossible to treat
  • you suffer from any type of pain that involves the joints or the head itself
  • you have been diagnosed with IBS, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis
  • you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis (a skin condition), or multiple sclerosis
  • you have been diagnosed with some other autoimmune disorder or disease

These are some of the criteria that clinicians use to get a handle on leaky guts. If, in perusing this list, you nodded your head less than twice, you likely have nothing to be concerned about (for now); if, however, you nodded your head two or three times, you might consider cleaning up your diet or making certain lifestyle adjustments in the interests of prevention; if you nodded your head four or more times, I respectfully recommend that you continue reading (and digesting) this post for more information.

Thankfully, the chronic challenge of having a leaky gut can be further resolved into five types of leaky gut. If you know or suspect that you have one, I recommend going here to get a grip on your type.

This online test, though not perfect, is governed by a sophisticated algorithm. I did this test twice, once by responding “no, because I don’t know” to some questions and once by responding “yes, because I suspect” to these same questions, and was surprised when I got the same result.

In doing this test, your result might come up as being one definitive type (in which case, you’re golden) or your result might come up as a hybrid of two types (in which case, you have a bit of work to do ~ see below to tap a resource to help you do this). Also know that your gut type can change throughout your life, depending on the challenges you face and the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Getting a grip on your gut type will help refine your response to healing and sealing your gut.

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Speaking of responses to healing and sealing the gut, here is a fivefold response protocol that Dr. Josh Axe uses to treat his patients and to inform the public at large on how to approach or address this syndrome: (1) remove; (2) reseed; (3) restore; (4) release; and (5) reseal.

Do remove … the foods that damage your health, including wheat and other grains that contain gluten and lectin that can damage the lining of your intestine and cause a leaky gut; commercial dairy, whose pasteurization transforms casein into something that resembles gluten; refined sugar, which feeds the baddies in the gut, producing toxins that inflame the gut, and upset the 85/15 balance of microbiota; hydrogenated oils (soy, canola, corn, vegetable) found in snack chips, soups, salad dressings, and condiments, which give rise to inflammation in the gut; GMO foods, which contain high levels of glyphosate that upset the microbiotic balance and damage the gut wall; and the various toxic chemicals commonly found in processed foods and beverages that destroy beneficial bacteria in the gut ~ avoid artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, which alter microbial composition, and limit consumption of additives, colorings, preservatives in food, be wary of pesticides on produce, avoid antibiotics and hormones in meat, and limit or avoid the ingestion of fluoride and chlorine in tap water.

Do reseed … your gut with microexposures to beneficial bacteria through … a broad spectrum probiotic supplement that includes as many species of probiotics as possible (including SBOs, if possible), in quantities (50 billion is ideal) that make a difference; spend time walking barefoot outside; shop at your local farmer’s market for produce (and don’t be concerned about eating a little dirt); play with a dog or ride a horse; consume a tablespoon of raw local honey daily; do some digging in the soil of your garden; swim in the ocean or a freshwater lake; get two servings daily of fermented foods (e.g., kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kvass); and get your fill of green algae and medicinal mushrooms.

Do restore … the gut with bone broth (a 3-day bone broth fast is a good start); with organic fruits and veggies, fish and meats (if this is your thing), nuts and seeds, and other products (“pay the farmer and butcher now or pay the pharmacist later”); raw, organic cultured dairy (kefir, yogurt, and raw cheeses contain high levels of B12, calcium, magnesium, folate, enzymes, and probiotics); fermented veggies, including miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickled veggies that contain fiber, enzymes to aid digestion, and beneficial bacteria; fermented beverages that include apple cider vinegar (mixed with water), kvass, and kombucha; as well as coconut products (in the forms of oil, milk, flour, kefir, butter, water); wild-caught salmon (not the farmed variety), high in vitamins D and B12, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids which cool the inflamed gut; and sprouted seeds (chia, hemp, flax) and other high-fiber foods like steamed veggies (broccoli, asparagus, spinach) favored by probiotics.

Do release … all forms of daily stress (physical, emotional, and mental), which raise the risk of leaky guts, on a regular basis, through such means as … massage or reflexology treatments that reduce pain and regulate cortisol; fun activities that get your bod moving and increase your endorphins; a warm cup of chamomile tea to prep the bod for a good night’s sleep and to reduce digestive issues; read something that uplifts heart, soul, mind, and spirit; use essential oils to relieve anxiety, boost the mood, and help with quality of sleep; boost your intake of magnesium from foods like avocados, pumpkin seeds, spinach, figs, and yogurt (or with a supplement) to relieve tension in the head or muscles; listen to music that soothes the soul at least 10 minutes a day (or better yet, sing!) to boost mood, memory, and focus; and find a forest near you and practice shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) ~ the phytoncides from the woods’ essential oils do wonders to relieve stress and boost the human immune system.

Do reseal … the gut with practices that keep it shut from all but the most beneficial of nutrients … try to avoid taking any unnecessary medications (and seek out a naturopath for options if you are taking them); supplement with (a) probiotics, which seal the deal and help restore the balance; (b) a complete digestive enzyme, which aids in digestion (protease for proteins, amylase for starches, lipase for fats, and lactase for lactose); (c) L-glutamine, especially L-alaynl-glutamine, an essential amino acid that repairs the gut and its lining and thickens intestinal cell walls; (d) ashwagandha or licorice root (of the DGL variety), among other adaptogens, that support the adrenals in adapting to stress; and (e) collagen protein powder containing glycine and proline that serve to restore the integrity of the mucosal linings of the gut.

Keep in mind that this protocol is general in nature. In his amazing resource of a book called Eat Dirt (love this title, by the way), Dr. Axe lays out separate protocols for each of the five gut types; he also has links in this very affordable book to many more resources on his website.

Dr. Axe has found great success with this protocol with many of his patients. The summary described above is by no means comprehensive, and you would be well advised to seek the source for more information (many pages of charts in his book provide good food substitutes).

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In following these five steps, I began a daily journal to track responses to such questions as:

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “very rested and refreshed” and 1 is “not at all rested and refreshed”, how rested and refreshed did I feel, compared to most other mornings, when I woke up this morning?

What did I eat, drink, and add by way of supplements for breakfast today?

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “super energetic” and 1 is “not at all energetic”, how energetic did I feel during the morning hours leading up to lunch? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “very buoyant” and 1 is “not at all buoyant”, how buoyant did I feel during the morning hours leading up to lunch?

What did I eat, drink, and add by way of supplements for lunch today?

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “super energetic” and 1 is “not at all energetic”, how energetic did I feel during the afternoon hours leading up to dinner? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “very buoyant” and 1 is “not at all buoyant”, how buoyant did I feel during the afternoon hours leading up to dinner?

What did I eat, drink, and add by way of supplements for dinner today?

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “super energetic” and 1 is “not at all energetic”, how energetic did I feel during the evening hours leading up to bedtime? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “very buoyant” and 1 is “not at all buoyant”, how buoyant did I feel during the evening hours leading up to bedtime?

Other types of questions include … what physical or emotional symptoms came up for me as I went about my day, and what were the triggers that set them off? How rested and refreshed did I feel at the end of my work day? How satiated did I feel after eating each of my meals?

With bowel movements, how many today? What color? What shape? What consistency? Smelly: yay or nay? (educate yourself online about what constitutes a healthy bowel movement ~ and what doesn’t).

Mama Natural gives up the inside scoop on poop:

A nosedive in mood or energy following the ingestion of a food, drink, or supplement might indicate that you’re getting too much of a good thing (i.e., you’re not giving your body enough time to adjust, e.g., instead of taking 1 tsp of chlorella, start with 1/2 tsp); it might indicate an intense detox reaction (e.g., you have more heavy metals in your system than you thought before taking the chlorella, and so, consider adjusting your intake or allowing time for rest ~ or more rest); it might also indicate that the food, drink, or supplement you ingested is not a good fit for your physiology, in which case, consider looking for a substitute (e.g., instead of blending a bunch of bananas in a smoothie, blend one or two and add berries instead). A nosedive in mood or energy might also indicate too much conventional dairy, too much glucose, or too much gluten or too many gluten-related food products in your diet, too little quality sleep, too much chronic stress, too much acute stress, or too little rest.

A daily journal comes in handy as you continue to add or remove foods and supplements to and from your diet, and as you continue to tweak your diet, supplements, and lifestyle; this process is very much a work in progress. I invite you to treat it as a work of art in the art of living.

Find your baselines for diet (meals), supplements (which ones, how much, and when), and lifestyle practices, so that when you do modify any of them (one tweak at a time!), you can measure your progress; you might also wish to keep track of shopping lists and medical test results.

As for diet, … paleo, keto, or 80/10/10? Great question. Ideally, you’ll want to consume a diet rich in fruits and veggies (at the very least), engage in daily fitness activities that are fun and beneficial, and (eventually) rid yourself of any reliance on continual supplementation.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when your stools are big, firm, regular, odorless; your mood is stable; your energy is high; your recall is sharp; your focus is strong; your sleep is sound; your skin is glowing; and your body weight in relation to your height is much to your liking.

Are any app developers out there reading this?

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We are walking, talking containers and carriers of microbes.

Truth be told, we are essentially microbial in nature ~ given that the number of microbes (fungi, parasites, viruses, bacteria, yeast, and more) in and on our bodies outnumbers all of our other bodily cells by a factor of 10 to 1. If you were to collect this microbiome and place it on a scale, it would weigh between two and six pounds, double the weight of the average human brain.

The gut is ground zero for establishing and developing the basis of immunity and for protecting the integrity of the intestinal lining, two critical functions without which we could not survive for long, or if survive, not be able to thrive for long without them. Not only do probiotics in the gut support digestion, they also serve to regulate metabolism and protect us from takeovers by dangerous pathogens.

With autoimmunity approaching epidemic proportions, the guts are a good place to start. For those doctors who are delivering babies by C-section, please dab these babies with their mothers’ vaginal secretions so as to lay a strong microbial foundation, and for the new moms out there, please breastfeed your babies to ensure that they get off to a good start where their microbiomes are concerned.

For the surgeons out there: it’s all well and good that you can cut us up to work your magic, but when a course of antibiotics is administered after surgery, please ensure that a compensating course of probiotics is administered, or at least prescribed, before releasing the patient.

For the clean freaks among us: you’re not doing anyone a favor by killing, or arranging to kill, every microbe in existence. In killing these microbes, you’re passing a death sentence on the human race.

As for the Americans, what the hell are they doing? Reportedly, their digestive tracts look like deserts, missing a few key bacterial species ~ one that helps metabolize carbs, one that actively communicates with the immune system, and one that protects against kidney stones.

As for Big Pharma, and the agencies mandated to oversee Big Pharma, you really do need to stop playing Russian Roulette with humanity; medication is a measure of last resort ~ focus on prevention first and you’ll be doing us all a huge favor. Remember: people before profits.

As for the overuse of anti-biotics, do not even get me started ~ lest I bite your head off (jk).

With diligent attention paid to increasing the diversity of our own microbiomes ~ through our choices of foods and supplements, by reducing or eliminating the use of sanitizers and medications, in better managing chronic emotional stress, by adding prebiotics and probiotics to our diets ~ we have a chance at preventing a hidden epidemic of leaky guts from blooming out of control into a full-blown pandemic.

Clearly, the microbiota in our bodies ~ good, “bad”, and “neutral” ~ deserve more respect.


This post has been filed under Application in the Ultimate Outline.

Note: my evolving outline on approaching a realization of the ultimate in personal fulfillment can be found here, accessible from the nav menu under the page “Be Here Now”.

Note: this ever growing perspective began here: Ultimate Perspective

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