Headlines about the connections between our microbiome — and the trillions of bacterial cells that comprise it — and our overall health have been a constant in news feeds over the last few years. Myriad studies now suggest that an imbalanced microbiome could be a contributing factor to some of our most widespread modern maladies, and researchers are studying just how exactly the immune system is affected by our gut health.
In his just-released book, Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure it (Harper Wave, 2016), Dr. Josh Axe suggests precisely this: that some of our most bewildering health issues — asthma, food sensitivities, even autoimmune diseases like celiac and diabetes — can potentially be traced back to a condition called “leaky gut.”
A healthy intestine is somewhat permeable, allowing nutrients to flow into the bloodstream during digestion. But large food molecules, such as gluten and casein, aren’t meant to enter our blood. When they do, our bodies treat them as invaders. The result: widespread inflammation, which can affect any organ in the body.
Axe estimates that about 80 percent of his patients present with some degree of leaky gut syndrome, also known as increased intestinal permeability, during their first consultation. “They come to my clinic experiencing problems ranging from gallbladder issues to thyroid disease, psoriasis or eczema, migraine headaches, insulin resistance, and even stubborn weight gain,” he writes. According to research from Gut and Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, leaky gut has been linked to a litany of conditions, including ALS, celiac, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s disease, metabolic syndrome, and both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Could leaky gut syndrome be at the root of the puzzling increase in diagnosed autoimmune diseases since the mid-’90s? It certainly seems plausible. Axe writes that “an estimated 50 million Americans — almost one in six — struggle with autoimmune conditions.” We’ve seen an accelerated rise in diseases, and research continues to suggest that more existing conditions could have an autoimmune basis. While Axe is careful to point out that leaky gut isn’t a proven cause of any of these diseases — and that important research in this field is still ongoing — he notes that it is increasingly recognized as an autoimmune risk factor. Further, many of these conditions, even ones that have been historically challenging to treat, “either greatly improve or completely resolve with the introduction and judicious application of a leaky gut protocol.”
So why is it that so many of our guts have sprung leaks? Axe outlines five modern conditions that have been causing our gut problems:
- A nutritionally deficient and sugar-laced food supply
- Environmental toxins like the ones in pesticides and household cleaners
- A high-stress lifestyle
- A tendency to oversanitize
- The broad use of antibiotics and other synthetic drugs
“Our nation is in the grip of a hidden epidemic,” he writes. “We’ve been taking our digestive system for granted for far too long, starving it of actual nutrition while overfeeding it with toxic levels of processed foods and sugar and overtaxing it with environmental chemicals, stress, and excessive antimicrobials.”
The good news? “We can reverse many of our missteps, heal our gut, and recover from many of these diseases by making more basic and bacteria-rich choices in what we eat and how we live,” he writes. “Simply put: We need to eat dirt.”
Axe goes on to outline his Eat Dirt Program, a five-step guide to help you repair your gut and get back to living your best life. The book is replete with advice on dietary supplements and nutritional choices — there’s even an index of gut-healthy recipes to try at home, customized for the “type” of leaky gut that you might exhibit — but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this book is the counsel it offers on smaller lifestyle tweaks that can help promote the microbial diversity your body needs.
Put down the hand sanitizer, Axe advises. Get outside more. Pet your dog. Wean yourself from those toxic household cleaners and personal-care products, and replace them with easy DIY blends of essential oils and other natural ingredients (he offers a collection of recipes for these, too, to help get you started). Try to eat organic, seasonal, locally grown food. Develop some good, reliable techniques for managing stress.
Eat Dirt offers a clear and riveting explanation of a deeply complex and far-reaching modern epidemic. And while there is much research still mounting in this field, the evidence presented to support the implementation of a leaky gut protocol to combat certain symptoms and disorders is cogent and compelling. “We are all part of an enormous ecosystem that’s in need of healing,” Axe writes, “and one by one, we can be part of the solution. Time to dig in and get dirty. The health of the planet rests in our hands — and our guts!”