Does your gut need a reset?

Yes, I'm Ready

Do you want to start feeling better?

Yes, Where Do I Start?

Do you want to start feeling better?

Yes, Where Do I Start?

How to Heal Your Gut Naturally

Heal your gut with these simple, surprising tips that will benefit your overall health and wellness

Key Takeaways:

  • Your gut is the seat of your overall health and well-being.
  • You can support a healthy gut by identifying your ideal anti-inflammatory diet through a simple elimination diet process.
  • Supplements like probiotics, collagen, omega-3 fatty acids, and L-glutamine can all help you heal and seal your gut (but you may not need all of them or all at once).
  • Getting enough sleep and reducing stress can improve your gut health.
  • Working through the potential treatments in a systematic way and addressing things in strategic order is the most effective way to resolve gut problems.

Your gut is at the center of your overall health and well-being. It’s the seat of your immune system, it’s where most of your body’s serotonin is made, and it’s where nutrients are broken down and assimilated to feed all of the systems of your body. In other words, gut health is not just digestive health, it’s whole-body health.

So when things are a little off—whether you’re experiencing digestive symptoms (like bloating or diarrhea) or other seemingly unrelated symptoms like exhaustion, aches and pains, skin eruptions, or mood changes—improving your gut health is the critical first line of defense.

But how and whether your gut needs attention might not be immediately obvious. In fact, you might be unwittingly doing things you don’t realize are harmful to the human gut. For example, taking over-the-counter pain meds like ibuprofen (or other NSAIDs) can compromise your gut lining [1, 2]. And prolonged, strenuous exercise may temporarily harm the gut lining and contribute to leaky gut syndrome, which I describe in detail in the Cause and Effect section [3].

Reducing gut irritants and accidental damage are the first steps to healing your gut naturally. From there, a diet particular to your condition could come into play, but you may simply find that adding in anti-inflammatory foods, probiotics, other supplements, and a few lifestyle tweaks will be enough to get you going in the right direction and feeling better. Let’s discuss how to heal your gut naturally and the health benefits of healthy gut maintenance.

Action Plan: How to Heal Your Gut Naturally

A healthy gut is one with an intact, sealed barrier to the rest of the systems in your body. Nothing should be leaking through the tight junctions of your intestinal lining, and everything should be moving through the system smoothly. The food you’re digesting should stay inside the digestive tract until it’s time for your body to release it as waste.

At the beginning of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, a healthy gut contains adequate quantities of digestive enzymes (in the salivary glands and stomach) and stomach acid to break down the food you’ve eaten before it enters the small intestine. A healthy gut is populated by a wide array of microbes living in the large intestine that aid in digestion, reduce inflammation, and play an active role in keeping the gut wall sealed off.

To get to this state of gut health naturally, I recommend a step-by-step process that starts by removing the potentially problematic inputs from your diet and ends with slowly reintroducing some of the things you cut out after the gut has had a chance to fully recover. This process is called the Great-in-8 Action Plan, but not everyone needs all eight steps. Next, I’ll outline the steps simply, but you can find them in great detail with specific instructions and dosing in my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You. 

Step 1: Reset

This first step is a two-to-four-day modified fast, in which you drink bone broth or a cleansing lemonade to reduce inflammation and let the gut rest. The modified fast is immediately followed by an anti-inflammatory diet that reduces allergens and irritants. For some, that means a paleo diet. For others, a low-FODMAP diet is more helpful.

Step 1 also involves some lifestyle resets, such as removing alcohol (for now), introducing easy exercise like walking, drinking plenty of water, reducing stress, and creating a consistent sleep schedule.

A Note on Stress

Sometimes simply telling someone to reduce stress actually causes them stress. I understand that this advice given out of context can sometimes feel like pressure when so many stressors in life feel outside of our control. The way you choose to reduce stress is personal to you—it’s about finding something that provides a release valve for you and allows you to take time for yourself. Here are a few science-backed suggestions for managing your stress.

  • Breathwork or meditation can reduce stress and may improve digestion [4].
  • Time in nature may improve mood, calm the nervous system, reduce reactivity to stress, lower blood pressure, boost immunity, and increase the diversity of beneficial gut microbes [5, 6, 7, 8, 9].
  • Moderate exercise can reduce stress and may help reduce gut-related symptoms [3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16]. 
  • Psychological support: Working with a therapist who offers cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may improve gut-related symptoms [17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23].
  • Gut-focused hypnotherapy, in person or online, may help reduce digestive symptoms [24, 25].

Maybe one of these will work for you, or perhaps you have something else in mind, like a relaxing art project, working on a puzzle, or calling a friend who makes you laugh. Whatever works to provide relief is something to engage in regularly to lower your stress levels.

For some, undertaking Step 1 for a month or more brings complete relief. In that case, you can skip to the last step and begin reintroducing some of the foods you removed. It’s important to do this slowly and deliberately to help you determine which foods are irritating and which are fine to eat without causing symptoms. 

However, if Step 1 didn’t bring you significant relief, you have the option of continuing onto steps 2, 3, and 4. Steps 5–8 are all about easing up on restrictions and enjoying your life.

Step 2: Support

The second step provides additional gut support with probiotic supplements, digestive enzymes, and sometimes hydrochloric acid (HCl) acid supplements. Additionally, you may want to support your intestinal lining and reduce inflammation with amino acids and other helpful nutrients. For example, Vitamin D (or a daily dose of sunshine) supports gut health [26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32]. 

Step 2 helps to further heal and seal the gut lining and support your gut as it breaks down foods that could be creating stress for your system. 

Probiotic Supplements

Our triple therapy approach to probiotics is the best way I’ve found to tackle the first half of Step 2. Both my clinical experience and high-quality research point to probiotics as the cornerstone of effective gut treatment [33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42]. And a blend of different types of bacteria can work to encourage healthy populations of intestinal bacteria and inhibit the growth of inflammation-causing microbes in the GI tract.

Many clinicians have overlooked a trend in the research, which suggests that the three most effective categories of probiotic supplements can balance gut microbiota and improve gut health [43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51]. In my clinical experience, combining the three leads to substantially better improvements than standard single-strain probiotic treatments. The probiotic categories are as follows:

  1. A blend of gut bacteria called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium 
  2. A single strain of Saccharomyces boulardii, a healthy fungus 
  3. Soil-based microorganisms

When incorporating triple probiotic therapy to correct microbial balance and reduce inflammation, I recommend the following approach:

  1. Try a quality formula probiotic from category 1, category 2, and category 3—take all three together.  
  2. Track your symptoms for 3–4 weeks. If you’re feeling better, stick with this regimen until your improvements have reached their maximum.
  3. Once you’ve reached maximum improvement, continue the same regimen for about another month to allow your system to adjust. Then reduce your dose to find the minimal effective dose. Once you’ve found it, stay on that dose.

If you haven’t noticed any improvement in your symptoms after 3–4 weeks, something more complex might be causing your symptoms, and you’ll want to talk to your healthcare provider for next steps.

You can also find probiotics in fermented foods, but you’d have to eat a lot of them consistently every day. Although fermented foods can be part of a healthy diet*, they likely aren’t potent enough to reach therapeutic levels (good bacteria and fungi in the billions or trillions per dose). For more detail, see this table comparing the doses of probiotics in foods versus supplements.

*A Note about Fermented Foods: Some people may benefit from eating fermented foods, such as kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. However, some people may find these foods irritating and should eat them with caution. 

Digestive Enzymes or Acid

If you haven’t noticed a significant improvement while combining diet and lifestyle changes with probiotics for a few weeks, you may want to try digestive enzymes or enhance your stomach acid. 

Some people don’t make enough of the enzymes required to break down certain carbohydrates, proteins, or fats and may notice bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort, or bowel movement changes. In such cases, taking digestive enzymes that include amylase, protease, or lipase at the start of a meal could help reduce or eliminate such symptoms [52]. 

Others may have low stomach acid and could benefit from taking betaine HCl to improve digestive function and nutrient absorption [53, 54].

Try these separately for 2–3 weeks each, looking for improvements, worsened symptoms, or no effect at all. If you feel worse or no different, your gut lining may have some damage that could be repaired with other supplements.

Supplements to Heal the Gut Lining

If diet, stress reduction, probiotics, and digestive enzymes or acid haven’t helped after a few weeks, leaky gut could be at play. You might consider trying supplements that can strengthen your intestinal wall and repair or prevent leaky gut, which I’ll detail in the Cause and Effect section. In short, a strong gut wall keeps microorganisms and undigested food particles from escaping into your bloodstream, where they should not be. Research shows that these supplements may directly help heal leaky gut:

  • L-glutamine, an amino acid [55, 56, 57, 58, 59]
  • Colostrum [60, 61]
  • Zinc [62, 63] and zinc carnosine [61, 64]
  • Zeolite [65]

Although bone broth has less clinical research behind it, this is a whole-food source of L-glutamine, other amino acids, and minerals that may help heal the gut lining. However, given its lower concentrations of healing elements, bone broth may also be less effective than supplements. 

As with the digestive aids, I recommend trying each gut-lining supplement separately for 2–3 weeks to gauge whether they help, harm, or make no difference. If neither digestive aids nor gut-lining supplements clearly help, you might consider trying any of the next types of supplements.

Supplements to Reduce Inflammation

Sometimes, when none of the previous steps or supplements seem to have helped considerably, chronic inflammation is at play. The good news is that certain supplements can help reduce inflammation. I recommend trying any of the following:

With all supplements, it’s important to give each one a try for 2–3 weeks and make note of whether they help, harm, or do nothing. Keep track of those that help and stop taking those that don’t.

I’ll also acknowledge that high-quality supplements can add up quickly, and it’s probably not necessary to take everything I’ve mentioned above. That amount of supplementation would be unwieldy and likely add stress to your life, which we don’t want if we’re working on gut health. If you find yourself lost in a heap of supplements, it’s a good idea to get a little more guidance.

One option is to read through the full Great-in-8 Action Plan in my book, Healthy Gut Healthy You. Another option is to work with someone who specializes in gut health and functional medicine, such as the clinicians at our clinic.

Step 3: Remove

This step is only necessary if you aren’t feeling better after Steps 1 and 2. It involves eliminating any harmful bacteria that persist after the first two steps. The natural option here is to try antimicrobial herbs that can remove unwanted gut bacteria. Clinical research has shown some herbal antimicrobials to be just as effective as Rifaxamin, the prescription antibiotic that gastroenterologists prescribe to target harmful gut microbes [74, 75, 76].

Next Steps

Once you’ve cleared out any harmful microbes, it’s time for Step 4: Rebalance. If your digestive system is sluggish (causing constipation), chances are your gut microbes are having a hard time staying balanced. Step 4 introduces prokinetic supplements, which can improve motility (the rate at which contents move through your digestive tract) to  support healthy gut bacteria. A natural prokinetic supplement, such as peppermint oil [77, 78, 79, 80], can improve motility so that partially-digested food doesn’t sit too long in any part of the digestive system and encourage bacterial overgrowth. 

In Step 5: Reintroduce, you begin bringing back eliminated foods slowly and strategically. Trying one food at a time helps you develop a clear sense for which foods are best for your unique system. This trial-and-error approach also helps you build the confidence you need to know that if a flare-up occurs, you can return to the diet that worked best for you in Step 1 until things calm down and you can try again.

In Step 6: Feed, you work to ensure that you’re eating foods that feed the beneficial bugs you’re now supporting in your gut. Prebiotic foods, like legumes, onions, and whole grains, contain fiber that beneficial gut bacteria and fungi eat. Start slowly when reintroducing prebiotics, as too much at one time can be stressful on the digestive system [81, 82].

In Step 7: Wean, you begin to cut back on the supplements you’ve added during the previous steps. The goal of this step is to get you to the bare minimum number of supplements your body needs to remain in a good state of gut health. You can do this methodically by removing one supplement at a time to note how you feel without each one. You’ll likely find that you need to stay on one or a few supplements to feel your best and maintain feeling well, which brings me to the last step.

Step 8: Maintenance and Fun is the final step in this process. Everyone’s Step 8 looks different, but reaching it means you have the tools you need to assess how you feel and what you should tweak to recover from dips in gut health. Maintenance is about feeling good and having fun with your newfound gut health. A sample maintenance plan could look like this:

  • Adopt a regular diet that is lower in inflammatory foods (like sugar and processed foods) and higher in anti-inflammatory, gut-healing foods like fruits and veggies, wild fish and meat, and gluten-free grains and legumes
  • Take a broad-spectrum probiotic supplement (taken daily) [83, 84, 85]
  • Eat probiotic and prebiotic foods in moderation [86]
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get moderate daily exercise [87]
  • Get consistent, restful sleep (seven to nine hours a night) [88]
  • Incorporate a stress management/reduction activity like yoga or meditation [89, 90, 91]

How Do You Know It’s Time for Gut Healing?

The most obvious signs that your gastrointestinal health may be compromised are recurring digestive symptoms, such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea or loose stools, reflux, indigestion, or heartburn. However, there are many other seemingly unrelated symptoms that could emerge as a result of an unhealthy gut.

A poorly functioning digestive system may limit nutrient absorption [92, 93, 94] and promote inflammation, which can dysregulate your entire immune system. Over time, insufficient nutrients, chronic inflammation, and immune dysregulation may manifest as one or more of the following symptoms or diagnoses:

  • Fatigue [95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101]
  • Depression or anxiety [89, 95, 97, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109]
  • Brain fog [97, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115]
  • Insomnia [116]
  • Acne [117], rosacea [118], or other skin conditions [119, 120], such as eczema [121, 122, 123], or psoriasis [124, 125]
  • Female hormone imbalances, showing up as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), abnormal cycle length or flow, low libido, or hot flashes [126, 127]
  • Male hormone imbalances, showing up as fatigue, low libido, erectile dysfunction, muscle loss, and poor memory [128]
  • Weight loss [129
  • Dry or thinning hair [130, 131]
  • Joint pain [132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137]
  • Autoimmune thyroid disease [138]
  • Celiac disease or gluten intolerance [139, 140]
  • Histamine intolerance [141, 142, 143, 144, 145]
  • Unusual reactions to foods [146, 147]

Each of these is an indication that it’s time to start addressing your gut health with Step 1, above. Tackle the most doable things first. Behavior change is hard, and I’m throwing a lot of information at you, so start with just one change you know you can stick to, and take it day by day.

Cause and Effect: Digestive Health and Overall Health

Addressing the symptoms of poor gut health is important so you can get relief, but getting to the root cause is the best way to prevent further and future damage.

While there’s a wide array of potential causes of gut disturbance, one common culprit at the root of many health challenges is leaky gut syndrome. A leaky gut is a compromised gut lining that allows partially digested food particles and potentially harmful microorganisms into the bloodstream. This is also called increased gut permeability. Intestinal permeability is associated with a host of health issues, including [148]:

  • Food sensitivities or allergies
  • Unregulated blood sugar
  • Overactive immunity (autoimmune disease)
  • Excessive inflammation
  • Skin problems
  • Mood issues
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Liver disease

Leaky gut is also highly correlated with chronic conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease), type-1 diabetes, food allergies, and cardiovascular disease [149, 150, 151, 152, 153, 154]. Interestingly, a leaky gut can both arise from and worsen inflammation. That’s why dietary and lifestyle approaches that reduce inflammatory foods and activities are vital for healing your gut naturally.

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Gut Dysbiosis

Leaky gut can contribute to gut dysbiosis, and vice-versa. Gut dysbiosis is correlated with a number of chronic illnesses, and correcting it is a critical part of healing your gut naturally [155]. Whether a result of metabolic dysfunction, certain medications, or excessive inflammation, gut dysbiosis can further tax the digestive system if left unaddressed.

Gut dysbiosis is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, meaning the balance of beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria within your digestive tract is off-kilter and contributes to negative health outcomes. And dysbiosis isn’t limited to bacteria. Candida overgrowth is one example of an imbalance in which a common fungus in the gut grows too prominent (often after taking an antibiotic that kills off important gut microbes) and causes harm [156]. 

Dysbiosis may also mean that you have too many bacteria growing in the small intestine, where they don’t belong. This condition is called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO for short.

While leaky gut syndrome and gut dysbiosis aren’t the only gut-related problems you could have, resolving them can help eliminate a lot of symptoms and lead to a better quality of life. These two conditions are interrelated, and the solutions to ameliorate both will help you heal and seal your gut over time.

Why Does Gut Health Matter?

It might not seem like health issues such as depression, food allergies, food intolerances, constipation, low energy, or a skin rash from eczema or hives could all stem from the same underlying condition, but it’s true. It bears repeating that gut health is often at the center of it all, and starting with the gut could clear up a long list of seemingly unrelated issues. For example, 

  • Skin issues are often gut issues [119, 120, 157]. This includes acne [117], rosacea [118], eczema [121], psoriasis [124], hives [158], and other conditions that manifest on the skin. 
  • Mental health challenges also correlate to gut problems, especially IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel syndrome), and low diversity in the gut microbiome [104, 108]. 
  • Obesity and unintentional or sudden weight loss could both be caused by a gut imbalance or digestive issue. 
  • Joint and muscle pain and fatigue have also been linked to digestive challenges [106, 137].

While each type of health challenge is multifaceted, my approach to functional medicine starts with the gut. In my practice, I’ve been amazed over and over again to see a wide array of symptoms improve with simple, science-based, natural steps to rebalance and heal the gut. From there, if my patients need further specialized interventions to clear up any remaining symptoms, we’ll address them individually. For example, we might bring in psychotherapy for psychological issues or topical treatments for the skin.

Where to Start to Heal Your Gut Naturally

When it comes to healing your gut naturally, each step requires time, energy, and focus. It’s important in the process to ask for help if you need it, and expect things not to go perfectly all the time. The process isn’t always linear, and it’s normal and ok to have occasional setbacks along the way. A setback doesn’t mean you should give up—it just means that you’re learning what works and what doesn’t for your unique body. 

You might find that having a mindset of adding in rather than taking out is helpful for getting more beneficial foods into your diet, especially after Step 1 of the Great-in-8 gut-healing process. For example, when you’re in Step 6 and learning how to feed your beneficial gut microbes, you might try adding a few bites of prebiotic-rich whole grains or legumes to one meal per day, if you tolerate them, increasing your servings over time. 

Or, if you’ve discovered in Step 5 that you can tolerate some fermented foods, you could start each meal with a few bites of kimchi or sauerkraut, or make it a goal to drink half a bottle of kombucha or 8 oz of kefir every day. You could even challenge yourself to make any of these at home so eating them regularly is more satisfying.

Similarly, throughout every step, you might find that starting your day with a quick walk and a 5-minute meditation is a great place to start building those foundations of regularly moving and relaxing. By starting where you are and adding a little at a time, you’ll likely find that, as each new change becomes a habit, the next task on the list is easier to incorporate. 

Finally, at any point along the way, we welcome you to reach out to our clinic for support on your gut-healing journey.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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