For centuries the digestive system has been regarded by Eastern medical systems such as Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and in more modern times Naturopathy and Functional Medicine as the foundation of health and vitality. Many of the body’s ills begin as imbalances in gut homeostasis and the road to recovery is by restoring harmony and equilibrium to the digestive tract.
Despite these healing traditions rich in wisdom, the gut has been trivialized by modern Western medicine as merely a food processing plant and conduit for waste removal.
The myth of junk in equals junk out has been pervasive until only recently. For decades this misguided position misled the masses into thinking that food’s only relevance was to be a substrate for energy which when processed turns into waste. Another myth perpetuated for decades has been the role and function of the gut’s microbial flora as being vestigial—just part of the scenery as it were.
“No respect”! This hilarious opening line used by the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield epitomizes the digestive tract.
But the truth is that we are now living in the age of a gut health revolution.
But where did this all begin?
A Short History of Gut Health
Ilya Mechnikov won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his observations about gut immunity which were in part founded on the fermented milk he drank daily. He wrote The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, and attributed the longevity of Bulgarian peasants to their consumption of fermented milk and yogurt. His observations and writings gave birth to the modern era of the gut microbiome.
We now understand that the gut plays a pivotal role in health and disease has deep roots in ancient tradition. Trailblazing functional medicine and naturopathic practitioners have lead this revolution in understanding the importance of the gut in health. We now know the gut has an influence on cardiovascular health, brain health, and chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes.
One of the fringe benefits we are just beginning to understand is how restoring gut microbial balance resets the body’s metabolism.
Exciting research shows that the types of bacteria that dominate your gut can determine how likely you are to hold onto excess body weight or have a slim figure.
That means diversifying your gut flora give you the power to turn your gut into a fat-burning machine.
Let’s take a look at some of the most recent research in this area.
What Science is Telling Us about Gut Bugs and Fat Loss
Overweight people tend to have an imbalanced gut flora. Most experience reduced biodiversity and oftentimes have an overabundance of fat-forming bacteria called firmicutes while thin people tend to have higher amounts of microbes called bacteriodetes. To keep it simple, you can think of these two species as a kind of Yin and Yang of gut microbes. However, the real story is far more complex than a good vs bad bug scenario involving just these 2 types of bacteria. For more intricate details, I have written an extensive review on the subject for a science journal.
The main takeaway here is that a disruption in the balance of the gut ecosystem wreaks metabolic havoc leading to illness and weight gain.
There are many ways in which gut microbes can cause physiological mischief leading to weight gain.
- Energy Hoarding by Bad Bugs. The firmicutes class of bacteria is known to be extremely efficient at extracting short chain fatty acids from fibrous material. When there is an overabundance of these critters they can be responsible for you retaining an extra 150 calories daily. And this adds up!
- Inflammation is one of the pathways to disease pathology and weight gain. Your gut microbes can set off a noxious chain reaction of runaway inflammation throughout the body that disrupts your body’s metabolism and leads to weight gain. Inflammation results in insulin resistance which directly leads to fat accumulation. When the hypothalamus of the brain becomes inflamed, resistance developes to the gut-derived hormone leptin that makes you feel full so appetite goes up.
- Leaky Gut. Intestinal inflammation often leads to breaches in the cells of your gut lining. Tiny holes are ripped in this lining—and these holes allow bacterial-derived toxins to enter your blood stream.[i] When your immune system senses this, it cranks up the inflammatory response even more. Systemic inflammation from gut bacteria toxins has been implicated as an early driver of obesity and insulin resistance.
Suffice it to say, your gut microbes control many critical functions that regulate appetite, integrity, immunity, motility, and much more that govern your body’s metabolism. So it’s essential to pay attention to our gut and treat our symbiotic inner helpers with care.
How to Restore Balance to the Gut and Ignite the Fat-Burning Machinery
Here are 3 simple steps that you can use to shift your gut ecology to a lean metabolism starting today.
Step #1: Reboot
In the world of computers we are all too familiar with the frustration of malfunctions. Computers get sluggish or just stuck and hitting the reset button seems to do the trick. The gut is no different. For many this reboot is a gentle way to stifle the proliferation of fat-forming microbes and allow the gut flora to biodiversify and thrive.
First, I recommend limiting foods that are high in FODMAPs (fermentable olgio-,di-,monosaccharides and polyols), in particular those that are rich in poorly absorbed sugars (lactose, fructose), fructans (wheat) and xylitol or sorbitol sweetened products. Digestive symptoms of gut flora imbalances (aka dysbiosis) commonly associated with being overweight such as bloating, gas and lethargy often dissipate during this phase.
I also suggest that your daily carb consumption be restricted to approximately 50 grams daily during this phase to induce fat-burning. The typical Western diet contains hundreds of grams of carbs that exceeds our body’s glucose handling capacity. This leads to fat storage.
By increasing the intake proteins and fats you can compensate for this carb restriction to maintain muscle and fight inflammation. The recommended types of fats are those that are anti-inflammatory (i.e. olive oil) while pro-inflammatory fats (i.e. corn oil) are to be avoided. Anti-inflammatory lean protein sources are advocated from “clean sources” such as wild fish, cage-free organic eggs, whey protein, and others.
Overall, this first phase lasts 2-4 weeks and primes the body’s fat-burning metabolism while resetting the gut microbiome. Some like to stay on this phase longer depending upon the amount and pace of weight loss desired. One can expect to shed 15-20 pounds of excess body weight in a month using this system.
Step #2: Rebalance
In this phase we restore order, and harmonize and biodiversify the gut microbiome by incorporating fermentable foods that strategically foster the growth of friendly flora. Examples of these fermentable foods include kefir, yogurt, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles and much more.
I recommend making these at home whenever possible as it may produce better results (not to mention it’s fun!), and they should be free of added sweeteners which are counterproductive to the establishment of a good gut microbiome (i.e. high fructose corn syrup).
I also recommend including more fibrous foods that feed the fat-fighting flora. Where we limited these foods in during the reboot part of the program, in this phase we bring them back to help further diversify your gut microbiome.
The rebalance phase is a more flexible eating program that can be a short as 4 weeks or may last up to several months depending on your weight loss goals and overall health at the onset of the program.
Step #3: Renew
Once you have rebooted your metabolism and rebalanced your gut flora, it’s time to renew your diet and lifestyle for good.
The foundation of this lifelong eating plan is the Mediterranean diet which has abundant research that support its role in health outcomes and weight maintenance. It also has the flexibility and variety to help you maintain a healthy weight for life.
I have also included additional tips and tricks in this part of the program to help you stay on it long-term. For example, you can eat to your heart’s content every 7th day (or so) for those special evenings out or holidays when cutting loose a little feels like the right thing to do.
I hope these three steps will help you begin to rebalance your gut microbiome and turn it into the fat-burning machine the ancients knew it to be. For more details check out my new book The Gut Balance Revolution: Boost Your Metabolism, Restore Your Inner Ecology and Lose the Weight for Good!
To your good health.
Dr. Gerry Mullin
[i] Cani PD, Possemiers S, Van de Wiele T, Guiot Y, Everard A, Rottier O, et al. Changes in gut microbiota control inflammation in obese mice through a mechanism involving GLP-2-driven improvement of gut permeability. Gut. 2009;58(8):1091-103.