It’s happening as I write this. Millions of people are scouring the internet to figure out how they are going to lose their belly fat, gain muscle, and get the body they dream of before they attempt to hit the beach this summer. Most of these people will try one diet variation or another. Some will get a trainer. Others will try a new online training program. Many will hit the gym for the first time in years. But only a few will ever get to their goal. And among those who do trim up, an even smaller percentage will stay there.
Hey, if we knew the real secret to getting people to burn fat, get the body of their dreams, and remain healthy for the rest of their lives the fitness and wellness industries would dry up and die right? While I don’t believe that most trainers or fitness gurus have any intention of leading people down the wrong path, I do believe that one of the reasons for the high failure rate in fitness is that most people out there are more attracted to the 8 minute ab side of the industry.
This puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us to create programs and diets that fit well into sound bites like “lose that belly fat in 6 weeks or less!” And if we start talking to people about the things that are truly making them overweight and sick, like a poor gut micro biome, eyes begin glazing over and they’re ready to move over to the tan shredded guy’s videos of him doing curls on his Instagram page. They’ll sign up for his 30 day weight loss challenge for $125 to get his “customized” (cough cookie cutter) program, they’ll lose a few pounds of water weight, send him some “transformation” pics that he’ll post to get his next round of buyers, and then they’ll gain it right back in a few months. Do I sound bitter?
Here’s the truth: If you begin working with a trainer or a fat loss guru, and he or she does not ask you anything about your digestion, run the other way. If he or she doesn’t ask you if you’ve ever been on antibiotics, if you eat fermented foods, if you have constipation, diarrhea, bloating, crohn’s, or colitis, then run away.
Why? Because you cannot build buildings on quicksand. Your gut (and by gut I mean your digestive system) is the foundation upon which you build your body and maintain your health. If it is screwed up, then anything else you do for your fitness or weight loss regimen is nothing more than ornament. If you are sick, tired, fatigued, fat, skinny fat, depressed, weak, injured, sexually deficient, hormonally deficient, or diseased, the first thing you should be fixing is your digestion.
This does not mean that I am against beginning an exercise program, a new diet, or even taking medications if they are warranted. Exercise and good nutrition are vital aspects to any fitness program, but they need to be combined with the power of good digestion in order to work. Here’s why…
The vagus nerve has branches that are connected to both the small intestine and the large intestine. Without going into a long and boring lecture on anatomy and causing one of those glazed eyes scenarios: this is why you get butterflies in your stomach when you are nervous and why some people lose control over their continence when they get scared.
Additionally, around 70% of your immune system is located in your gut as Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue (GALT) (see Vighi et al. 2008 for reference). In some places this is separated from your waste products on the interior of your intestinal tract by a lining that is a single cell thick.
Well… actually you have an entire universe of living organisms that exists in your intestinal tract. Millions of bacteria to be exact. This is referred to as your gut micro biome, and scientists are finding that this mass of bacteria can either positively or negatively affect your health.
In fact, the number of bacteria cells in your intestinal tract outnumber the cells in your body by a factor of 10!
The micro biome can influence many factors in your health and your behavior including:
As the research demonstrates, the health of your intestinal ecosystem has a direct impact on your health, longevity, and propensity for being overweight.
But what do we mean when we say “healthy gut micro biome?”
Basically, this means you want to have bacteria in your gut that is “friendly.” These are micro flora that will help your digestion and help to clear your intestinal tract of toxins and inflammation. They also help to kill off more “unfriendly” bacteria that dirty up the whole place with toxins and inflammation. This is the "war" I described in the subtitle for this section.
These unfriendly bacteria also prefer to feed off of sugar, and as the research above shows, they can actually influence your brain to give you sugar cravings. They can also make fat. As this one study shows, lean mice who had the gut bacteria of an obese individual placed in their intestinal tracts became obese. When they were exposed to the gut bacteria of a lean mouse, they began losing fat.
This means that a healthy and diverse gut micro biome, along with proper diet and exercise, may be the key to losing fat and staying lean.
Stress can have a huge impact on your health and your digestion. It reduces factors that help to protect your immune system, and it slows down blood flow to your digestive system. This in turn reduces blood flow to your digestive organs and increases the production of toxic metabolites.
Another issue happens when we get a lack of sleep (which can also increase stress). Your intestinal tissue is extremely prone to damage and needs to be repaired often. In some places your intestinal tract is only a single cell thick. Lack of sleep can keep your intestinal tissue from getting repaired and can increase gut permeability. This leads to a condition called leaky gut syndrome where food particles leak into your blood stream. This can affect your immune system and cause issues like autoimmune disease, cancer, neurological issues, and depression. It can also reduce your insulin sensitivity which will cause metabolic issues that will add body fat and slow down fat loss.
Doctors prescribe antibiotics like they’re tic tack, but they rarely tell patients about the long-term impact that they will have on your health. Antibiotics kill off all bacteria in your gut micro biome, creating armageddon like destruction in your intestinal tract. While this little world is repopulating itself your gut is open to an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria and damage to both your gut lining and your immune system. In fact, taking a cycle of antibiotics can change your micro biome for up to a year after use is completed.
Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs work by inhibiting substances that cause inflammation and pain, but in the process they block all inflammation. While this relieves pain, some inflammation is necessary for tissue repair, and consistent use of these drugs can prevent repair of damage to your intestinal lining, creating leaky gut, damage to your immune system, and an unhealthy environment for your gut micro biome.
Ok, so I’ve told you that sugar, antibiotics, stress, and pain relievers could be making you fat, injured, and sick by ruining your gut micro biome. At this point you’re probably wondering if my next recommendation is going to be for you to live in a bubble.
Well I’m not that unrealistic or crazy.
But I will give you some recommendations to help you protect your digestive system and rebuild your gut flora that are a bit more realistic than being a bubble boy.
Green vegetables like spinach contain a sugar like molecule called sugar sulfoquinovose (SQ). Friendly bacteria feed off of SQ, and as they do this, they take up real estate in your intestinal tract. This creates a wall of good bacteria that keeps the less friendly bacteria out.
A really good source of friendly bacteria is fermented foods. These are foods that are fermented with a culture of probiotic bacteria. You probably have tried yogurt before (greek style, not the frozen or fruit on the bottom kind). Yogurt is a fermented dairy product, but there are some other really great choices you can make like:
- Raw Sauerkraut
- Tibicos (a kind of fermented soda)
Nevertheless, fermented foods can get expensive. But do not fear. Our friend Ryan Neveu is an expert in fermentation and it’s benefits, and he has a really inexpensive course that teaches you how to make your own fermented foods, and this will help you avoid spending $5 for a bottle of kombucha. You can find that course here.
During your antibiotic cycle, take a saccharomyces boulardii supplement. This yeast like product helps to prevent yeast from growing in your intestinal tract and helps to reestablish your gut micro biome.
Once your antibiotic cycle is done, eat lots of fermented foods, vegetables, and take a probiotic supplement to continue to reestablish a friendly ecosystem in your digestive system
As noted before, sleep is extremely important if you want to have a healthy digestive system, and sleep also helps to keep you insulin sensitive, which is extremely important for fat loss. Research has shown that lack of sleep is a huge risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes.
If you find yourself unable to sleep well, here are a few different things that you should try:
- avoid watching TV, working on a computer, or staring at your phone for two hours prior to bed time. These devices emit blue light, which can trick your brain into thinking it’s daylight out there.
- make sure that your room is completely black. Use black out curtains on the windows, or get yourself a sleep mask to block out light. I use one called the mindfold that allows for you to open up your eyes without hitting the barrier, giving you the feeling of being in a dark room.
- take 400-500mg of magnesium citrate prior to bed.
- Ensure that you are hydrated properly, and avoid caffeinated beverages for at least 6 hours before bed.
- If you believe that you have a growth hormone deficiency, which can also affect sleep, try taking a human growth hormone secretagogue like dynatropin. Growth hormone helps to repair tissue while we are sleeping, and sufficient growth hormone production is necessary to help you to repair your intestinal lining. Dynatropin has been shown in over 1000 clinical cases to increase natural growth hormone production by %50-%200.
As I wrote before, stress can be one of the biggest factors in poor gut health. While we can’t entirely avoid stress, we can do things to mitigate it’s effects. In spite of it’s spiritual origins, meditation has been shown scientifically to reduce anxiety and mitigate stress factors.
Learning how to meditate doesn’t need to be complicated and you don’t need to pay some guru $1000 to learn it. It simply means taking 10 to 20 minutes to focus on yourself and your mind. You shut your eyes, and focus on your breathing. If a thought comes into your head, simply identify the thought and then envision yourself putting it out of your body.
The point of meditation isn’t to have your mind go empty. Rather it is to become a better observer of your mind and it’s thoughts. Observing your thoughts helps you to view them objectively without undue emotion, and if you are able to do this, you’re often able to keep negative thoughts from having an undue effect on your being. If you have a lot of difficulty with meditating, I highly suggest the headspace app. It has guided meditations that you can use to get yourself started.
Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help to balance, heal, and restore the body to it’s natural state. I take one herb, Ashwaghanda regularly to heal the damage caused by my own anxiety, as this has been a major cause of my own IBD flare ups in the past.
There are several adaptogenic herbs that could help you to relieve stress and its effect on your digestive system. Here’s a fantastic article by Dr. Josh Axe that discusses these amazing plants and their particular abilities.
Most of us think of our digestion as an after thought or an inconvenience when it’s giving us noticeable problems. But your digestive system truly is the center of your health and your ability to live an active and productive life. In fact, when I begin to work with a training client, one of the first things I ask about is their nutrition.
Poor digestive health will inhibit your ability to lose fat, to build muscle, and to perform both mentally and physically. This article has delivered some potential solutions that could help you fix your digestive health and put you on a better track to health and fitness.
Let me know what you think of these solutions by commenting below and if you have any questions, feel free to email me over at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want a full course on optimizing your digestive health, fixing your hormonal balance, and living your healthiest life, check out our foundational course: Warrior Soul Fitness.