If you're familiar with functional medicine or have watched any popular health TV like Oprah, The Doctors, or Doctor Oz, then you already know that the "gut" is no longer that nasty thing hanging over our waistlines.
Your gut, otherwise known as your digestive tract, is now termed your 'second brain.' Before we get into why and how gut health is important to fat loss, let's get some background. Or should I say, gut-ground? (No, I probably shouldn't.)
She's ... too sexy for the ground, too sexy for the ground ...
The Great Gutsby
While the human body contains 100 trillion cells, our digestive tract contains close to ten times that amount in our intestines1,2. The activity of the gut so closely resembles the function of our organs that some have even termed it an "extra organ"3.
Just to give you an idea of how incredible the gut really is, scientists state that the gut has close to 100 times as many genes as the human genetic code.
If you didn't know and haven't been checking in for a visit, your digestive tract actually contains microorganism know as 'gut flora.' Recent research describes the relationship between the human body and gut flora as symbiotic4, which means that it is a close relationship with long-term interactions.
So, why and for what does our body use gut flora? Such important activities as:
Fermenting unused energy substrates
Keeping the immune system strong
Growing helpful bacteria
Producing vitamins for the intestinal tract
The production of hormones2,5
You've no doubt heard the term "probiotic" before, yes? This word refers to the general bacteria that we know exist in the gut. If you've taken a probiotic, you probably took lactobacillus to get rid of some nasty bloating.
Great, you're thinking. What does any of this info have to do with your actual stomach and the abs that you want decorating it?
While gut flora has tremendous benefits to various aspects of health, we're going to focus in on its metabolic and immune properties since they help determine what you see in the mirror.
When you have trouble losing weight, you also more than likely have a gut health issue commonly known as 'leaky gut.' Your gut controls how efficiently you'll lose weight and, to a larger extent, your metabolism as a whole3,6,7.
A study done in mice has shown that your gut flora differs depending on your current body weight8. The health of the gut was directly affected by weight, and the leaner subjects had the healthiest intestinal tract. Remember, we have millions of strains of different types of bacteria, and each type has different effects on your appetite and metabolism.
Changes in our gut health can speed up the rate that we absorb fatty acids and carbohydrates, and can even increase how many calories we store as fat. With a troubled gut, you could eat the same amount of food as someone with better gut health, but your body will handle the calories differently. There is also a connection between leaky gut and increased production of the fat-storing hormone insulin and the hunger hormone leptin9.
Quality Food, Healthy Gut
Your food quality might have the biggest impact on how healthy or unhealthy your gut truly is. The most common factors present in a bodybuilding diet that contribute to gut health issues are:
A lack of fiber
A diet high in wheat
Frequent use of cooking seed oils
Consistent and large intakes of sugar and refined carbohydrates
Since your body can't break down or properly digest the nutrients in the foods above, you won't feel as full or satisfied. Often, you'll consume up to 30% more calories during a feeding period to achieve the same level of fullness offered by better foods4.
If these factors are common in your diet, you might have a bit more to worry about. With a damaged gut lining, you're also more likely to become hyper-sensitive to various foods. Runny nose, joint pain, frequent illness, bloating and congestion are just some of the 'popular' issues that arise if our gut lining is damaged10.
Any foreign substance that makes its way into your gut through cooking oils, environmental toxins or diet will increase an inflammatory cytokine response. This leads to increased cortisol production11, which is directly linked to stubborn lower stomach and thigh fat.
From here, you can see some more nasty issues such as lowered testosterone and slower thyroid conversion. Cytokine production also increases full body fat storage and decreases fat breakdown.
Forget Porta-Potty. You've got Porta-Poultry!
Happy Gut, Healthy Body
Now that we have an understanding of just how important gut health to losing stubborn fat, we need to address some issues in our diet to restore intestinal health.
My recommendations obviously depend on the length and severity of your gut health, but here's what I find to be helpful for most of my clients.
Remove all hidden dangers in your diet! You should be following a proper fat loss diet anyway, but you might not know that most refined carbohydrates and seed oils can cause leaky gut. Remove all carbohydrates that aren't fruit or vegetables for at least ten days.
If you don't regularly consume fruits or vegetables, start with a serving of either at every meal. Don't just start dumping a bunch of fruit into your system. You'll know you're repairing your gut health if you start to have an unusual amount of gas, which indicates that your gut flora is adjusting to the incoming fiber.
You also need to watch your fats. Companies slap "high in omega-3" on the labels of everything these days, with the omega-3 typically coming from ALA, which the human body has a terrible time absorbing. If it's not olive oil or fish oil, don't eat it for at least ten days.
Add some fermented foods in your diet! Fermented foods contain natural probiotics and digestive enzymes. Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are my favorites.
Your gut really is your second brain, and it's time you started noticing it. Make the proper adjustments that I suggested and continue training consistently. Not only will you probably feel better (and possibly smell better), but you might notice some extra fat loss that you couldn't achieve before.
1. Björkstén B, Sepp E, Julge K, Voor T, Mikelsaar M (October 2001). "Allergy development and the intestinal microflora during the first year of life". J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 108 (4): 516-20.
2. Guarner F, Malagelada JR (February 2003). "Gut flora in health and disease". Lancet 361 (9356): 512-9.
3. O'Hara AM, Shanahan F (July 2006). "The gut flora as a forgotten organ". EMBO Rep. 7 (7): 688-93.
4. Sears CL (October 2005). "A dynamic partnership: celebrating our gut flora". Anaerobe 11 (5): 247-51.
5. University of Glasgow. 2005. The normal gut flora. Available through web archive. Accessed May 22, 2008
6. Ley RE, Turnbaugh PJ, Klein S, Gordon JI (December 2006). "Microbial ecology: human gut microbes associated with obesity". Nature 444 (7122): 1022-3
7. Turnbaugh PJ, Ley RE, Mahowald MA, Magrini V, Mardis ER, Gordon JI (December 2006). "An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest". Nature 444 (7122): 1027-31.
8. Bäckhed F, Ding H, Wang T, et al. (November 2004). "The gut microbiota as an environmental factor that regulates fat storage". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 101 (44): 15718-23.
9. Suzuki K, Simpson KA, Minnion JS (April, 2010). "The role of gut hormones and the hypothalamus in appetite regulation". Endor J. 57 (5):359-72
10. Hugot JP (June 2004). "Inflammatory bowel disease: a complex group of genetic disorders". Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol 18 (3): 451-62
11. Kuroki T et al (Nov 2010) "Imbalance in the stress-adaptation system in patients with inflammatory bowel disease". Biol Rex Nurs.