The importance of the gut for health & fertility

If we consider that 70-80% of our immune system lies in the gut, it is crucial to talk about gut health as THE important factor to improve our overall health, well-being – and also fertility – all year long.

Simplified, there are two main and interdependent aspects to gut health: gut flora and gut permeability.

Gut flora

Our gut is colonized with billions and billions of bacteria – which make up the so-called gut flora. In the ideal case there is “symbiosis” between the different stems – they live in a state of harmony and balance, contributing their bit to the overall picture, while keeping each other in check. “Bad” bacteria, yeast, fungi or parasites (that might enter via food, air or skin) are normal to a certain extent and only become a problem if they overgrow.

Gut permeability

A healthy gut lining is (almost) sealed, meaning that the “villi” (sort of “fingers” sitting on the gut wall) only absorb nutrients broken down and made available through digestion, but don’t let big particles of (undigested) food, yeasts, parasites, environmental toxins or other (potentially pathogenic) elements pass through the gut wall into the blood stream. If that ever happens, an immune reaction is caused (release of anti-bodies) to fight the intruder. This is an inflammatory reaction which – if it is continuously triggered – wrecks down the immune system over time and increases the risk of developing allergies, auto-immune or degenerative diseases of any kind. If you suffer from a lot of allergies or food intolerances, you can be almost sure to have a permeable “leaky” gut to a certain degree. The constant stress response also suppresses the production of sex hormones, which decreases fertility.

Since there is a direct connection between the gut and the brain, a leaky gut is also associated with an impaired brain barrier, allowing toxic elements to “leak” into the brain and potentially cause brain fog, concentration / memory issues and/or behavourial issues (e.g. ADHD in children).

The overgrowth of bad bacteria, parasites, yeasts (in other words, an unhealthy gut flora) plays a major role in damaging gut lining.

This is why it is so important to keep the gut flora balanced.

Factors altering gut flora and making the gut leaky

When bad bacteria, yeasts, fungi or parasites are allowed to overgrow, we talk about gut dysbiosis. This condition can be caused or worsened by:

  • Chronic stress, whether it’s physical stress, nutritional stress, emotional stress, mental stress or even spiritual stress
  • A diet high in carbohydrates (esp. refined carbohydrates, like sugar, white bread pasta…, but also too much fruit or whole grains, especially if those are not correctly prepared, meaning soaked, fermented and/or sprouted). In general, sugar/carbs feeds bad bacteria and yeasts. Some studies also link gluten (contained in wheat, spelt, rye and barley) to increased gut permeability.
  • A diet high in omega 6 fatty-acids (from most liquid vegetable oils, restaurant food, processed foods, soy, corn, nuts & seeds)Those are pro-inflammatory and can damage the gut lining.
  • A diet high in processed foods (like extruded breakfast cereals, pasteurized dairy, cookies, snacks, ready-to-eat meals, soy milk, meat replacements…). Industrial processing, esp. high-heat, high-pressure or chemical processing, alters the chemical structure of foods and might render them unrecognizable and/or damaging to our digestive system – while being a welcome food for bad bacteria or yeasts.
  • Food intolerances: Having food intolerances is already an indication for a (somewhat) leaky gut. Continuing to eat those foods further damages the gut lining and causes an inflammatory immune reaction and release of stress hormones in the body.
  • Pesticides, GMOs or additives in food, chemicals in cosmetics, or environmental toxins contained in the air or water you consume damage the gut lining.
  • Lack of natural, traditional saturated fats (such as raw butter or coconut oil) which contain anti-bacterial properties (fighting the bad guys) and heal the gut lining. Saturated animal fats also contain vitamins A, D, K2 and cholesterol which nourish immune-system-supporting organs / glands, repair gut lining and optimize digestion (undigested foods feed bad bacteria).
  • Lack of traditional probiotic foods (foods that naturally contain “good” bacteria and digestive enzymes) and foods supporting a healthy gut lining (see below)
  • Antibiotics (they wipe out bad AND good bacteria and damage gut lining)
  • Other medication, such as the “pill” (hormonal changes influence gut flora)
  • Foods that push your individual Metabolic Typeout of balance.

Once the gut flora is disturbed, and pathogens (bad bacteria, parasites, yeasts…) get installed, they further damage the gut lining, making the gut even more “leaky”. It is quite difficult to change things back again, since the mere presence of pathogens feeding on sugar, bread etc. makes us crave those foods even more (in a way they use us to get what they need to survive). This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken once and for all times.

Note: Babies get their gut flora from their mother (via the placenta and the birth canal). Therefore it is essential that women take good care of their own gut first, ideally before conception! Babies are born with “leaky” guts, which is why it is so important to NOT feed baby any foods that it cannot (yet) digest (especially grains / cereals), before the gut closes. Otherwise they might be at a higher risk for food allergies / intolerances and an overall impaired immune system. If your baby was born via C-Section, is formula-fed or had to take antibiotics, consider using a probiotic specifically designed for infants (I recommend GutPro Infant)!

How to re-establish a healthy gut

Apart from avoiding the foods mentioned above (esp. refined carbs and processed foods) and limiting stress, it is crucial to consume foods feeding beneficial bacteria and nourishing the gut lining:

1. Probiotic foods

Probiotic foods are naturally rich in beneficial bacteria, vitamins & minerals and digestive enzymes.

  • RAW (= uncooked) sauerkraut (or other lacto-fermented vegetables).
  • Traditionally prepared pickles or Kimchi (not the vinegar version you can find in stores),
  • Kombucha (again – the home-made version and not the sugary version you can find in stores)
  • Kefir (ideally from raw milk)
  • Natural yogurt or cheese made from raw milk

Eat these foods with every meal (as a complement in small quantities).

If you have a very disturbed gut flora it might be a good idea to start with a high quality probiotic supplement first (I recommend YeastBiotic and Prescript Assist) rather than using the fermented foods right away, because fermented foods also feed yeast.

Only after your gut flora is re-established, PRE-biotic foods will help to keep the good bacteria well-fed.

2. Pre-biotic foods:

  • Jerusalem Artichoke (topinambour) – not to be confused with regular artichokes
  • Black salsify (scorsoneres)
  • Legumes (such as lentils or beans), soaked, fermented and/or sprouted to decrease anti-nutrients
  • Garlic & Onions (ideally raw)
  • Raw potato (in very small quantities and without any toxic green parts)
  • Plantains (the starchy bananas from Asian stores used for cooking)

Attention: as long as your gut flora is still out of balance, these foods tend to cause major digestive discomfort, such as bloating, gas etc.

3. Home-made bone broth

Home-made bone broth is rich in gelatin, healthy fats (esp. beef stock, chicken fat is less favorable since it contains more omega 6), certain essential amino-acids and minerals

Making broth from a whole chicken or some beef bones is really easy, not expensive and not overly time-consuming (I make a big batch and freeze parts)It is not a big deal if your broth doesn’t gel. It’s usually a question of how much water you use and also the type of bones (marrow bones don’t gel as well as joints).

If you do not have broth at hand, you can also “cheat” by using collagen in powder form from grass-fed, antibiotic & hormone-free cows. It’s not the same, but supplies at least part of the benefits.

As a compromise or fall-back, you can get a good, ready-to-use broth at certain bio stores. Note that store-bought bouillon “cubes” do not contain any health-promoting properties. but are usually full of cheap salt and additives.

4. Animal foods rich in saturated fats, cholesterol and vitamins A, D and K2

It might seem like irony to you that the very foods demonized for years are crucial for a healthy immune system and fertility. Saturated animal fats, which are largely present in raw butter, cream, cheese, egg yolks, organ meats, greasy meats, lard etc. are antimicrobial and together with cholesterol help seal and heal the gut lining.  Vitamin A, D and K2 – exclusively contained in the fats of free-range, grass-fed animals (in their “real”, easily absorbable form), are crucial for immunity, nutrient absorption and balancing hormones (among others). This is why raw cod liver oil is such a great immune booster (I recommend Rosita or Green Pasture brands).

When it comes to dairy, prefer cultured dairy, such as yogurt or kefir (contains less sugar and more beneficial bacteria). You might want to limit dairy in winter due to its cooling effect on the body.

Summary of advices for a healthy gut

  1. Avoid all foods feeding bad bacteria (basically foods high in sugars, processed foods) and foods you can’t digest / are intolerant to. Buy organic whenever possible.
  2. Prepare your own bone broth once a week and consume it daily – either pure or as a basis for soups or sauces or to cook your (soaked, fermented and/or sprouted) grains or pulses in it. In addition to that, add powdered collagen to smoothies, soups and baked goods.
  3. Eat probiotic foods on a daily basis, ideally with every meal (start with small quantities and build up gradually to avoid bloating). And/or take a good probiotic supplement (YeastBiotic and/or Prescript Assist).
  4. Don’t be afraid of saturated fat & cholesterol contained in foods from free-range, grass-fed animals. Prefer natural, traditional raw butter or ghee over vegetable oils.
  5. Take raw cod liver oil (Rosita or Green Pasture brand) for a supply of natural vitamin D, A and K2 (synergistic effects – much better than isolated, synthetic vitamin D).
  6. Eat plenty of vegetables, but only little fruit. Always combine with fats/proteins.
  7. Prefer foods that are good or neutral for your individual Metabolic Type.
  8. Limit stress and take your time for eating and chewing.
  9. Avoid all unnecessary medication (incl. the pill). If you have to take antibiotics, make sure to re-build your gut flora by taking a probiotic supplement (in addition to eating lots of probiotic foods).
  10. Lead a healthy lifestyle in general, getting enough restfresh air and body movement.

You can eat the healthiest and highest quality foods in the world – if you are not able to digest well, they will not do you any good. You are NOT what you eat, but what you can digest!

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