Q: How can someone with a poorly functioning gut start back on the path to wellness?
A: I suggest a three part plan. First, start with a better relationship with your food. Skip highly processed, low-fiber, low-nutrition foods in exchange for more nutrient-dense foods and avoid foods that trigger food allergies and intolerances that can prevent you from absorbing essential nutrients. Second, detoxify to clear out toxic crud that interferes with good digestion. Third, I recommend restoring your gut’s ability to do its job by supplementing with enzymes, probiotics, and probiotics.
Q: How do brain-gut interactions affect how much a person weighs?
A: For the most part, people aren’t fat because they’re lazy, lacking willpower or don’t realize that certain foods are fattening. The core issue for many people is a complex interaction between the brain and the gut. What really determines how much people eat and what they eat is messages going back and forth from the gut to the brain.
Here’s a common scenario: stress triggers the release of a hunger hormone in the stomach called ghrelin, which (along with certain brain chemicals) boosts your cravings for carbs, sweets, and other comfort foods. At the same time, these hormones and chemicals slow your metabolism and reduce your ability to burn fat. While this sequence of events was an advantage in caveman days, it’s not doing your body any favors in our modern world filled with both stress and endless access to empty calories.
The bottom line is that evolution favors weight gain, not weight loss. Our guts are still operating by the old rules but living in modern times so that all that comfort food meant to help us survive goes right to our waistlines and stays there.
If you want to lose weight you have to start thinking in terms of eating foods for their nutrient value and avoid high-calorie, low-quality choices. But you also have to recognize and calm those signals between your gut and brain that may be telling you to seek out fattening, health-harming foods.
Q: Do bacteria living in the GI tract influence weight, too?
A: There’s fascinating research showing that gastrointestinal microflora affect how much you weigh. Eating a typical American diet high in fat and sugars results in an explosion of one type of bacteria (called Fermicutes) in the gut and a decrease in the population of another type (Bacteroidetes). On the flip side, consuming a plant-based, low-fat diet reverses the proportions of each of these types of bacteria.
This is interesting from a weight-gain perspective because Fermicutes are experts at storing calories from the food you eat as fat, while Bacteroidetes harvest fewer calories, resulting in less fat storage. Not surprisingly, obese people carry around more Firmicutes, while lean folks house more Bacteriodetes. And guess what? If you lose weight, your microbial makeup shifts to look more like that of lean people.
And here’s where it gets really interesting: taking supplements of beneficial bacteria (that is, probiotics), according to animal research, results in a leaner physique even when animals are fed a high-calorie diet.
Q: How important are digestive enzymes?
A: Digestive enzymes kick into action the minute you take a bite of food, with each organ secreting its own enzymes along the digestive route aimed at breaking down fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and other nutrients. Unfortunately, our digestive enzymes wane as we age. We all can probably benefit from taking enzyme supplements, particularly because few of us manage to eat nutrient-dense foods 100 percent of the time.
Q: Do enzymes have any effect on weight?
A: There’s evidence that obesity may have an enzyme-deficiency component. For instance, some research shows that many overweight people are deficient in lipase, the fat-digesting enzyme. Without enough of it, your body stores fat, including in your arteries, leading to heart disease and other serious problems.
Q: Do you have advice on how to choose an enzyme supplement?
A: There are a variety of enzyme supplements in pill or powder form available to help you replenish your body’s dwindling supplies. For instance, there are broad-spectrum enzymes that can boost your general ability to digest everything you eat. The great thing about trying an enzyme supplement is that you should notice immediate benefits. I personally love Digest Gold from Enzymedica. There are also specific supplements that, say, help you digest gluten or lactose.
Q: Earlier you mentioned detoxification; how can people do that?
A: The modern world hurls a growing mix of toxins and pollutants at us—almost more than our guts can handle. They’re not just in the foods we eat, but also in the air we breathe, our drinking water, and even in our everyday household products.
You can also purge your gut of some environmental toxins by drinking more water, removing tobacco, alcohol, and other addictive substances from your life, cutting stress, exercising, sleeping better, and taking antioxidant supplements that aid your body’s natural ability to excrete harmful substances.
Pycnogenol is the brand name for a powerful antioxidant that can help in this detoxification process. Pycnogenol protects the liver and other gut organs from free-radical attack and helps them specifically in their detoxification role.
Q: Do you have any final words for our readers?
A: If your gut is dismal, the real message of hope here is that changes in your relationship with food can lead to almost immediate improvements to your digestion and elimination. Just by choosing better foods, lowering stress and environmental disruptors, and boosting your gut function with supplements you’ll start feeling more vibrant, energetic, and sexy right away. You’ll also find that you’re sick less, have fewer allergies, sleep better, and even feel calmer.
Sidebar 1: The Inner World
Helpful bacteria, called probiotics, live in our GI tract where they contribute to well-running digestion, as well as providing other health benefits such as boosting immune function and preventing traveler’s diarrhea. Probiotics can be found in some foods, but unfortunately many of these foods (such as kimchi and kefir) aren’t on the daily menu of most people. Consequently, Dr. Lamm recommends taking probiotic supplements or foods fortified with beneficial microbes every day as added insurance.
Most probiotic supplements come from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families of bacteria. To choose a good probiotic, Dr. Lamm suggests one with live microbes in the millions or even billions per serving. The label will note this as CFUs (colony forming units). “Make sure that the number of CFUs refers to the amount of bacteria ‘at time of consumption,’ and not ‘at time of manufacture’ and steer clear of any product that only says ‘probiotic’ on the label with no mention of the types of bacteria or CFUs,” cautions Dr. Lamm. Those products might not contain the best kind of bacteria or have enough bacteria to bring health benefits—or they may not contain any bacteria all.
For an even more complete supplement plan, consider taking prebiotics, which are carbohydrate plant fibers (called oligosaccharides) that encourage your own healthy bacteria living inside you to flourish. If you’re buying a supplement, check the label for one or more of the following carbohydrate fibers: FOS (fructooligosaccharides), inulin, GOS (galactooligosaccharides), or TOS (transGOS).
“Some manufacturers have already begun to fortify foods, such as yogurt, nutrition bars, breads, and cereals with prebiotic fibers, and have developed pills and powders packed with probiotics,” notes Dr. Lamm. There are even new supplements that combine prebiotics and probiotics; they’re called called synbiotics.