The Down and Dirty on Digestive Cleanses: Five Tips for Optimal Gut Health

Picture of the small and large intenstine — the gut

Spring is finally here and I’m sure some of you are already in the “spring cleaning mode.” You are cleaning and organizing your house or apartment, and some of you might be thinking about “cleaning” your body. It’s always this time of year that I get a lot of questions about the benefits of a cleanse of their digestive system. Before you embark on one, consider the following.

Cleansing programs have been popularized over the years by celebrities and social media influencers, with claims that these programs can aid in weight loss, purify the body of toxins, restore pH, reduce bloating and abdominal discomfort, improve energy levels and metabolism, enhance immune function, and promote the growth of “good bacteria” in the intestines. I bet if I looked hard enough someone probably says they stop aging! It always seems to be a “quick fix” to reset the body’s hormonal and energy systems by undoing years of poor dieting. Cleaned the garage? Done. Cleaned the gut? Done. Not so fast…

One challenge in evaluating the benefit of these programs is that they vary widely from one program to the next. Some last just a few days while others go on for weeks. Some rely on herbs, teas, juices, and other household ingredients like lemon juice and cayenne pepper; others use proprietary blends ingested as shakes or pills. Variety may be the spice of life, but this makes it difficult to study these cleanses in a standardized way. Untested or undisclosed ingredients can also pose potential harm or promote further nutritional or metabolic deficiencies, especially because some of the fasting cleanses restrict intake of otherwise healthy foods. Many of these programs also require the elimination of certain suspected “problem” foods from the diet, so it becomes unclear whether any benefit achieved from a cleanse is truly due to the product itself, from the elimination of problematic foods, or another reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that people are thinking about the health of their gut. We are learning so much about how important our microbiome– the bacterial environment in the intestines that relies on a balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria — is to our overall health. It’s important to remember that some forms of bacteria are naturally found in our intestines and benefit us by enhancing the digestion of food and supporting immune function. Other types of bacteria are not so friendly and can contribute to symptoms like gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea as well as certain chronic health conditions.

A better approach than these occasional “cleanses” is figuring out how you can optimize your good bacteria and minimize the bad. Most of the time, our body works to regulate this intestinal environment by itself, but the bacterial balance can be thrown off by things like excessive or improper antibiotic use, and unhealthy lifestyles. The specialized cells that line the intestines also work to keep harmful substances from being absorbed into the body. Your liver also plays a role, working to remove any harmful substances that may have made it through the intestinal barrier.

What are some strategies for optimizing your gut microbiome instead of sitting on the toilet for hours?? Consider these five tips:

1. Try a Probiotic. Probiotics contain strains of good bacteria and can be found in yogurt and some other foods. Occasionally supplementing with probiotics can be beneficial especially after cases of diarrhea.

2. Check Your Vitamin D Level. Deficiency has been linked to poor gut health and autoimmune conditions, so obtaining an adequate amount of vitamin D should be a priority for those looking to achieve optimal gut health, in addition to scores of other benefits from vitamin D. Good sources include fatty fish, mushrooms, sunlight, and fortified dairy. If your blood level is low, and you can’t seem to get enough from what you are eating, then vitamin D supplements might be an option. Just don’t overdo it!

3. Find Fiber. Fiber binds to impurities in the intestine and promotes regularity. Most of us need to increase our consumption of fiber. That means eating more fruits, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains.

4. Make Fermented Foods Your Friend. Some evidence suggests that consumption of fermented foods such as pickled vegetables, kefir, tempeh, and others, can allow healthy bacteria to thrive in the intestine. Most of us aren’t familiar with fermented foods so check them out.

5. Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics. We know that too many antibiotics are used. These medications can sometimes do damage to that balance of good and bad bacteria. Viral illnesses like the common cold and flu do not improve from antibiotics, but gut health can suffer.

Remember — The key to good gut health is what you do every day, not the occasional cleanse.

Physician, Author, Chief Medical Officer @ WebMD. I am passionate about changing how we think about #Health. Views my own.

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