There’s no shortage of advice on nutrition and health. In the few minutes I spent on social media before settling in to write this post, I came across articles informing me about what to eat, which supplements “everyone must take” (there’s no such thing) and garlic as a superfood (I actually agree with this and there’s tons of science to back up this claim). Not only is the volume of advice overwhelming, but much of it is incorrect, it’s often conflicting, and worse yet, some of it can be harmful.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, and wondering how to sift through the glut of nutrition and health advice, I’m hoping you’ll find this post helpful. Have you heard of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule? It’s a principle named after an Italian economist, who observed that for many events and phenomena, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This principle seems to hold true across a diverse range of sectors, from economics, to computing, to sports, and even healthcare. Interestingly, it’s been studied in the context of infectious disease and researchers have found that even viral shedding appears to adhere to the Pareto Principle. The 80/20 rule is now being studied in the context of COVID transmission as well. Pretty fascinating!
So how does this concept help us sort through the ubiquitous advice surrounding health and nutrition, and focus on what matters most – or at least figure out where to begin? It’s an important reminder that perhaps it’s not necessary to do “all the things” in order to significantly improve our health. The Pareto Principle encourages us to look for that 20% of nutrition/health-related actions or habit changes that have the potential to produce 80% of the results we’re looking for.
It turns out that when we focus on supporting the health of a single organ in the body, a wide range of seemingly unrelated health symptoms can improve. Providing this organ with the right nutritional support has been linked to improvements in digestive symptoms, mood and mental health issues, immune functioning, metabolic conditions, hormonal imbalances, insomnia, and even acne! This organ is responsible for absorbing 90% of the nutrients from food we eat, contains the largest mass of immune cells in the body, and also produces most of the body’s serotonin. When this organ is not functioning optimally, overall health suffers. It’s been described as the most important part of the digestive system. The organ we’re talking about is the small intestine. As we’ll discuss in this post, it serves as a prime example of how focusing on creating health in just one body system — or even just one organ — can exponentially improve health and potentially address a large percentage of a person’s health symptoms.
“Gut health” is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. The health of our gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is essential to our overall health. While the GI tract includes several organs, and they all serve important functions, some sections of the GI tract influence our health to a much greater extent than others. The small intestine (which, as mentioned previously, is where we absorb 90% of our nutrients) affects every other body system, as all systems (i.e., nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, etc.) rely upon it to absorb and provide the nutrients they need. In addition, research has found that the small intestine is more vulnerable to toxins and dietary factors as its barrier is less dense than that of the large intestine. While “strong intestinal barrier” might not be the first thing you think about when it comes to health, it’s incredibly important. The intestinal barrier provides a physical and functional barrier protecting our immune system from the millions of microbes and environmental toxins we regularly come in contact with. When this barrier is compromised, a wide range of diseases can result.
I imagine you might be wondering whether it makes sense to focus specifically on the small intestine. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on improving gut health overall? Thankfully, this is not an either-or proposition. As the health of the small intestine is supported, overall health and functioning of all organs in the GI tract generally improves. The rationale behind prioritizing the needs of the small intestine is that it’s arguably both the most critical (in terms of impact on our overall health), and the most vulnerable organ in the GI tract.
Despite this, research, clinical and popular interest in the gut microbiome have predominantly focused on the microbes in the large intestine (colon). Most of what we know about gut bacteria comes from studies of fecal samples, which provide insight into how to support the microbial health of the large intestine but don’t tell us much about the needs of the small intestine. As one scientific journal put it, the microorganisms in the small intestine could be considered “the forgotten microbiome.” The recent increased interest in gut health, with an emphasis on the needs of the large intestine, has unfortunately led to some unintended consequences. For example, most commercially available probiotics are formulated based on research into the microbiome of the large intestine. Some of these probiotic strains can actually exacerbate a condition known as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). This condition, characterized by an abnormal increase in the number of bacteria and/or changes in the types of bacteria in the small intestine, was once thought to be rare. However, it is now receiving greater recognition in the scientific and medical communities, and it’s estimated that 30-80% of people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) also have SIBO. Focusing on the small intestine, and addressing its needs within the context of overall gut health, enables us to take more precise and effective action to improve our nutrition and health.
So how can we specifically support the health of our small intestine? The short answer is: balance the intestinal microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in both the small and large intestines where they perform a myriad of critical physiological functions) and reduce inflammation through diet, beneficial supplements (as needed), and healthy lifestyle habits. This topic is substantial enough to warrant its own blog post, so I’ll cover it in more depth in the future. But I’ll touch on it briefly here.
Balancing the intestinal microbiome and reducing inflammation is a multi-step process that is going to look different for each person. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. The first step is to assess and modify the diet to address food allergens/sensitivities, and shift towards a whole foods, minimally processed diet. Healthy lifestyle habits (i.e., regular exercise, adequate sleep, time in nature, etc.) have also been shown to affect the microbiome and reduce inflammation and should be incorporated. Many people will feel significantly better after being at this step for awhile. Subsequent steps (which may or may not be necessary depending on the progress achieved along the way) may include supporting the gut with targeted strains of probiotics, prebiotics and other beneficial nutrients; testing for and using herbal/nutritional approaches to remove unwanted bacteria and fungi (in some cases, this step may require working with your doctor on an antimicrobial/antifungal protocol); and ultimately establishing a sustainable, long-term way of eating that supports your unique nutritional needs.
If you’re experiencing digestive issues or discomfort (i.e., gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain), unintentional weight changes, fatigue, skin irritation, or mood issues, taking the steps we’ve discussed here today can make a significant difference. If you’d like support with that, contact me and let me know how I can help!