Which Supplements are Worthwhile?: Gut Health Series, Part 4
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
When I started my gut healing adventure, as outlined in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series, I got such amazing results by changing my diet. There is another part of the equation, though, and that is supplementation. Supplements can make a huge difference when you use the right ones. Proceed with caution, though, because poor quality supplements can be a waste of money, and could make you feel worse. With high quality, of course, comes a higher expense. I'm not going to lie, it is not cheap to heal your gut naturally, from the inside out. However, consider the alternatives: 1. Do nothing, and continue on the same path until things get worse (and likely more expensive to fix). 2. Turn to medications which also come with high expense, as many are not completely covered by insurance. Not to mention, some significant possible side effects can go along with these types of medications.
Most people with chronic gut problems are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, and may need some help with digestion. For some people, it may only take a few tweaks. Others may need everything on my list, and then some.
I want to emphasize that you are not likely to be able to pop a few supplements and magically heal your gut. Just to make sure we're clear on that. It MUST go hand in hand with a gut healing diet! Part 3 in this series has the details on this.
So, here's my list of recommended supplements that you may very well find helpful in your gut healing, and also in your overall energy levels. I'm categorizing these supplements into sections that address specific concerns. If you have poor gut health, all of these categories are likely to be of concern, but it is just helpful to have an understanding of what these supplements are for.
Start Your Supplements One at a Time
This is important, because you need to know how each supplement affects you. I would also recommend NOT starting a new supplement at the same time as starting a food you have previously cut out, for the same reason. For any supplement, I usually start at a minimal dose and work my way up to the recommended dose.
Correcting Nutrient Deficiencies
Sometimes nutrient deficiencies can cause chronic health problems, and sometimes the chronic health problems result in them nutrient deficiencies. Most likely, it is a little bit of both. I personally had to get to the root of which one it was, so that I could solve some of my issues for good (for me, this meant getting some genetic testing). Whatever the case is, the number one concern is to address nutrient deficiencies, because often gut healing will not be nearly as effective unless you do.
These are some of the common ones that exist in those who need gut healing:
Magnesium is actually a mineral that most people, gut issues or not, are deficient in. However, people with gut issues are likely to be even more affected. It used to be that if we ate a healthy diet with plenty of plant-based foods, we would naturally get plenty of magnesium. But due to deficiencies in the soil itself, it's much more difficult these days. People with gut issues get a double whammy, since they aren't absorbing nutrients well in the first place.
A few signs of magnesium deficiency are: leg cramps, muscle pain, insomnia, anxiety, constipation, high blood pressure, migraines, and osteoporosis. You'd be amazing how much relief you may get from some of these symptoms by supplementing with magnesium. One of my favorite ways to take magnesium is by spraying magnesium oil on my skin after getting out of the shower, since it absorbs especially well into the skin. Epsom Salt baths are also a great way to get magnesium, but I find it difficult to take the time to do this on a regular basis (although when my health was poor, I definitely had more time on my hands!). Magnesium Chelate, Magnesium Citrate, Magnesium Glycinate, and Magnesium Threonate are all good ways to take it orally. Some of these may cause GI distress since magnesium does draw extra fluid into the colon (which is why it can help in relieving constipation). If so, either back off on the dose, or just do the Magnesium Oil or Epsom Salt Baths.
Vitamin D affects so many parts of your health, that if you start anywhere, start here! It's important to have your D levels tested, so that you know how much to supplement with, accordingly. My favorite D3 supplement is this one. Be sure to take D3, not D2, as D3 is much better absorbed. I also do not hesitate to get out into the sun in the summer, up to a point. The Vitamin D we get from the sun is even more valuable than what we can get from supplementation. Do your research on this issue; those who apply so much sunscreen that they never get one drop of sun are shown to have higher levels of skin cancer than those who get healthy, reasonable amounts of sun. This article from Chris Kresser is a great read on this issue. I'm not suggesting you let yourself get burned to a crisp, but to allow yourself to get a reasonable amount of sun.
B12 deficiency is particularly common in those with absorption issues, because B12 is primarily found in foods like meat, salmon, shellfish, dairy and eggs, all of which may be particularly hard to break down and absorb in a damaged gut. If you're not absorbing food well to begin with, you're likely not absorbing much B12. It is important to have B12 levels tested, but note that if your B12 is high, this doesn't necessarily mean your levels are good, either! It may mean that your cells are not taking in the B12 that you are getting, but instead is "floating around" in your bloodstream and not being utilized. Make sure to talk to a provider who is well versed in this issue if your B12 levels are too low or too high. Always take a methylated B12 like this one, as other forms of B12 are not well absorbed. In addition, take it in a sublingual form, because B12 is not absorbed well when swallowed as a supplement.
Zinc is another mineral that many people are often deficient in, and again, people with gut problems are more likely to be affected due to absorption issues. Zinc, in particular, is helpful in healing the tight junctions in the gut layer that has been damaged when leaky gut is present. It also helps to support the immune system, as you may already know. I, personally, took Zinc proactively for awhile, then stopped once my gut health improved. However, I later had my levels tested on a Spectracell lab test, and it showed zinc deficiency. Now I take this one daily.
Gut Healing and Digestive Support
Probiotics are a must. When healing the gut, one of the main goals is to eliminate pathogenic bacteria, and replace it with the friendly bacteria that is meant to be in your gut, thus helping to correct "gut dysbiosis". If you can eat fermented foods, this is even better! SCD yogurt needs to be fermented for at least 24 hours, which is not something you'll find in the store. So it is important to make it yourself. This recipe is from SCD Lifestyle, and is awesome because it gives step-by-step instructions with pictures. They recommend using goat's milk, and so do I. Reactions to the casein protein in cows's milk are common, but goat's milk is usually well tolerated. 1 cup of homemade yogurt, fermented properly, contains trillions of probiotics, compared to only billions in probiotic supplements. Raw sauerkraut is another option.
But, if you don't have daily access to homemade yogurt and/or raw sauerkraut, fill in the gap with a good quality probiotic. I do not have a link to any certain brand for probiotics, because I believe in rotating my probiotics. This helps give your gut a variety of different cultures. Look for something in the refrigerated supplement section, that has 50-100 billion CFU's per capsule, and that has 10-15 different probiotic strains in it. Some people might have trouble with a probiotic that contains dairy, so keep that in mind.
Digestive Enzymes can be a total game changer. If you look back at Part 2 and Part 3 in this series, there was a lot of discussion about how a damaged gut has trouble absorbing nutrients properly. Digestive enzymes are something our pancreas makes to help break down our food, but this process can be stressed when the gut is damaged, and, in addition, our production of digestive enzymes drops as we get older.
Taking digestive enzymes helps your body break down the food you eat so that your gut can focus on healing. In addition, it ensures that food particles are broken down completely, so as to help prevent additional food allergies from cropping up in the future. People who are following a gut healing diet impeccably can sometimes complain of ongoing GI distress, and it may be because they are just not breaking their food down well enough. I have heard of people, time and time again, having huge relief as well as finally being able to jump start their healing, once they add in the digestive enzymes. I still take them to this day, because they continue to provide such significant help to me! Look for a brand that has a high level of protease, and that is GMO free. Here is what I take. I took 2 per meal for several years, and have now been able to decrease down to taking 3 per day (1 at breakfast and 2 at dinner).
Betaine HCl is a supplement that I never had to take. I tried it, and it just has never worked for me. But, it can do for some people what the above mentioned digestive enzymes can do! The reason is that when your gut is damaged, your production of HCl, or stomach acid, can be diminished. We think of stomach acid as being related to reflux, which is true, but not really in the way you've always been taught. Reflux is, most often, actually a sign of LOW stomach acid. What?! It really is true. The mechanism of this is that low stomach acid causes a "deflated" stomach, which makes the esophageal sphincter relax too much, causing reflux. And when we get prescribed a Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) for reflux, it actually lowers stomach acid even more. Why is this a problem? Well, first of all, stomach acid helps us digest our food! Second of all, it is your first line of defense against pathogens! It is just SO important.
If you do have reflux, or if you have significant gut issues, consider doing a trial of Betaine HCl. Start by taking 1 capsule at each meal time. If this goes well, then the next day, try 2. Keep going up (some people take as many as 5 or 6 capsules!) in this way until you start getting a burning sensation after you eat, like reflux feels. Then back down to the amount you were at before. If you get that burning sensation with just 1 pill, like I did, then you may not need this supplement. Believe it or not, taking Betaine HCl can actually eliminate reflux, so don't underestimate this one!
Apple Cider Vinegar can be used as an alternative to Betaine HCl. This is the one that works better for me, personally. It does aid in digestion and can mimic the effects of beneficial stomach acid. It won't have quite the same effect as Betaine HCl, so if you suspect your production of stomach acid is very low, you might consider Betaine HCl first. Apple Cider Vinegar has so many benefits in addition to aiding digestion and relieving acid reflux. Just some of these include helping to regulate blood sugar, improving skin health, and supporting healthy cholesterol levels, so it is a wonderful food to incorporate into your daily use. Be sure to use a raw, organic version like Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar.
Essential Oils can be incredibly helpful in supporting digestion. Oils like Fennel, Ginger, Coriander, and Peppermint can provide huge relief and assist in digestion. Copaiba is also a great option. You can mix these types of oils together, or even better, use a digestive blend blend like this one. Combine 1-2 drops with fractionated coconut oil and apply directly to the abdomen, or you can put 1-2 drops in empty veggie capsules and take them internally (only use essential oils internally if they are from a trusted, pure source and has supplement facts on the bottle. You can read more here on my preference of essential oils). I like the essential oil option, too, because although there is a cost up front for a good bottle of essential oil, it lasts a long time because you are only using a drop or two at a time, making it a very economic option.
L-Glutamine is a supplement that is particularly helpful in healing the small intestine. Some people have had great success with it. I personally had some issues with some of the brands I took; one caused serious water retention. Eventually, I phased this supplement out, because I found the others more helpful, but I've heard of other people who swear by it, so this is why I mention it.
Collagen Peptides are what I prefer over L-Glutamine. Collagen is very nourishing to the gut lining and can help build it back up, and protect it from further harm in the future. I also love that it supports the skin, hair, nails and joints! I take two scoops in my coffee every day, but you can also put it in bone broth (homemade bone broth is also high in collagen, though!). Always look for grass-fed, pasture-raised collagen peptides, like this one.
Fish Oil Omega 3's should be a healthy part of any diet. Be very picky about the fish oil you take, though, because if it is sourced from certain fish, there may be high levels of mercury. You're likely to end up with all sorts of other issues if you just pick the cheapest one you can find. It is worthwhile to take fish oil, though, because it is highly anti-inflammatory, and just so good for your overall health, including cardiovascular health. I really like this one. If you're feeling brave, try fermented cod liver oil, as it is just that much better for you, and provides a healthy source of vitamin D. Also, check out this guide to finding a good fish oil.
Turmeric and Frankincense essential oil are both also highly anti-inflammatory, not only for the gut, but for the whole body. They are worth checking into, because if you respond well, you may be able to avoid a medication to control inflammation. Long term steroids can cause serious issues for your hormones, not to mention a myriad of other side effects. Turmeric is best absorbed when taken with black pepper, so that is one of the reasons I recommend this brand. Remember that if you take an essential oil internally, it MUST be from a trusted brand that is completely pure, and that has supplement facts on the side of the bottle. Start with 1-2 drops per day in water or in an empty capsule, and increase to 3-4 drops if needed and well tolerated. Although a bottle of high quality Frankincense should be somewhat expensive, again, it takes a long time to go through when you're only using a few drops at a time.
That is my exhaustive list! It is always important to have a trusted health care professional to guide you. You may have specific needs that are not addressed in this list of supplements, or, some of them may not fit your needs.
Is this Really Doable?
Speaking of an exhaustive list, are you freaking out about all of this? As in, do you really need all of these, and, not to mention, what about the cost of these supplements?! Oh my gosh, I know. I really do know. For one thing, be reassured that as you heal, you are likely to need less supplementation. This has certainly been true for myself. Another thing to keep in mind is that, especially in the case of Autoimmune Disease, the medications used for treatment are incredibly expensive, and they are not always fully covered by insurance.
We have gotten to the point that we just budget for these supplements, and some are not just for myself, but for family members. It's a tough "pill" to swallow, and at the end of the day, I have given up some significant things that I used to enjoy (a gym membership being one). But, if you are following my blog, by now you've seen that I am offering options for healing naturally, not just for the sake of avoiding medications, but for the sake of getting to the root cause of your health concerns. Healing from the inside out is the goal, in order to prevent additional problems in the future. Early on in this process, I also recognized that I had a responsibility not only to myself, but to my family to get better (it is fairly difficult to parent from the couch!).
While I gave up my gym membership, as well as several other things, my supplements are a part of my overall health. Because of my overall health, now I can go hiking, walking, running, biking, swimming, yoga, etc. These were not things I could do when I didn't have my health. If I "have" to do most of my activities/exercise, outside, so be it! I have come to prefer this, actually. And best of all, I am no longer sidelined from so many activities our family loves to do together! I've adapted, and so do many others who have found better health by addressing their gut health on a deeper level.
One of my favorite phrases that I heard someone say as encouragement very early on in my healing process was, "Changing your lifestyle allows freedom in all other areas of your life". I have found this statement to have so much truth, and have learned to fully embrace it.