The Dietary Toxin-Inflammation Hierarchy

With all the hype these days surrounding the ketogenic, paleo, and gluten-free diets, or eating organic, raw or plant-based, I wanted to take the time to offer what I know, and think is the best plan of attack for eating in ways that optimize health by keeping your physiological function in homeostasis, thus improving metabolism/digestion, boosting longevity, and improving mental function or wellbeing.

My goal is to and help advance the conversation, or at least clear up some common misconceptions. There is already a ton of resources available online about the health benefits of going low carb (keto), eating whole foods (paleo), or fruits, vegetables, and plants over animal products (plant-based)—something I believe to be a huge misconception.

Additionally, much of the discussion around those ‘de moda’ (in fashion) diets centers on weight loss. And while maintaining a healthy weight is certainly important for a variety of reasons, I intend to more address eating to improve overall health—things like mental and physiological function, and longevity.

So, I’m not going to be the guy vilifying carbs or starches here. In fact, I think with selectivity, they can be very beneficial. However, as mentioned, I don’t intend to touch on macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, and protein) much, or get into the discussion between plant and animal consumption. If you’re interested, I’ve already offered my thoughts on that subject here.

Besides the fact that I’ve already written on what people should be eating, I also think, like with most things, there is no one-size-fits all cure. Everyone has their own distinct needs, and different things work for better individuals.

The aim of this post is to offer dietary suggestions that help you optimize your gut microbiota, because I think that is the most paramount for health. In both the physical and mental sense, which I see as part of a continuum.

There is a reason the ‘gut’ is often referred to as “the second brain”—serotonin, the happiness hormone, is created in the gut, and the brain can influence digestion, etc.

Therefore, despite the fact I strive for positivity over negativity (optimism over pessimism), the bulk of the content here will be focused on what I think you should be avoiding to prevent gut microbiome disbiosis, aid your digestion/metabolism, and improve your wellbeing.

So, I’ll be suggesting chemicals and organically-occurring plant compounds I believe it would be best to avoid, but also touch briefly on micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and other compounds most people would benefits from targeting in their diet.

The other focus of this post will be on other non-dietary considerations that should also help improve your gut microbiome and digestion/metabolism, because believe it or not, several non-dietary factors can influence them.

Dietary Recommendations

I’d basically call my recommendation a modified hybrid Paleo-GAPS diet. It emphasizes lots of natural animal products, especially of the probiotic variety, and lots of fermented (probiotic) and pan-fried or oven-roasted non-starchy veggies.

I say modified because I steer clear of fruits (besides some occasional low-sugar berries), which are allowed on both diets, and I also believe unrefined starches like sprout whole wheat (bread) and brown rice are ok as long as they are organic. I also emphasize natural (organic and preservative-free) dairy, like plain yogurt and cheese, while dairy in most forms forms is frowned upon while on the Paleo and GAPS diet.

Again, the biggest thing I aim for with my diet is optimizing the gut microbiome, but also utilizing ketones as fuel. Optimal gut microbiota is achieved by increasing probiotic and prebiotic foods, and avoiding those that contain the chemical glyphosate.

The pesticide disrupts the microbes in your gut (and your endocrine functioning) leading to leaky gut syndrome, and should be avoided at all costs. It also comes with a long list of other severely detrimental health effects, not the least of which is cancer.

There are several reasons why I opt for cooked vegetables over raw. First of all, warm, cooked foods nurture your body better than raw ones, and are easier to digest.

Some raw food proponent will offer that cooking will reduce the nutrients in vegetables, but this occurs mainly if they are boiled or steamed. This consideration is why I opt for pan-frying or roasting, besides having the opportunity to add healthy fats and herbs to cook them in, and avoiding the use of microwaves.

However, cooking improves the body’s ability to absorb nutrients in most veggies, and also reduces the anti-nutrient content in all of them. Anti-nutrients are plant-defense mechanisms that serve to ward off prospective predators, and they make the nutrients in the food less bioavailable for the body’s uptake.

Anti-nutrients include things like lectins, phytic acid, and oxalates (also made by the human body) with interferes with calcium absorption, specifically. They are abundant in beans and other legumes, spinach, swiss chard, beets and cacao, and many other plants.

Toxins (Artificial and Naturally-Occurring) to Avoid

  • Glyphosate, and other endocrine disruptors.
    • Artificial flavors, preservatives/parabens and phthalates:
      • a number of studies have found phthalates such as DEHP in bottled water and soda.
  • Omega-6 fatty acids
    • Omega-6, especially in the quantities consumed in the typical Western diet, is pro-inflammatory, and increase the risk of diseases that stem from them. The recommended healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is between 1-to-1 and 4-to-1, but Western dieters may generally consume a ratio between 15-to-1.
    • In particular, conventional cooking oils (containing chemicals used while processing) are extremely high omega-6s and offer virtually no omega-3 content, and are thus highly-inflammatory and have other negative side effects. However, while whole foods with naturally-occurring omega-6s – like many nuts and seeds – are undoubtedly have more moderate amounts and are better for your gut since they don’t contain the chemicals, they still offer very little omega-3, and should be eaten in moderation. And those that are prone to mold infestation like peanuts, pistachios and pecans should be avoided, or even eaten in greater moderation.
  • Phytic and oxalic acid (antinutrients)
    • Broccoli (high calcium/low oxalate, also has polyphenol, sulforaphane)
    • Cooked red/white onion
      • Pre/probiotic, polyphenols (quercetin—activates sirtuins and aids in killing senescent cells)
  • Starches, grains, simple carbs sugars
    • Organic, gluten-free whole grains like whole grain rice and corn are ok.
      • Sprouted grain and sourdough bread are okay to have sporadically, as whole wheat sourdough is at least prebiotic, and sprouted grains have higher nutrient and antioxidant content, and lower anti-nutrient content (phytic acid, lectins) than traditional grains, in addition to being easier to digest and lower glycemic.
  • Alcohol, which sterilizes and kills microbes
  • Antibiotics (absolutely destroy gut microbiota)

Careful Considerations

However, I feel compelled to point out one major caveat is that if you are constantly worrying over avoiding toxins, this self-inflicted stress may be doing a number on you at least on par with ingesting these substances themselves.

A nervous system perpetually in sympathetic mode can cause all sorts of oxidation, and have far reaching mental and physical symptoms. These include brain fog, memory loss, inability to stay asleep and poor sleep quality, reduced immune function, increased inflammation, water retention, visceral fat gain and muscle protein breakdown, and Cushing’s syndrome, among others.

Stress in itself can dramatically impact your microbiome by increasing cell membrane permeability, and leading to leaky gut syndrome.

Therefore, you will potentially be counteracting any benefits gained through these dietary guidlines. So, don’t become fixated on what you are consuming and avoiding. Remember, everything in moderation.

Besides diet, there are several things you can do to contribute to your gut’s health and your body’s metabolism, many of them are via counteracting stress directly or otherwise.

Other Factors Influencing Your Physiology, Microbiome and Digestion/Metabolism

  • Measures to improve gut health, stress management, and digestion/metabolism (conducive to the nervous system’s parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ mode)
    • Abdominal breathing (breathe awareness) and body awareness/relaxation
    • Exercising
  • Measures to benefit the microbiome, specifically
    • Getting adequate sleep (also helps mitigate stress)
    • Spending time in the sun/nature
      • Exposure to the microbiome at large will benefit your internal gut microbiome. Breathing in the microbes in fresh air can benefit your gut.
      • Additionally, outdoor time increases serotonin in the gut, and also can be seen as stress management. Sun exposure also has the added benefit of providing your body vitamin D, which has a number of health-improving benefits like boosting your immune system and decreasing stress levels.
  • Mitigating stress, specifically
    • Mind awareness (meditation, mental inventory)
  • Improving digestion/metabolism
    • Sufficient time between last meal and laying down to sleep
    • Not overeating

As I mentioned before, one of my mantras is ‘everything in moderation.’ Following this principle should bring balance to your life, and prevent you from stressing out over frivilous things.

This rule of thumb also applies to supplements—you don’t need to be supplementing everyday. Ideally, you should strive to skip a multivitamin altogether, and cycle the specific micronutrients you think you may be deficient in on and off.

Besides the fact that the body has better uptake of vitamins and minerals naturally-occurring in food than supplements or foods fortified with them, excessive amounts or iron or zinc can actually have detrimental effects of health.

The same goes for antioxidants. There are many more components to longevity and body function than just free radical damage, i.e., epigenome disruption.

Our bodies, and immune system in particular, do need some oxidation (stress). The requirement of some free radical exposure to the mitochondria in cells (the builder component) in order to function is known as mitohormesis.

A 2008 study by Harvard Medical School researcher and ‘longevity expert’ Dr. David Sinclair suggested that the effects effects of the polyphenol, resveratrol, on sirtuins activation, cell longevity and cancer prevention are independent of their antioxidant properties.

In the study, the researchers modified one molecule in the polyphenol to remove the antioxidant component, and it still have the same effect on aging in yeast. This finding indicates it was ability of resveratrol to activate the sirtuins pathway and defenses against, rather than it’s antioxidant effect that extended lifespan. In fact, when given solely antioxidants, the yeast lived shorter.

In the words of Dr. Sinclair, “turn on the body’s defenses, don’t give it anti-oxidants.”

It’s very similar to the argument between natural immunity vs Covid vaccines or other unnatural prevention methods, like mask wearing, hand sanitizing and indoor isolation. If your immune system isn’t put to the test and periodically exposed to microbes and pathogens, how can you expect it to retain its ability to ward off infections?

The same can be said about gut health. If you are frequently taking antibiotics and using alcohol, creating a sterile environment in your gut and digestive tract, how can you expect the microbes to flourish?

The following are a few fats, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and plant compounds to consider implementing in your diet. They offer various benefits, including anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects, reducing oxidative stress, decreasing liver fat (and waist size), improving heart health, and boosting cognition.

I’ll give a brief overview of some of the compounds and how they benefit health, but for more in-depth analysis, please do your own due dillegence.

What To Target in Your Diet:

  • Omega 3s (better from animals than plants, as it’s more readily absorped)
    • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), specifically
      • Chia seeds and flaxseed oil are high in omega-3 and contain only trace amounts of omega-6
  • Monounsaturated fat, specifically oleic acid (olive oil)
  • Vitamin B complex (B1, knows as thiamine, specifically combats stress)
  • Vitamin D (reduces stress and depression, improves sleep and immune function)
  • Vitamins E and K
  • Fish oils and fatty fish (high in omega-3, vitamin D and B1)
    • The healthy fats and vitamins in fatty fish can combat stress and depression and improve sleep quality and brain function.
  • Beneficial plant compounds
    • Xenohermetic plants – a particular plant having underwent stress, which can have a longevity-conferring effect in consumers of those plants
      • xeno = between species, hermesis = ‘whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’
      • Examples of xenohermetic plants whould be ones that are brightly colored from excess sun exposure, have signs of partial insect infestations, etc. They can be found at farmers markets or organic grocers.
    • Polyphenols (antioxidants)
      • Resveratrol, a plant-defense molecule made to active sirtuin genes in plants
      • Curcumin, an anti-inflammatory, which stimulates metabolism and autophagy, boosts mitochondrial biogenesis (via AMPK pathway) and improves uptake of plant omega 3)
      • Epigallocatechin EGCG, (found in green tea) which has anti-cancer and metabolic-boosting properties

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