Millennials (and the kids born after them) are currently being called the “unhealthiest generation” in human history—facing diagnoses, mysterious illnesses and conditions that our ancestors or their parents never faced.

Millennials as the Unhealthiest Generation

Houston, we have a problem. Chronic disease is at an all time high.

  • More than 60% of Americans have at least one chronic disease.1
  • 7 in 10 Americans take one or more prescription medications.2
  • 80% of the $3 trillion annual healthcare costs in the U.S. goes toward managing, not preventing, chronic disease.3
  • Millennials today have higher prevalence rates for nearly all of the top 10 conditions than did Generation X members when they were in the same age range.4

In fact, today, more than 50% of kids and teens under age 18 also have a chronic disease5 —that’s more than half of all kids (who should be healthy), who are sick! Even more, the Top 10 chronic diseases are actually modifiable, lifestyle-induced diseases—not genetic, not viral, not infections6.

Unfortunately, despite our awareness of such conditions, as well as recognition of what “healthy lifestyle” habits are, we continue to struggle.

The Good News?

The good news is that many of these modern-day afflictions are within our control. The top chronic diseases are diseases caused by poor nutrition, modern day stressors and unhealthy gut microbiome. When we understand how to nourish our bodies with nutrient dense foods, manage our stress and heal our gut, health imbalances vanish.

Gut Health: The #1 Cure for Chronic Disease

All disease and wellness begin in the gut. The gut is the gateway to health. If we want to reverse chronic disease, we must look to the gut! Here’s a brief overview of what “gut health” means and what happens to our body when our gut bacteria “goes wrong”.

Gut Health 101

The gastrointestinal tract is like a long tube running from the mouth to the anus. However, contrary to popular belief, the gut is more than just the stomach. It includes every part of the body involved in digestion. Collectively, these body parts make up the microbiome:

  • mouth
  • esophagus
  • stomach
  • small and large intestines
  • anus
  • gallbladder
  • liver
  • kidneys
  • nervous system
  • immune system
  • skin
  • endocrine system
  • trillions of gut bacteria

 

As you can see, every part of the body impacts – and is impacted by – digestion to some degree. The gut’s main purpose is to break down the foods we eat so that our bodies can absorb nutrients from the food. These nutrients are used for energy, growth and repair. The gut microbiome is also responsible for:

  • Keeping all the body’s cells and organs nourished and working like they should
  • Housing gut bacteria, which are the primary communicators for every life process
  • Protecting the body from foreign invaders like toxins or stressors from our food and environment

Consequently, most all health imbalances we experience throughout our lives also reflect what is going on in inside our gut.

How “Bad Gut Health” Causes Disease

If the gut isn’t functioning properly, the whole body suffers. Unhealthy gut bacteria wreak havoc on our health. Pathogens, or infections and overgrowth, weaken the immune system, stall healthy digestion, hinder nutrient absorption, and trigger inflammation and chronic disease. Some common signs of an unhealthy gut include the following:9

  • Digestive issues (bloating, constipation, IBS)
  • Skin problems
  • Diabetes and blood sugar imbalances
  • Headaches
  • Low immunity
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Allergies (seasonal and food)
  • High cholesterol and heart disease
  • Anxiety, depression and moodiness
  • Hormone or thyroid imbalances
  • Kidney, lung, gallbladder and other organ imbalances
  • A slow metabolism or catabolism
  • Unexplained cravings for sugar or other junk foods

Unfortunately, most people DON’T realize their gut microbiome is unhealthy despite experiencing the side effects. Many people blame genetics for their poor health; however, genetics only influences about five to 10 percent of our health. The other 90 percent is governed by gut bacteria. If gut bacteria are unhealthy they cause a “gut pathology” that eventually leads to disease.  Below are some of the underlying pathologies that alter the gut microbiome.

Functional Gut Pathologies

  • Motility disorders (slowed or fast transit time)
  • Blockage or obstruction
  • Bowel incontinence
  • Megacolon (enlarged colon)
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Spasms (esophagus, sphincter of Oddi valve)
  • Altered gut signaling
  • Gallbladder attacks or removal
  • Fatty liver or non-alcoholic fatty liver

 

Systemic Gut Pathologies

  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Unaddressed food intolerances
  • Deficiencies of essential digestive aids (enzymes, bile, stomach acid, saliva)
  • Nutrient deficiencies (i.e., B-12, zinc, vitamin D)
  • Parasites
  • Fungal or yeast overgrowth
  • Metabolic endotoxemia (leaky gut)
  • Bacterial infection
  • Bacterial dysbiosis

 

But Where Do Bad Gut Bacteria Come From?

Stress is the number one driver of gut imbalance and disease. Stress goes far beyond the frustration we feel when we get cut off in rush hour traffic, have looming work deadlines or spill coffee on a white blouse minutes before a meeting. Mental and physiological stressors can wreak havoc on a healthy, balanced gut as well as other aspects of health like hormones, thyroid function and blood sugar balance.

Consider a plate of scrambled eggs left on the counter for 24 hours. We know the eggs would spoil and smell bad. It’s the same with bacteria in the body. When out of their element, or in a stressful environment, they go bad, become pathogenic and the bad bacteria can overpower the good ones. Gut bacteria stress results from a variety of factors.

Common Stressors that Cause Bad Gut Bacteria

Common causes and influences of bad bacteria in the body stem from the outside and inside world. These may include:

Lifestyle and Health Stressors of Millennials

  • Blue light screen exposure
  • Less than seven hours of sleep most nights
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Overtraining or lack of exercise variety (i.e., only cardio)
  • Exposure to chemicals and antiseptics in beauty, cleaning and hygiene products
  • Mold exposure
  • Heavy metal exposure (i.e., mercury in seafood)
  • Dental work with chemicals and metals
  • Plastic food storage containers
  • Lack of outdoor light, nature and fresh air
  • Lack of play, rest and fun
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Birth control and improper use of synthetic hormones
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other long-term drug use
  • Antibiotics exposure
  • Circadian rhythm disruption (shift work, jet lag, inconsistent diet, oversleeping, all-nighters)
  • High caffeine or alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • C-section baby (without careful attention to re-inoculating the gut with probiotics)
  • Processed formula feeding as a baby
  • Excessively hygienic
  • Poor glycemic control (blood sugar dysregulation)
  • Inflammation (skin conditions, injury, unrelenting physical stressors)
  • Aggressive weight loss tactics

Perceived, Mental and Emotional Stressors

  • Pushing beyond your limits
  • Saying “yes” to everything
  • Social media comparison and endless scrolling
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • Disconnection from meaningful relationships
  • Not talking about stress
  • Not engaging in fun activities
  • Endlessly searching the internet for answers to health questions
  • Binging on negative news
  • Lack of purpose in life
  • Arguments
  • Pregnancy or post-partum
  • Illness or loss of a family member
  • Financial trouble
  • Public speaking
  • Work stress
  • Sense of loss of control
  • Divorce or separation
  • Change in work (job loss or new job)
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Unexpected changes

 

Dietary Stressors

Consuming:

  • Sugar
  • Excess caffeine
  • Unfiltered tap water
  • Processed foods
  • Food additives
  • Pesticides, GMOs and antiseptics
  • Poor quality supplements
  • Conventional dairy
  • Conventional meat (hormones, antibiotics)
  • Grains and gluten-free processed foods
  • Poor quality fats (industrial seed oils like canola)
  • Artificial sweeteners (including commercially produced stevia)

Not consuming enough:

  • Healthy fats
  • Quality protein
  • Water (at least half bodyweight in ounces)
  • Healthy carbs (prebiotic fibers: resistant starch, non-digestible polysaccharides)

 

Other:

  • Food poisoning
  • Frequent eating out
  • Not chewing food
  • Eating fast or on the go
  • Not listening to your gut
  • Undetected food intolerances
  • Binging, purging and erratic eating habits
  • Focus on calories, diet plans and food rules

 

When several of these stressors occur together and without relief, it creates the perfect storm of stress, breeding unhealthy gut bacteria, disrupting digestion and causing a domino effect for other poor health outcomes.

The Stress-Gut Connection

Our gut is one big bundle of nervous system tissue. In fact, many researchers refer to it as the second brain. That’s not surprising since the gut contains more neurons than the spinal cord! Those nerve cells make up 90 percent of the cells involved in our stress response, carrying information from the gut to the brain. That means the gut is as influential as our mind when it comes to feeling and responding to stress.11 Stress is any physical or mental force that exceeds the body’s ability to adapt or recover. Long-term stressors wreak havoc on the gut, as well as the body’s overall balance.

What to Do About It?

“Healing the gut” to reverse disease looks different for every body, but involves a blend of several different pillars including:

  1. Eating Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods
  2. Hydration
  3. Gut Health Optimization (eating probiotics and prebiotic rich foods, chewing our food well, addressing pathogens or infections)
  4. Rest & Sleep
  5. Fitness
  6. Connection to Other People
  7. Fresh Air & Nature
  8. Sense of Purpose
  9. Clean Environment (free from harsh chemicals, exposures, etc.)
  10. Anti-Stress Activities (Mindfulness, Breathing, etc.)
  11. Spirituality
  12. Play & Passion

 

Not all of these pillars are strong 100% of the time—especially during certain seasons of our lives.

For instance, millennials rest and sleep may suffer in light of an all night study fest, new baby or work deadline; but if our other pillars are stronger—such as eating nutrient dense whole foods or strong bonds and connections with others around us—they can help us still stand.

Focus on one thing at a time and your hard work for a healthier gut will pay off.

1. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm
2. Mayo Clinic. (2013, June 19). Nearly 7 in 10 Americans are on prescription drugs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 28, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130619132352.htm
3. http://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/abs/10.1377/hlthaff.2018.05085
4. https://www.bcbs.com/the-health-of-america/reports/the-health-of-millennials
5. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0832
6. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6131a6.htm?s_cid=mm6131a6_w
7. https://healthpayerintelligence.com/news/top-10-most-expensive-chronic-diseases-for-healthcare-payers