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When Bone Broth is NOT a Gut Healing Drink

Bone broth has gotten a lot of hype of the last several years in the nutritional and functional medicine community as being a potent gut-healing drink. In most cases, I completely concur. However, because I myself have navigated complex health issues, and because I work with many clients navigating this same journey, there are times when I recommend holding off on bone broth.

Bone broth is rich in minerals, collagen, and the amino acid l-glutamine, all of which support important enzymatic processes in the cells and also which help support the regeneration of the gut lining. L-glutamine is a key amino acid needed by our body, and the majority of it goes to the gut to support the health of the lining. For all these reasons, it is a powerhouse beverage, and great addition to most gut health protocols. The caveat I always give is, as long as the bone broth you are drinking is home-made or from a high quality source like Kettle and Fire, it retains powerful gut healing properties.

If bone broth is so amazing, why wouldn’t I recommend bone broth to everyone? The answer to this question is: histamine. Let me explain. Bone broth, just like fermented foods, aged foods, and leftovers, is rich is histamine. What is histamine? Histamine is both a by-product of bacteria aging and fermenting foods, as well as an inflammatory chemical produced by the body itself when certain immune cells cast mast cells destabilize. In addition, histamine is also produced by certain types of dysbiotic bacteria living in the gut.

Histamine causes a whole host of inflammatory issues, including hives, itching, headaches, pain, diarrhea - and its effects can happen very quickly upon release. Depending on a the health of a person’s gut, and whether or they have certain histamine related gene polymorphisms activated or not, some people can have major reactions to a high histamine load, while other people do not.

When it comes to gut conditions and the associated dysbiosis (imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in the gut) found in these conditions, it is common I find higher histamine loads in the gut. This can actually be measured on a lab I run called a Mucosal Barrier Assessment. In research, high histamine levels in the gut have also been associated with conditions like IBS and IBD, which includes many of the clients I work with.

Why is this? First, bad bacterial strains tend to predominate in the guts of people diagnosed with IBS and IBD. These strains are more likely than good bacteria to produce high levels of histamine and create a pro-inflammatory environment in the gut. Secondly, as higher levels of histamine get produced in the gut, it stimulates the opening of the tight junctions in the epithelium. This is the one-cell thick layer of the gut barrier that opens to allow the particles that need to pass through the gut into the bloodstream and closes to keep out what shouldn’t get through. In a condition called “leaky gut” these tight junctions are opened more than they should be, allowing food particles and bacteria and other things to cross through the epithelium into the lamina propria, where the immune cells live. Many mast cells hang out in the lamina propria and when they encounter things crossing over that should not be, they activate and then destabilize, producing histamine. This histamine just adds to and exacerbates the histamine of the dysbiotic bacteria, furthering both the inflammatory environment and the “leaky-ness” of the intestines.

The first thing we want to try to get a handle on and reduce when dealing with IBS or IBD is intestinal inflammation. Therefore, one of the strategies I use early on is to avoid or greatly reduce histamine rich foods, which includes bone broth. Avoiding high histamine foods helps to keep the histamine load in the gut more manageable by at least not adding to the histamine rich environment due to the leaky gut and dysbiosis.

Having a handle on these nuances and understanding what may be happening in the gut at the granular level is so important when working to improve the environment of the gut. I feel like this is why it is such a huge asset to work with a well educated and experienced practitioner who can provide targeted recommendations around diet. So, if you’ve jumped on the DIY bandwagon (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at first) to fix your IBS or IBD by following general guidelines like “drink bone broth” and you are either feeling worse, or seeing little improvement, I invite you to consider working with a practitioner that can deepen your insight and hopefully help you reach your health goals much more quickly.

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