We now know that a healthy gut (or microbiom) is linked to a healthy body and mind. Many wellness experts now refer to our gut as our second brain, because it is so closely tied to the way our entire body functions from moment to moment.
In order to have a happy, healthy gut it takes a balance of commensal bacteria – that is, billions of bacteria that live in harmony in our gut without harming us. Achieving this balanced symbiotic relationship requires the ability to effectively digest, absorb and assimilate the foods we eat, combined with consistent healthy elimination (yep, that’s part of it, too) – and the best way to get there is through, you guessed it, diet.
But what types of foods and best practices lead to a healthy gut? There's a lot of information out there, with some advice contradicting others: Raw veggies or cooked? Avoid all dairy or eat some healthy forms of dairy? Go completely plant-based or incorporate some grass-fed, wild caught proteins? Are grains okay or are they the devil?
With so many mixed messages and rogue information floating around, it makes it hard to connect the dots on a holistic approach to gut health.
And, we have to admit, we really want to get behind this approach to wellness. Not only have people seen improvements in a host of ailments, ranging from eczema, fatigue, ADD/ADHD, arthritis and autoimmune disorder, but studies are starting to unearth even deeper connections between the gut and brain health on a long-term basis, including links to depression, diabetes and even Alzheimer's disease.
If improving gut health means keeping us feeling great now, and warding off lots of unwanted stuff later down the road, count us in.
To get some answers, we talked with Colorado-based Functional Nutritionist Mindy Pellegrino, who helps her clients by looking at the whole body and its functions as interconnected. By digging into ongoing problems, Pellegrino is able to identify the root cause.
"Instead of the Bandaid effect, it's taking a step back, looking at the whole person and figuring out what initiated symptoms in the first place," Pellegrino tells ASN. "A lot of times, it's a combination of lifestyle, nutrition and stress – factors that a lot of the time we don't pay close attention to or take into consideration."
Suffering from chronic gut-related issues since she was a kid, Pellegrino is particularly passionate about the topic.
"What I've found from my own and other people's experiences, is that with almost any symptom or chronic illness there is a link to gut health,” says Pellegrino. “I've helped a lot of people rebalance and fortify their gut. It relates to so much more than just gut symptoms; it's pretty far reaching."
It may seem like an overwhelming task to rebalance an internal system in your body that has been on cruise control without much of a second thought. But if you approach it as creating balance in your nutrition and mind-body relationship, then it becomes more manageable. Pellegrino shares her top tips on how to do just that – and squashes some of the diet trends and misinformation currently circulating about how to achieve and maintain gut health.
Eliminate Processed Food When and Where You Can
High sugar, chemical-laden foods, or foods that have a lot of preservatives are the biggest culprits of digestive issues, according to Pellegrino.
Keep Alcohol, Caffeine and Gluten In Check
Ever heard that too much of a good thing can be bad? Well, in this case, we are sorry to say – it's true. Try to limit these items as much as possible.
Does That Mean I Can't Have Any Grains?
That's a tricky question, but the short answer is "no" – some whole grains like quinoa are actually really good for your gut because they are high in fiber and act as a prebiotic to help the good bacteria in our gut flourish (more on this later). Gluten-free grains like quinoa, rice, millet, buckwheat and oats are all prebiotic heroes, but not everyone can tolerate grains so listen to your body.
Probiotic AND Prebiotic Foods are Both Important
You've probably heard these terms thrown around, but what's the difference between probiotic and prebiotic? And why do you need both?
Probiotics are the good bacteria that are beneficial for the gut and can be found in fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi (a Korean-style fermented veggie), yogurt, kefir, raw cheese and apple cider vinegar, to name a few.
While probiotic foods add good bacteria to the gut, prebiotics act as food for that bacteria. "We want that good bacteria to stick to the intestinal walls, and eating prebiotic foods help feed that bacteria and help it flourish," Pellegrino explains. Asparagus, onion, garlic, bananas and jicama are just a few of those gut-healthy prebiotic foods that should be incorporated into our diets on a regular basis.
Kombucha is Fermented – Does That Mean It's Good for My Gut?
Yes and no. Throughout the years, many health and wellness resources have sung the praises of regularly drinking kombucha as an alternative beverage in lieu of other less-healthy options.
According to Pellegrino, kombucha can act as a healthy probiotic – depending on the ingredients.
“Many commercial kombucha’s have too much added sugar and negate the benefits of the bacteria. If you have yeast overgrowth issues like candida, kombucha may exacerbate the problem, as well,” Pellegrino tells ASN. In this case, it doesn’t hurt to check in with a certified nutritionist to understand if you have a sensitivity.
The Dairy Debate – Which Side Should You Take?
Some gut health resources may tell you to avoid dairy completely. But according to Pellegrino, this isn't always the best option.
Some dairy products like kefir can be very therapeutic and healing for the gut, but again, it depends on the type of dairy. She suggests sticking to organic versus conventional dairy, and raw cheese over pasteurized.
Above all, Pellegrino reiterates the importance of listening to your own body and making adjustments if you have a sensitivity.
Protein Is a Good Thing, But There Are Some Caveats
High quality, good fats like avocado, coconut oil and olive oil can be great for digestion and to promote elimination. Pellegrino also recommends some animal proteins. “They have wonderful nutrients that we need,” she says.
But the trick is to stay away from conventionally-raised meats and focus on pasture-raised, wild caught and organic varieties.
Also, while some fad diets at the moment might indicate otherwise, eating excessive amounts of animal protein is not advised. “Too much of any one nutrient can create imbalances in the body,” Pellegrino explains.
Trendy diets like the Ketogenic diet may be okay over the short term, but can take a toll on the body and digestion over time. “Animal protein is difficult to break down and tends to be acidic, which can lead to problems over time,” she tells ASN.
Think of animal protein as a side versus a main course, and focus on grass-fed beef, wild game and wild-caught salmon for a healthy dose of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats, along with other key nutrients.
Eat More Fiber and Whole Foods
Basically, eat your leafy greens – arugula, romaine, kale, spinach, put them all in your shopping cart. Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage help remove toxins from the body, and starchy root vegetables like squash, tubers, turnips, carrots and beets are high in soluble fiber and prebiotics.
“Fill you’re plate with a variety of these vegetables,” Pellegrino says (but the trick here is to focus on quality). "Always get organic when you can. You want to keep pests and toxins out of the body."
You Have to Hydrate … A Lot. But is One Water Superior to Another?
Many of the water brands popping up these days are focused on alkaline, PH-balanced options. That’s all well and good, but Pellegrino suggests not to get too wrapped up in nuances. “It is important that you don’t have an overly acidic gut, but you do need some acidity because that’s how you break down food,” she says.
A quick rule of thumb is to aim at drinking half your body weight in ounces per day – or for those extremely active days or if you live in a dry climate, aim for even more. Filtered water is best, says Pellegrino, adding that hydrating is important for proper elimination and removing toxins from the body.
Make sure you are drinking enough water to stay fully hydrated on a daily basis, and your gut and the rest of your body will thank you.
Be Mindful When Eating – Which Is Easier Said Than Done in Our Busy Lives
Support your digestive process: chew your food well, slow down when you eat, don't overeat, and don't be stressed when eating. Your body isn't in rest and digest mode when you are stressed, it's in fight or flight mode. This also applies to eating on run, or eating while multi tasking. "Those aren't the best times to support digestion," Pellegrino says.
A quick tip? You should also make sure you have enough digestive enzymes to break down your food. Think about adding a tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar here and there (it's great in salad dressings and marinades) to boost hydrochloric production, which in turn helps break down what you're eating.
Supplements: Are They Necessary?
The debate about supplement use is nothing new. Some purists believe that supplements are not necessary – in other words, you can get all the nutrients you need from your diet. But more people than ever are turning to supplements such as probiotics and digestive enzymes to boost their gut health.
Pellegrino agrees with this strategy, and says she actually recommends it to some of her clients. She says, "If you're focusing on a good diet, your body is going to produce those enzymes themselves, but as you age, the enzymes that come from the pancreas and stomach start to reduce a little. That's when supplementation is necessary."
But there is something to keep in mind when using probiotic supplements on an ongoing basis: "With probiotics, you need to change it up once in a while; you don't want to take the same one forever," she cautions. "When you are supporting trillions of bacteria in the body, you want to switch it up every so often."
Repeat This Mantra: Balance is Always Key
Despite our best efforts, outside influences are always a factor we have to take into consideration and compensate for, Pellegrino explains.
Common elements of our lifestyles – like chronic stress, traumatic or emotional life experiences, or just consistently being busy and rushed on a daily basis – can all take a toll on your gut health. You also have to factor in genetics, or even an ongoing medication you might be taking. They all contribute to this internal system that influences our entire well being.
“When the body is in stress mode all the time, your gut shuts down, which means you aren't producing the proper enzymes as regularly,” she explains, which in turn can create a low-functioning digestive tract. This can lead to “leaky gut” syndrome, which is when food is not broken down and absorbed properly in the small intestine and larger food molecules escape through the intestine walls and into the blood stream.
“I think a lot of people have a little bit of leaky gut,” she says. “It’s hard not to when we all have pretty stressful lives.”
But that doesn't mean putting your life on hold, it just means being more cognizant of how all these choices and influences are adding up and making small, daily adjustments to counterbalance these factors.
"Not a lot of people are as mindful about self care and being present and aware, so it gets away from us," Pellegrino adds. "We have these conveniences we've all become accustomed to – we don't have time to cook or have whole foods all the time. Sometimes that's just how it is, so we have to find how can we moderate other behaviors; make sure to get a mindful practice in here and there, get enough exercise and drink enough water – it all goes together."
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