Last week I had the opportunity to speak about gut health at Dean’s Market in Ocean, NJ. I was thrilled for the chance to get into the community speaking about nutrition and a popular health topic from a registered dietitian perspective. In case you were unable to attend the live event (or were there and want a recap), read on to learn about the role our guts play in our health, and the foods we can eat to keep our insides happy and healthy. Quite the relationship!
Gut Health. If you haven’t heard about it yet as newsworthy or a health trend, you will. Gut health has slowly been creeping up as a hot topic in the health world for the past few years, making its way into the consumer world and grocery stores. I talked about this a bit following my last trip to FNCE back in October. Next time you go grocery shopping, take note of the yogurt section in your store. Has it evolved into a wall vs a shelf or two from a few years ago? This isn’t by accident or because people really like yogurt these days. It’s because the health benefits of yogurt, particularly the probiotics, have been praised in the media. But as I always say, yogurt is not the end all, be all, when it comes to gut health. So first lets take a step back and look at what’s happening on the inside.
Get To Know Your Guts
First thing to know about your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is where is lives. Your GI tract essentially goes from one hole to the other. Your mouth is where food enters, and your southern hole is where digested food exits. Don’t be fooled by the size of your torso. Your GI tract is actually 30 feet in length. To put it in perspective, that’s stacking one giraffe on top of another! The workhorse of your GI tract is your intestines, particularly the small intestines, where the majority of digestion happens. Any undigested food passes through the small intestines into the large intestines, where the largest amount of bacteria in our body lives. This is because your large intestines have no contact with acid or bile, two things bacteria doesn’t thrive on. That makes the large intestine perfect breeding ground for bacteria. But before you think having bacteria inside of you is a bad thing, research has shown that we actually house millions of good bacteria in our guts. And the food we eat can help keep those guts flourishing with good bacteria.
“All diseases begin in the gut.” – Hippocrates
Hippocrates may have said this back in the days of ancient Greece, but it wasn’t until 2006 when the role of gut bacteria came to light. Researchers named bacteria in our gut the “Forgotten Organ”. They named the gut bacteria “microflora” (as in “little garden”) because of the growth of life happening right there in the guts. This lead to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) beginning the Human Microbiome Project in 2008. The project goal is to identify and characterize microorganisms found in healthy/not healthy individuals and their link to health/disease. Simple task, right? Almost 10 years later and they’re just scratching the surface on this area.
What we do know is that the bacteria found in our guts is metabolically active and helps distinguish between safe and harmful bacteria. Bacteria in our guts changes with lifestyle, diet, and age. Babies are born with completely sterile intestines, but that immediately starts to change based on diet, hygiene, and medication. As our insides change over time, it has become more important to understand the relationship of gut health to how we process/use nutrients, protection from food-borne illness, and medication effectiveness. A lot of that stems from a phenomenon called the Brain-Gut Connection.
Two Brains Are Better Than One
Ever been in a situation where you’ve “gone with your gut”? You’re usually pretty happy with the outcome, right? That may not have just been luck. Likewise, if you’ve ever had butterflies in your stomach, it can have an effect on everything from concentration to appetite. That’s because our guts actually function as another brain called the Enteric Nervous System. Research has shown there is a Gut-Brain Axis sending signals from the gut to brain via our hormones. This Second Brain in our guts can’t think, but can communicate messages to the brain.
How often do you think about the work being done to digest your food? I’d say not very often. But there’s a lot of communication happening between the guts and brain to make digestion a seamless and involuntary process. When it comes to mood, research has shown a lot of connection to gut health. Stress is another area where gut health can be compromised. Even genetics can play a role in our gut health.
New and Emerging GI Diseases
It may feel like new GI diseases are being discussed in the media on a weekly basis. How many of these conditions are you familiar with?
- Crohns – inflammation throughout GI tract
- Colitis – inflammation of large intestine only
- IBS – inflammation brought on by triggers, including stress and certain foods (remember I talked about FODMAPs a few weeks ago?)
- Celiac – autoimmune disease caused by a protein in gluten causing the immune system to attack, ultimately leading to damage of the intestinal lining and malabsorption (this is why gluten-free diets are medically necessary in these cases)
- SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) – excessive bacteria in small intestine leading to chronic diarrhea and malabsorption
- Leaky Gut – junctions in gut don’t work properly, so nutrients “leak” into blood causing bloating, gas, malabsorption, and pain
Many of these conditions have been around for some time, but thanks to research, including the Human Microbiome Project, scientists and doctors are just starting to understand the connection of disease to gut health. Up next is determining the best treatment methods. Some of these conditions have some nutrition guidelines associated, while others are still too new. Medical nutrition therapy at this time can be a lot of trial and error to create treatment methods down the road. If you suspect any of these conditions, please have a qualified GI doctor assess you, not Dr. Google.
What Are Probiotics?
You’ve heard about them in advertisements. You see them listed on food labels. You’ve even read about them on this blog. Probiotics are the good bugs. Live bacteria and yeast that keep out guts healthy. They help replace our good bacteria after an illness or antibiotic may wipe them out of our system. They also help to balance non-harmful and harmful bacteria to keep the body in check. It may feel like there are only a few types of probiotics, but in actuality there are THOUSANDS of strains of good bacteria! Every strain is different and does different things in the body (thanks again to almost 10 years of research in this area). Some common strands you may be familiar with include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, L. acidophilus, and Bulgaricus.
Probiotics May Treat Disease
There has also been a lot of breakthrough in the connection of probiotics to diseases and health conditions.
IBS – Probiotics may produce enzymes that promote antioxidants and reduce oxidative stress. Certain strains are showing more promise than others relieving symptoms in IBS and colitis
Lactose Intolerance – Lactase (enzyme needed to digest lactose) is produced by probiotic bacteria, allowing for easier digestion
Anxiety/Depression – as discussed above, the gut-brain axis plays a significant role in mental health
Headaches/Migraines – Higher prevalence of headaches are associated with GI disorders related to the gut-brain axis
Heart Health – Probiotics may help reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (note there no effect shown on on HDL or triglycerides). Blood pressure can also be regulated by probiotics due to controlling production of angiotensin converting enzyme to relieve pressure on blood vessels (aka. a natural ACE-inhinitor vs lisinopril)
Bone Health – Probiotics may help with nutrient absorption, including calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K
Immunity – Probiotics may play a role in immune response & reducing inflammation
Regularity – Help relieve constipation or stop diarrhea
Blood Sugar Control – Probiotics may play a role in reducing fasting blood sugar, insulin levels, and insulin resistance
Can Probiotics Cure Obesity?
To but it bluntly, NO. Research has not shown a relation to probiotics & weight loss. However, a diet containing these types of foods can lead to a healthier lifestyle which can have a positive side effect of weight loss. And the relation of blood sugar control may play a role in decreasing obesity instances. But alas, the cure for obesity still remains good ol’ fashioned hard work from proper nutrition and exercise.
Where Do We Find Probiotics?
In simplest terms, fermented foods. The fermentation process converts sugar into acids, gases and alcohols to preserve foods. The outcomes of this procedure is enzymes & probiotic bacteria.
Make sure to handle these guys with care! Heating will kill bacteria. Refrigerate once opening and exposing to oxygen to slow down formation of potentially harmful bacteria.
Food vs Pill Form
Looking at the above list thinking, “Can’t I just take a pill for this?” Don’t go ripping those safety seals off just yet. Research continues to show food sources of probiotics are more beneficial. Supplements often have 1 strain of bacteria, while food sources can have hundreds. The processing and handling of the probiotic bacteria into pill form needs to be careful not to kill bacteria. Often the bacteria is either refrigerated or freeze-dried, and you need to pay attention to those expiration dates. Overall supplements continue not to be regulated in the US, bringing up a safety concern that I always caution to my clients.
How Do Prebiotics Fit In?
Prebiotics are probiotics’ partner in crime. While probiotics are live and kicking bacteria, predicts help bacteria form. I like to use the example of rope that has been sitting in the water for a long time – eventually it becomes covered in algae and other living creatures. Most prebiotics are high fiber foods. And if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, then you know fiber is totally my jam.
Best prebiotic sources (raw preferred):
- Banana (not fully ripe)
- Garlic, leek, onions, chives
- Jicama, sunchoke, chicory root, asparagus
- Whole grains & breads
- Dark leafy greens (dandelion greens, radicchio, frisee, endive)
- Potato skins
- Apple cider vinegar
What\’s the difference between a prebiotic and probiotic? What foods are you eating that contain each?
Other Factors in Gut Health
Diet and intake of probiotic and prebiotic foods certainly plays a key role in gut health. But an overall healthy lifestyle will keep your guts in check as well. This includes daily exercise and movement to keep the GI tract moving along. Poor sleep habits can impact the gut landscape due to the mind-gut connection. Stress management also factors heavily into the health of our guts. One of the best ways to manage stress is to do something you’re doing everyday and it’s FREE! Deep breathing can help calm the nerves and mind, which can lead to a more stable environment in the guts. If meditation is not your thing, just 3-5 deep breathes a few times a day can make all the difference in the world. Yoga or stretching involving twists and compression of the belly can also help stimulate the digestive system.
Final Words of Wisdom
Use your head and common sense when it comes to GI matters and gut health. The info presented in this post does not replace the care of a medical practitioner. Only a GI doctor should test and diagnose for GI-related matters, not chiropractors or certified holistic health practitioners. Dietitians also should not be diagnosing any GI diseases, but we can work with a GI doctor to coordinate on a care plan.
When researching information about gut health, it should come from credible sources only! This includes:
- Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics,
- Major universities (Harvard, John’s Hopkins)
- Medical facilities (Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic)
- Medline, WebMD
Publications like the NY Times are great for general information, but remember it is journalism and not science. Their goal is to sell papers and drive traffic to their articles. Don’t eat the headlines – make sure to read the article and go to the original sources of information to get the whole scoop and not be teased with a tasting spoon!
Disclaimer: All opinions presented in this post are my own. I was not compensated by Dean’s Market or any retailers for my time to present or write this articles. Coupons for samples were provided to me by Siggis, GT’s Kombucha, Great Eastern Sun, and Farmhouse Culture.
Next time your Significant Other comes home from the store with probiotic (and prebiotic!) foods to try, be open to trying them for the sake of your guts and your health!
Thank you so much to Dean’s Market for hosting me!
If you are interested in bringing a dietitian to your business to educate clients, customers, or employees, Contact ME and let’s chat!