Gut heath — it's a health topic we've been hearing a lot about recently. But what is gut heath and how does it impact your body? We asked herbalist and Holistic Health Practitioner Rachelle Robinett to give us the low down.
Gut health is central to our overall health. From immunity (the topic of the times), to mood, weight, energy, brain-health, hormones, and more, the state of our digestive system reflects and affects nearly every part of us.
What is the “Gut-Brain”?
While we think of our gut and brain as separate organs, they’re more one-in-the-same than not.
The system of connections and communication between the digestive tract and the brain is called the “gut-brain axis.” These two organs are connected both physically and chemically. This system is also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). (Do you see “nervous system” there? The ENS also interacts directly with our nervous system.)
Neurons - cells that tell our brains and central nervous system how to behave - are found in both the brain and the gut. Another communication device is neurotransmitters: chemicals that control feelings and give us everything from a runner’s high to a good night’s sleep. Serotonin, one of the most well-known neurotransmitters, is produced almost entirely in the gut.
While gut bacteria (aka probiotics) help produce neurotransmitters like GABA (which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety in the brain), the communication happens both ways: from gut-up and from brain-down. For example, eating food our body doesn’t love can register as stress, which then triggers our nervous system, mood, and a whole-body reaction, even if subconscious (which it usually is). Equally, mental stress can upset the gut - especially if we’re in fight-or-flight mode (rather than rest and digest).
How can you avoid triggering gut-brain stress? Eat food your body loves (not just your brain). Sit to eat. Take a few deep breaths first. Eat slowly and chew a lot. Consider some gratitude for your body and/or meal.
Gut Health & The Immune System
Our immune system is on the other side of a one-cell thick membrane that our gut and microbiome bacteria are protecting from the outside world. We want this defense to be as intact as possible! To do so, try these gut health go-tos:
Irritation or offense to the microbiome can send signals to the central nervous system that something is wrong. What are considered irritants? Any food your body doesn’t like. Common examples are: gluten (which causes gut permeability for those with IBX), processed food, processed sugar, large amounts of dairy, flour, improperly prepared grains or legumes, caffeine, or alcohol.
Increase Gut-Friendly Ingredients:
The bacterial population of the gastrointestinal tract (aka probiotics) create & maintain balance. More of those generally means a happier belly.
- Take probiotics & pursue probiotic foods: Having enough good ensures the bad don’t overrun things. Prebiotic foods include kimchi, kombucha, miso, or sauerkraut.
- Don't forget about prebiotics: These are fiber and starch, not bacteria! As with probiotics, I’m a fan of both taking them (in forms like acacia fiber) and eating them in food. Foods high in prebiotic fiber include chicory root, garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, green bananas (before the starch turns to sugar), and green plantains.
- Incorporate fiber into your diet: There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber is known as “roughage,” and due to its dense matter, it can't be broken down in the gut. Therefore, it continues on its path, relieving constipation and helping with regularity. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and sugar, slowing their absorption into the blood. It can also help boost "good" bacteria in the gut (it’s a prebiotic). Both are important in a daily diet and most folks eat far too little fiber. I recommend aiming to exceed the RDA of 30 grams by at least 50%, if not doubling it every day. Smoothies are a great way to get a bunch of fiber in one meal. Aim for chia seeds, raspberries, flax seeds and the like.
Incorporating Herbs into Your Diet:
Food medicine and herbalism are inseparable. While I always start clients with nutritional changes for gut health, herbs are also helpful to weave in.
- Try digestive bitters: Specific plants are classified as bitters, which - when we taste on the tongue - alert receptors as far away as the intestines that food is on the way. Our body then preps the stomach with digestive juices and lunch is less of a surprise than if we simply chug the soup. Bitters are often found in tincture form and can be a great way to start meals (take them 10-15 minutes before eating).
- Eat Bitter Foods: Bitter foods are also excellent allies for gut health. It’s a flavor many of us have lost the love for, but that usually indicates an especially nutritious and medicinal plant. If you like it: great. If you don’t (or don’t know), try tuning your taste buds with dandelion greens, beet greens, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, green tea and unsweetened cacao.
Remember, your gut is central to your entire wellbeing. It’s attached to our brains, nervous systems, and beyond. To balance it, we want to nurture a flourishing bacterial population - lots of good bugs and lots for the good bugs to eat. Keep things moving with fiber and lots of water. Treat herbal bitters, digestive enzymes, and cleansing supplements as nice-to-haves. If we’ve healed our gut wholly, those will be less - or unnecessary. Lastly, keep breathing (deeply)!
RR’s picks of Splendid Spoon meals for gut health:
- Blackberry Basil Smoothie: berry seeds are a good source of fiber, and so is chia!
- Carrot Ginger Chia: veggies, chia AND flax, ginger, oh my
- Cauliflower Tikka: onions, great spices, and cauliflower instead of rice
- Fall Ratatouille: all the veggies
- Cumin Sweet Potato: blended foods are easily digestible and helpful for gut healing
- Kimchi Fried Quinoa Bowl: filled with kimchi, which helps maintain healthy gut flora.
Be sure to talk with your doctor before making big dietary changes. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or omnivore, consider taking a daily multivitamin to ensure that you get all the vital nutrients you need—especially on cheat days, cloudy days and vacays.
If you’re thinking about incorporating more gut-friendly foods to your diet but unsure how, give our Splendid Spoon plant-based meal plans a try. They help take the stress out of habit forming and healthy eating with filling meals that are balanced in nutrients and made to grab & go.