Top 10 Things You Can Do to Improve and Optimize Gut Health and Total Health
By Alexandra Shustina DO
Eat an organic, natural, unprocessed diet. There are many diets. Some are low carbohydrate ketogenic diets, some are vegan plant based, and some are balanced like the Mediterranean diet. The specifics are very individual. Some people do well with higher animal proteins and fats and some do better with plant based foods. This can also vary for each individual depending on their current state of health and season. Several things apply to all people:
Eat organic, natural and unprocessed food.
Avoid refined carbohydrates.
Minimize sugar intake.
Eat high quality ingredients – if animal protein is in your diet make sure it is pasture grazed and grass fed meat and wild wish. Make sure the soil the animals graze on is high quality and not full of pesticides.
Avoid processed, packaged, and preserved food.
Caffeine and alcohol intake should be with caution.
Eat within specified hours of the day. The body and the gut need time to rest. A twelve hour fast at night and early in the morning promotes proper digestion, energy usage from food and decreases generalized inflammation. An example would be to finish your last meal of the day at 7PM and avoid food until 7AM the next day.
Eat slowly and chew your food. Digestion starts in the mouth. The mechanical grinding with our teeth and mixing food with saliva is an important part of the digestive process. When we smell food, the body starts to prepare for digestion. The stomach starts to produce acid and the digestive enzymes are prepared. This process takes some time. If we chew slowly the body is in the optimal state to properly break down food so it is utilized for energy.
Eat mindfully. What does this mean exactly? Take a few moments before eating to appreciate the food in front of you. This switches our state from “fight or flight” known as the sympathetic system to the “rest and digest system” called the parasympathetic system.” The parasympathetic system controls proper digestion. This is already incorporated into most religious practices by saying a blessing or grace before eating. This gives time for the body to prepare the juicy digestive enzymes that will properly digest the food. Don’t eat in a high stress state. The activated sympathetic system will not allow for proper digestion and the high cortisol will increase blood sugar and stored fat.
Manage your stress properly. We live in high stress world and a high stress city. We work hard, have family and financial responsibilities, and are usually pressed for time and energy. The gut is called the “second brain” because it has a vast number of connections to the brain. Emotional stress affects all the systems, especially the digestive system. The bacterial population in the gut –called the gut microbiota communicate with the brain in a profound way and are involved with synthesis of neurotransmitters which keep us healthy and happy. Take a few minutes of the day for mindfulness. A guided meditation or mindful breathing practice daily can do wonders for stress. Journaling is another way to channel stress so that it does not affect our health.
Exercise properly for increased energy, stress management, and overall health. Yoga is a great way to stay fit and healthy. It is much more than just a stretching exercise. It can improve sleep, strengthen your immune system, improve your circulation, manage depression and anxiety, and much more. Make sure you learn the exercises properly with a qualified instructor and exercise at your proper level. No head stands for novices!
Proper sleep is vital for health and optimization. Some people need more sleep than others. One thing applies to all - going to sleep at an earlier hour and waking up earlier is better than sleeping later. Good sleep is associated with decreased markers of inflammation, better heart health, and longevity (1,2,3,4). Sleeping properly allows the adrenal axis to work optimally and utilize energy in an effective way. This is vital for stress management and weight loss.
Feed your microbiome. The microbiome is the population of organisms which include bacteria, fungi, and viruses which live in and on our bodies. The gut microbiome is at the forefront of research and we are learning that good bacterial populations are associated with a healthy weight, digestive health, heart health, mental health, absence of autoimmune disorders and food allergies, and so much more (5-11). A proper diet and stress management are key to maintaining a healthy microbiome. In addition, we can help the good bacteria grow using prebiotic and probiotic foods. Prebiotics are fiber rich foods which provide a media or petri dish of sorts to allow the good bugs to grow. Probiotics are colonies of good bugs to populate the digestive tract. This is best in the form of properly fermented foods such as sourdough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. Almost all vegetables can be fermented properly. Remember pickled foods are not the same as fermented foods.
Take good supplements to support the body to heal itself. The body has an innate ability to combat all diseases. If the body is in a weakened state from a suboptimal diet, infection, genetic predisposition or any other another physical or emotional stressor, the body needs external support. Supplements which I frequently recommend are probiotics, bovine colostrum, vitamin B complex, omega 3 oils, Vitamin D, Curcumin, and customized Chinese herbal mixtures. It is usually best to obtain the nutrients from food. When this is not possible, it imperative that the supplements are from a reliable and clean source. There is a lot of variability in natural products and some can be more harmful than good.
Live life fully. Enjoy what you do for work and fun. Maintaining good social interactions is extremely important for health and wellness. Loneliness is an independent risk factor for heart disease, stroke, decreased overall health and lower longevity (12,13). People who have a strong social structure live longer and live healthier.
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