We all have gut instincts and gut feelings. We go with our gut when we have the guts (sometimes while getting beer guts). Guts are often equated to the depths of our soul; they’re used to describe the innermost bravery we possess. Any western movie worth its weight will inevitably end with the quote, “You don’t have the guts,” just before the hero blows away the bad guy whose challenge turned out to be his last.
Though the science is only about 300 years old and a mere baby compared to the study of other body parts, much has come to light about the gut and its importance in our body’s inner workings. More and more, it can be found at the forefront of medical discussions as related to disease.
Long ago, human bodies were thought of as machines and were often compared to steam engines. Fuel was put in, it produced energy which was processed and subsequently excreted. Then the entire process started over. This “new” gut science has uncovered new, intricate truths about what exactly goes on down there.
Gut health always seemed like something for other people … people with GI issues. It was something to which I didn’t relate. I’ve had friends and clients report to me about their troubles with IBS (which is really just an umbrella diagnosis for “we don’t know what’s wrong with you”), but it seemed like digestive issues were limited to problems below the belt, deep down in the intestines. It could be something you ate, bad fare, lactose intolerance or a slew of other reasons.
It turns out that gut health is for everyone. It’s complicated and certainly does not operate entirely independently as once thought. Oh, we know that our body and its parts rely on one another for pumping blood, nerve synapses and cellular generation among millions of other functions, but our organ systems are very often thought of as separately operating contraptions. Not true, according to what gut health experts have unearthed.
The brain-gut connection is immeasurable, but what has been documented will blow your mind. The “gut” is comprised of our digestive tract from our mouth to our southern-most parts, including our esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus.
These organs receive instructions from the brain, and then send responses, instructions and the like back to the brain. These messages aren’t limited to signaling “I’m full” or “I’m hungry.” They are much more complex.
The gut is often called our “second brain.” It contains anywhere between 50 to 100 million nerve cells, which is as many as are found in our spinal cord. It’s also called our “second nervous system” and, if rolled out, would be as large as a basketball court. Most of our immune system lives in our gut.
The relationship between gut health and our emotions is also becoming a bit clearer. We know that stress causes ulcers, but we may not realize that a bit of road rage may stop our body from digesting the food we just ate. While certainly in the beginning stages, gut health experts are unraveling the connections among autoimmune diseases, physical imbalances and mental health afflictions like depression and anxiety and the mind-gut connection.
Our gut is its own little ecosystem where trillions of organisms work in unison to do what needs to be done. There are 300 to 500 different kinds of bacteria, parasites, viruses, fungi and other organisms dwelling in our stomachs and intestines. If we believe in aliens, this seems like a great place to start looking for UFOs. I imagine all these green goblins swimming around in bubbling, brimming yellow acidic water, but it’s much more picturesque when we think about the fact that it’s what keeps us not only healthy, but alive. This is our microbiome.
How do we know if our gut is in good health?
So how can we tell what shape our gut is in? An upset stomach will tip you off. Excess flatulence, bloating, inability to “go,” urgency to “go” and heartburn are all clues about the state of your microbiome.
Unintentional weight swings can be a sign as well. This can mean we’re not absorbing the nutrients we need because we have an imbalance of bacteria, which can lead to insulin resistance and, ultimately, Type 2 diabetes.
We know sleep is important in regulating our hunger hormones, but is just as important for our gut health. Poor sleep can not only be an indicator about the state of our gut, but can also contribute to an imbalance in the gut: bacterial or otherwise.
Though its role is not entirely understood because it functions in so many capacities, serotonin not only helps to regulate mood, but can both induce or prevent sleep. For that reason, this delicate balance is important, and can be tough to navigate, especially when prescribed serotonin is necessary for mood regulation.
Food intolerances and skin irritations like eczema can also be attributed to gut imbalances, as are more and more autoimmune disorders, which are thought to stem from elevated levels of inflammation in the gut.
Shame on sugar
Diets high in sugar and processed foods promote a decrease of good bacteria in the gut and contribute to inflammation and, of course, sweet cravings.
A high intake of antibiotics is thought to destroy many of the bacteria cultures on which we depend. This can be a sign that we need to address the ecosystem behind our abdomen.
How to keep our gut healthy?
Stress less, sleep more
It’s no secret that stress is sneaky. Destressing and staving off taxing situations (like road rage, for example) can contribute to better health overall. It can help our body from shutting down our digestion while we shake our fist at the guy who just cut us off (only me?).
Just as lack of sleep can sabotage our GI, it can help fix it back up as well. Perhaps easier said than done when you’ve got a toddler in your bed who wakes up every five minutes, but seven to eight hours of good quality is what we’re aiming for.
Take your time
While the gut-mind connection is complex, we know it takes 20 minutes for the signal that we are full to be received. It doesn’t matter if you’ve eaten a supersized meal or just enough to be satisfied, it will take 20 minutes to register as full … and if we’ve overeaten, that’s when it kicks in, but by then it’s too late, and we’re reaching for the antacids.
Take time chewing, as our saliva spearheads the digestion process by commencing food breakdown in our mouths. It starts that fast.
In addition to drinking more water, foods that contain probiotics like yogurt and kefir are a great way to boost gut health. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, pickles and kimchi are helpful to boost the good bacteria within our gut walls. High-fiber foods like beans, peas, oats, berries, asparagus and leeks in additional to our trusted garlic and onions are helpful as well. Collagen-rich foods like bone broth, fish, eggs, leafy greens, citrus and, interestingly, red and yellow vegetables are good options also.
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon black or white sesame seeds
1 tablespoon crushed red chili flakes.
4 green onions
1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and thinly sliced (pro tip – peel the ginger with a spoon)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
8 dried shitake mushrooms
1 piece of kombu, about 4x3”
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce
4 baby bok choy, quartered lengthwise
1 package brown rice millet ramen noodles
3 tablespoons red miso paste
Cook garlic and ¼ cup olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat, stirring often, until garlic begins to brown, about 3 minutes.
Add sesame seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is golden brown and crisp, about 1 minute.
Transfer mixture to a small bowl and stir in red chili flakes; season with salt.
Set garlic oil aside.
Wipe out pot.
Slice green parts of green onions and set aside for serving.
Coarsely chop white and pale green parts.
Heat 2 Tbsp sesame oil in pot over medium-high.
Add the chopped green onions and ginger, stirring often, until green onions are charred in spots, about 4 minutes.
Add tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to stick to the bottom of pot and darkens slightly, about 2 minutes.
Add mushrooms and kombu, then stir in 5 cups cold water.
Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let sit until mushrooms soften, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard kombu.
Strain out solids with a slotted spoon and transfer to blender.
Add 2 ladles of broth to blender and purée until smooth.
Stir purée back into broth in pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Add butter and whisk to combine.
Add in miso paste and stir.
Stir in soy sauce and reduce heat to low. Keep on warm until ready to serve so flavors meld.
Add bok choy about 5 to 6 minutes before serving (cover while cooking bok choy so it steams).
In a separate large pot, bring a quart of water to a boil.
Add noodles and cook according to package directions.
Drain and divide among bowls.
Serve broth over noodles, top with bok choy or veggie of choice and reserved garlic chili oil.
(I served with tofu and roasted broccoli).