“All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates, one of the fathers of modern medicine, believed that our gut and disease risk were inexplicably linked. He was not wrong. Our gut health can impact many other aspects of our health, including our risk of diabetes, colon cancer, obesity, and depression.
Gut health is the function and balance of bacteria in the many parts of our gastrointestinal tract. Everything we eat is broken down in our gut and delivered to the rest of our body as nutrients. Now, this process is only possible if we have a healthy digestive system (aka a healthy gut). Our gut does more than just digest our food, it also communicates with our brain and helps to maintain our general well-being.
Playbook spoke to Dr. Will Cole, functional medicine expert and practitioner, about gut health. Dr. Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain health problems.
“There’s a lot of profound, far-reaching implications to the influence gut health has on our brain, on our immune system, and it has a far-reaching impact on our hormones,” Dr. Cole says. “So many aspects of our gut health influence how we feel, how we look, and our overall health.”
Dr. Cole is a strong advocate of ensuring the gut is in optimal condition in order to guarantee the rest of the body and brain is healthy. As opposed to using conventional medicine practices, his team gets to the root of why each individual person is struggling with their health, then treats the underlying health issues. “We realize we are all different, that’s the basis of functional medicine, its biodiversity,” explains Dr. Cole.
Once we know something is wrong inside our body, he says, there are foods and healthy lifestyle habits we can follow to improve our gut health and our overall health naturally. According to Dr. Cole, the goal is for people to have “agency over their health and options.”
So, how do we know if our gut is healthy and what can we do to make sure it stays healthy? Keep reading for five simple steps.
The first and the easiest thing we can do is to check in with our bodies. Wake up in the morning and do a quick body scan to see what feels good and what doesn’t. Our gut can indicate when it may not be in optimal health; symptoms exist on a spectrum, from very mild to more extreme, according to Dr. Cole. Mild symptoms can include bloating, indigestion, and acid reflux. He says looking at your bowel movements is also a big indicator of whether or not your digestive system is functioning properly. Your stool says a lot about your health, and healthy stool should be a soft, formed bowel movement that is easy to pass.
A more extreme gut health problem is what’s known as “leaky gut syndrome,” which involves undigested food particles and bacterial endotoxins passing out of the digestive tract and into the rest of the body through damaged intestinal lining. Dr. Cole has a free leaky gut quiz you can take on his website to check in with your body to see if you are struggling with leaky gut issues.
When you wake up tomorrow morning, get out of bed and perform a body scan to see if there is anything out of the ordinary — for example, feeling bloated or having indigestion — that might indicate something is wrong with your gut. “You can have underlying gut issues without having extreme digestion issues,” Dr. Cole says.
Dr. Cole recommends adding five specific foods into your diet for gut health: sulfur-rich vegetables, ginger, resistant starches, garlic, and olive oil. Sulfur-rich vegetables can be broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and cabbage. These vegetables contain an antioxidant called glutathione, which is essential for supporting the overall health of your body and gut. Ginger is a calming anti-inflammatory that supports the gut. You can drink ginger tea or add it to different recipes, like soup.
Resistant starches are “a type of fiber that really supports bacteria diversity in the gut [and] helps balance blood sugar,” Dr. Cole says. This fiber can be found in oats, legumes, cooked rice, and potatoes.
Garlic has antibacterial and antifungal properties that support gut health, and you can easily add garlic to most recipes. The final food Dr. Cole recommends including in your diet is olive oil, which is very important in supporting good gut health because it is rich in antioxidants and can reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
“What you are not eating matters too, so not eating things that are disruptive to the microbiome is important too,” Dr. Cole says.
Eliminating sugars and industrial seed oils (including highly processed oils like canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, and rice bran) and decreasing wheat and refined grains will make a difference in the way you feel, Dr. Cole advises. Industrial seed oils raise our omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acid ratios, and pose significant health risks, as this excess intake of omega-6s can cause the body to produce pro-inflammatory chemicals in the gut. They also contain harmful additives that are not healthy for our guts.
“Probiotics are fantastic for people who are struggling with digestive issues and can be a game-changer in supporting gut health and overall health,” Dr. Cole says.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that have health benefits when consumed. They help your body maintain a healthy community of microorganisms and increase your body’s immune response. These microorganisms can be found in yogurt and other fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi, as well as dietary supplements.
If you feel as though you are not eating enough probiotics, consider adding a probiotic supplement to your diet to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to support your gut.
Now that you know how to ensure your gut health is optimal if you believe you need extra assistance in maintaining your gut health, Dr. Cole recommends finding a functional medicine specialist.
The idea is to get a “fresh perspective on it and thoughtful insight,” before jumping into autopilot and seeking out conventional medications that may not solve the underlying problems, Dr. Cole advises.
About the author
Jessica is an editorial assistant and writer at Playbook. She is a recent graduate from the Ohio State University, now based in New York. Jessica loves to read, is passionate about fitness and nutrition, and is always looking for new restaurants with the best pasta dishes. On the weekends, you can find her playing with her dog Wilson, at the beach with a good book, or doing pilates.
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