It Takes Guts to Have Great Health

By Kerri Stenson / Photography By Kerri Stenson | April 10, 2016
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In Silicon Valley, we tend to be savvy and progressive, we talk about things like gut health and kombucha and kimchi. But when you look closely at the human microbiome (a community of microbes living on and in our bodies)—and specifically the microbial population of the gut—it becomes about quite a lot more than the current trends and lingo. Let’s face it: While the exact ratio of microbes to human cells is unknown, we can all agree that something that makes up at least 50% of our cells is probably pretty important to think about when evaluating health and well being. 

And, a big portion of that microbiome is about the gut—which is, invariably, about the digestive system and its intimate relationship with food. 

I admit, I’m pretty intrigued. So when I received an invitation to my friend Dr. Jeanne Rosner’s SOUL Food Salon speaker event featuring Dr. Marina Abrams, ND, MSOAM, medical director of Water’s Edge Natural Medicine in Menlo Park, regarding “How Digestive Health Leads to Strength of the Immune System,” I replied yes! 

The Digestive System

When our digestive system is in happy, healthy status quo, then our overall health is too. As Abrams put it, “Dirty gut is the underlying cause of most disorders,” because it disrupts the absorption of vital nutrients, obstructs the proper elimination of waste and forces the immune system on overdrive towards dealing with faulty digestion, weakening the immune response to disease. This is not OK. Fortunately, we can get ourselves at least mostly back on track with attention to our diet. 

Journey Through the Gut

As we learned from Abrams, digestion begins in our mouth (where the act of chewing starts the process) and then heads to our stomach and continues through the small and large intestines until the nondigestible substances are ultimately eliminated. 

When thinking about the right kinds of food we should consider inviting on this journey, we need both foods that enhance our microbiome (feeding and introducing friendly gut bacteria) and that are anti-inflammatory (discouraging harmful inflammatory, dirty gut responses). The problem with inflammatory response is that “when inflammation happens in the nine meters [of the digestive tract], it does not stay in the gut, it travels through the bloodstream and spreads to other organs,” says Abrams, and inflammation is the origin of most disease. 

We Want Diversity

Considering that our microbiomes make up over 75% of our immune systems, we want them to be complex, diverse and dynamic. Think of our intestines as “an army of cells … navy, infantry and marines,” says Abrams. These little fighters work tirelessly to activate our immune response and protect us from infection, regulate our metabolism and promote normal gastrointestinal function. So, how do we provide them fortitude?

Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods

In general, probiotics are the live bacteria in certain foods—from cultured dairy products to fermented foods and beverages—that introduce good bacteria into the gut. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are generally nondigestable fibers in food that nourish, and stimulate the growth of, beneficial bacteria. (See sidebar for examples).

Prebiotics and probiotics play nicely together in the gut sandbox as prebiotic foods, technically “feed” the good bacteria introduced by probiotic foods. Encouraging this friendship will set us on the road to a happy gut. Of course, as Abrams reminds us, “It’s your own story to write. Each person’s individual metabolism, hormonal balance and gut flora differ, so it is important to seek information and understand what is good for you, and what nutrients you may be missing.”

Prebiotic Foods (generally, raw foods have more prebiotics than cooked):
Onions and garlic
Beans and legumes
Jerusalem artichoke
Chicory root
Greens (particularly dandelion greens)
Grains and oats

Probiotic Foods (generally not cooked or eaten fresh, but cultured):
Active culture dairy and nondairy yogurt
Pickles (and not just cucumbers! Can also ferment carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, fennel)
Tempeh (and other fermented soybeans such as miso and natto)
Kombucha tea
Fermented grains and beans and condiments

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