All health begins in the gut. If you want to optimize your health, loving up your gut is the first step.
Here are five ways to improve gut health:
1. Eat (or drink) bitter.
Did you know that we have over 25 different types of receptors that detect bitter? And they line not just our mouth, but our entire digestive tracts, including liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. What do bitters do that’s so important? The bigger question is, what don’t they do? Bitters boost gut health by stimulating stomach acid (boosting digestion of proteins), improving gastric motility (helping with gas, bloating, and constipation), and enhancing the release of bile that break down food and enhance absorption of fats and important nutrients like vitamins A and D. Bitters have a balancing effect on appetite, blood sugar, and insulin release (Black coffee with dessert, anyone?) The bitter receptors, which also line the sinuses and lungs, stimulate gut and respiratory immune systems to protect us. In other words, consuming bitter plants in food and drink are among the best things you can do for your gut– and whole body– health. Some people love consuming bitters– whether coffee, beer, dark chocolate, leafy greens, dandelion root tea, or many more. Others prefer to take a daily herbal tonic before each meal. For kids, a little goes a long way. Bitter is better!
2. Ferment your foods.
These days, most people have heard of the beneficial microbes that live in our guts. Many have even taken the occasional probiotic—“bacteria in a capsule”—to repopulate these organisms during or after antibiotics. The biodiversity of gut organisms demands more than one or two strains in probiotics. Eating fermented foods offers greater microbial biodiversity to the gut on a daily, ongoing and delicious basis, rather than relying primarily on pills. The process of fermentation also breaks down proteins in food to make them more digestible and less likely to trigger an allergic response. Further, the organisms found in fermented foods impact far more than gut health—they bolster and balance the immune system. Some strains, called psychobiotics, even impact mental performance and mood. From yogurt to kefir to sauerkraut to kvass, fermenting or culturing foods work to keep our guts, bodies and brains healthy and happy.
3. Make broths.
Bone broths from pastured animals are the perfect gut recovery foods. Slow-cooked bone broth is breaks down into components that are easily digested and soothing to the digestive system. Some of those components include the gelatin, glutamine and collagen released in the cooking process, which nourish the cells lining the digestive tract, and maintain the balance of the gut’s microbiome and immune system. Bone broth are rich in an array of minerals that support everything from electrolyte balance, neurotransmitter signaling, heart health, and our own bones and joints. For those who prefer not to consume animal products, broths from medicinal mushrooms can also have tremendous benefit for the gut– and the entire body. Or combine the two for the best of both worlds.
4. Keep calm.
When the sympathetic nervous system—which controls the “fight or flight” response—activates, it also shuts down digestion. There’s no time to digest your food when you are running away from a lion! This is one of the reasons why anxious people can have so many gut symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and on. When the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, on the other hand, your body relaxes, your heart rate slows, your breathing calms, and your digestion functions well. There are many ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, from meditation or yoga to enjoying yourself with friends, to hiking or running. Some people rely on relaxing nervines to help them stay calm. From chamomile and lemon balm to motherwort, linden, milky oats, passionflower, and beyond, there are no shortage of herbal remedies to quiet the nervous system and facilitate the parasympathetic nervous system.
5. Immerse yourself in nature.
Time in nature balances our bodies, including the gut. Our bodies crave biodiversity in the food we eat and the organisms to which we’re exposed. Whether we’re hiking in the woods or planting gardens, we are exposed to an entirely new microbiome through the soil we touch and plants we eat. In one teaspoon of soil are as many organisms as there are people on the planet! Enjoying time outdoors also stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, shifting more toward calm, better sleep, improved focus, and…better digestion. It even boosts the immune system. Win-win!
Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD is a pediatric neurologist, herbalist, urban farmer, international speaker and author of The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil (Simon and Schuster, 2016), which has been translated into ten languages. In her NYC practice, she offers an integrative approach to neurological, behavioral and cognitive problems as well as chronic pediatric issues. She is also the director of the Terrain Institute, where she teaches about the role of nature in health and well-being. Learn more about her work at www.dirtcure.com.