FUNCTIONAL FOOD | Get out of that rut, take care of your gut

We’ve all heard the phrase “we are what we eat” but evidence shows that this phrase should be more like “we are what we digest”. So, what’s the difference? If we are eating all the right foods but aren’t actually digesting them properly, our bodies aren’t absorbing or assimilating the nutrients our food provides us and we aren’t able to reap from these benefits.

More often than not I encounter frustrated people who claim to be eating nutritious foods and yet they frequently feel bloated (“Ugh, I want to show-off my hard-worked-Motivate abs but damn, my lunch is doing a number on my stomach”). Some have mood swings, some spend hours on end on the toilet, and some have skin issues, among many others. Now, the reasons behind these may vary: from food sensitivities to intolerances, from hormonal problems to autoimmune diseases, to simply a poor diet (e.g. high in processed foods, or low in vegetables and fiber) that is hard for your body to metabolize.

There is one common denominator behind each and every one of these issues that I always find important to address: if you want to get out of that rut, first you have to take care of your gut. 

Our poor guts don’t get even half the attention they deserve; they are so under appreciated. I know that they are not too glamorous but neither are those old pajamas you wear every Sunday that make you feel more comfortable that any other outfit in your closet. (Or is this just me?) For example, are you aware that 90% of serotonin–important for our happiness–can be found in your gastrointestinal tract? Let me repeat that. Ninety percent. Serotonin is a chemical manufactured in our bodies that helps neurons talk to each other–this is why it’s called a neurotransmitter–and 90% of the body’s serotonin is actually produced and lives in our gut! Wow! Does this mean that our moods can be affected by our gut health? In a simple answer: yes, that is what research is telling us. Those guts of ours do a lot of work and we must do what we can to facilitate its ongoing and ever-so-demanding job.

Before we talk further about practices that aid the process of regulating our gut function and flora, we must first understand what’s going on down there. Think of your gut as a garden where little creatures play, where everything is connected and in perfect balance. Without this balance everything would be a disaster. In our gut, particularly in our large intestines, we have “little creatures” like good bacteria and bad bacteria. There are trillions of these little buggers in all of us. You read correctly people: trillions. We have about three pounds of bacteria in our gut. They must live in balance (symbiosis) with us in order for them to be able to perform their many jobs properly: help us with our digestion, absorb nutrients, produce vitamins; more on this later.

Bacteria survive and thrive on what we feed them. A diet high in real, whole, high-fiber food (some known as prebiotics) and fermented foods (probiotics) will feed the good bacteria and create new populations of good bacteria in our gut (aaah...unicorns and rainbows). A diet high in processed foods and sugar will feed the bad bacteria and can lead to overpopulation of the bad guys; this imbalance is called dysbiosis (black clouds, death metal, explosions...armageddon).

But wait Gina, I’m not feeding my bacteria, I’m feeding myself! Who cares about bacteria?!  As a society we’ve been taught that all bacteria are bad, to fear them, hence the constant use of antibacterial hand wash and soaps. But while some bacteria can be nasty, not all bacteria are bad for us.

Let’s think of the good bacteria as badass little soldiers that fight the evil forces–the bad bacteria–from invading, getting cozy, and making more little evil baby bacteria in our gut. Good bacteria play an important role in our immune systems: they protect us from pathogens and parasites, can influence our weight, help our digestion, they manufacture several B vitamins and vitamin K, can increase mineral  absorption, help prevent infection, alleviate eczema and allergies, break down toxins, and manufacture good-for-you-short-chain fatty acids which reduce intestinal inflammation, improve (and help prevent) irritable bowel syndrome and even constipation, I could go on forever; but I wouldn’t do that to you. The point is WE NEED THEM and we need to keep the good bacteria happy, safe and healthy.   

Unfortunately, these little guys, more often than not, get killed off by antibiotics (in antibiotic medicine, certain foods–ugh!) and while some of them practically build homes and live in our gut, others simply vacation there. This is why we must remember to constantly feed our gut with good bacteria so we can keep these good guys/gals (if they were to have a gender I bet they would be female ;) fighting the good fight.

But how, Gina? How?! Enter fermented foods. Fermented foods are rich in good bacteria–probiotics. Hello (raw) sauerkraut, kimchee (stinky but good), kombucha, coconut yogurt or kefir, and miso. Now, you don’t need to eat an enormous amount (2-3 TBSP of sauerkraut is more than enough) to reap from the benefits of probiotics. Over eating them will probably give you a stomach ache so ease into these foods and try to have a variation of them as well–variety is the spice of life, I always say ;) You could prepare many of these if you have the time. If you don’t have the time, fear not, little kittens; we live in Los Angeles and all of these items are available for you to buy at your local farmers market, health-food stores and supermarkets.

(Note: I am not mentioning supermarket dairy yogurt as a reliable source. If you want to know why, please feel free to ask me.)

If you want an even bigger boost, and/or if none of those foods rock your boat or you can’t stomach them–pun totally intended–then incorporating a probiotic has the possibility (in my humble opinion) of changing your life! Yeah, I said it! You are very likely to see a quick and rapid improvement in your digestion, your skin and much more by incorporating probiotics in your life. Do some further research (you can ask me for more details) and check out different types of probiotics and see which are the right fit for you–we are all biochemically different at the end of the day. I am not trying to endorse any of the following but they have worked for me and may be a good introduction to probiotics to some of you. My favorite probiotics are (and again, I am by no means trying to market these) the Health Force brand, and Dr. Ohhira.

So now you know. Don’t be afraid to add some bacteria in your life. Oh, jolly good.
Every two weeks, I will be posting nutrition and wellness advice, recipes, and interesting findings worth sharing with all of you. I know that we all have different interests and needs so I will try to cover different topics with every post. I would love to read your feedback so I encourage you to share your thoughts and/or questions in the comments section below.

If you would like to know more about me, please visit my website Alimental G.