There are eleven systems in the body. Most of these function happen below our conscious awareness. This is another reason to remember to thank our bodies for being so smart. Of course you knew that you had lungs. But did you know that your lungs function as part of a larger system? And that the circulatory system (heart and vessels) and the respiratory system (lungs and trachea) are interdependent? Similarly, your muscular system and your nervous system are on the same functional team. You can have a look at the list of these systems, some of which are more familiar to you than others. By looking at the list, you can get a sense of the complexity of these inter-related functions that contribute to our overall health, well-being, and happiness.
I’ll explain in a moment why the digestive system, which includes the gut, gets its very own pillar. But I’d like to draw an analogy before I do that. Now that we are on the next to last pillar, I must emphasize once again that our radiant health, indeed, when our bodies are performing in a peak state, is the result of a variety of ways that we intervene on our own behalf. Here are some ways that we can experience an abundance of well-being:
We take care of ourselves in a variety of ways. The Health Matters system embraces this multi-pronged approach. I realize that if you are nowhere near living a lifestyle that rewards you in the ways I just described, that this might seem overwhelming. This is why I continue to offer you my hand as a guide. Your most harmonious life is the result of a symphony of pro-health practices. In the same way, your healthy gut, perhaps on a smaller scale, is your reward for taking such good care of all of you. As a result, you feel relief and noticeably better, and the benefits are compounded. In other words, you may improve how you eat because you want to lose weight. And then when your belly feels better, that’s the kind of side-benefit I am referring to.
Given that there are eleven systems, let’s talk about why the digestive system is the only one that gets its very own pillar in the Health Matters System. It’s not because the other systems are unimportant. However, we might find the answer in this quote by Hippocrates:
“All disease begins in the gut.”
I think it would be fair to extrapolate from this wisdom and declare that all health begins in the gut.
Eating and digesting your food; absorbing the nutrients; getting the nutrients to the vessels that carry them to every cell in your body; providing healthy barriers between fluids, particles, and various organs; keeping the stuff on the correct side of the barriers; letting the right stuff go through the barrier to the adjacent physiologic container; eliminating waste; maintaining a balance of healthy bacteria; helping to promote serotonin and other brain-health neurotransmitters; providing immune protection… wow! The gut is also called the second brain. It has to be really smart to do all of these things without our even thinking about it.
As you can see by this image, the digestive system takes up quite a bit of real estate in our bodies. I’ve heard this described as a long tube with an opening at the top and at the bottom. It’s amazing to see how many inter-related parts there are. We feel great when the parts work well. But when they don’t, the results can be disastrous.
If optimizing your health is important to you, I urge you to have a look at the ways the digestive system can malfunction. If you are experiencing any of these conditions and they seem medium to serious in severity, then you have some health and body homework. It’s most likely connected to food. This is not only what you eat, but also how you eat. Mindful eating is a theme that runs throughout each of these pillars.
One cannot say that one is healthy except for, as an example, chronic diarrhea. Or that one feels terrific, except for this pesky issue with painful bloating after consuming a meal. This reminds me of something someone said to me, and I’m not making this up. His words exactly, speaking of himself, “I’m very healthy except for diabetes.” If your gut is unwell, then we need to heal your body. And for this discussion, I’d like to encourage you to pay attention to how your body works in response to taking in food.
Every body produces gas. This is a normal bi-product of digesting certain kinds of food. Distress and gas can also be the result of eating while under stress; eating too much food; eating foods that do not agree with our bodies; and several more serious medical issues. You might be interested in why people fart. It’s useful to know that this is not necessarily a sign of trouble down there. But it can be. Healthy gas does not necessarily come with severe pain, a distended abdomen, and cramping. If you have any of those symptoms, I urge you to make ample time for sitting on the toilet and let your body release the excess gas. This is a more wholesome approach than trying to figure out what to eat or drink to settle your stomach. Learning to allow your body to rest is a powerful strategy.
You learned about neurotransmitters in the pillar titled Unwind from Stress. You don’t need a degree in physiology to recognize that you feel better mentally after eating certain foods. Good mood food is part of each pillar so far and was covered in the Unwind from Stress online course. Imagine a meal of steamed kale with roasted butternut squash, baked chick peas and toasted pumpkin seeds. Whole food like this is nutritionally complete; is void of processed and refined sugars, oils, and fats; and might make you fart because of the fiber and the complex carbohydrates you are consuming. But it won’t make you feel like you have brain fog or put you in a food coma. This is especially true if you eat in a calm and relaxed state, and if you ask your body to digest only a reasonable amount of food.
Stuffing yourself is asking too much of all of those parts you saw in that illustration. It is unreasonable that you expect to feel happy and energetic if you, oops, forgot, and overfilled your tank or inhaled your food.
When you feel comfortable in your body, plus satisfied and complete after a meal that is nutrient-dense, you are probably also on track with your digestion and gut health. There are medical conditions, food sensitives, and allergies that may complicate your body’s gut health. For the most part, they are beyond the scope of the description of the fourth pillar. However, it is still important to feed your body wholesome food in order to promote optimal function of your gut. Relief from brain fog, moodiness, irritability, and exhaustion can often be achieved through the what, how, and when you eat. This is what Pillar Four – Unwind from Stress – is all about.
The pleasure of a healthy gut will spill over into your life, unlike your waistline, which will remain comfortable behind the top of your pants. In the Health Matters system, and in particular in this pillar, you are asked to respect your gut, be thankful to your body for the way your body works, and make choices to ensure that you will enjoy this system in your body for the rest of your long and vibrant life.
What I’m about to share with you is something I have learned both academically as well as personally. Throughout my extensive training in nutrition, the emphasis on gut health was central to all things related to longevity, disease prevention, and optimal performance in our bodies. I hope the physician with whom you work is an exception to what I am about to write. Please accept this comment as very general. Most medical schools provide little training in nutrition. This means, potentially, that your physician may or may not talk about proper nutrition as it pertains to your gut. I have seen this and heard this from more clients, friends, and family members than I can count.
There are medicines for every kind of digestive challenges. A partial list of digestive-related issues would include cramping, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, distension, leaky gut, reflux (GERD), irritable bowel, and more. In being true to my commitment to inspire you to reap the rewards of loving your body and getting your body to love you back, I must emphasize how much lasting well-being you can create by using food for nutrition and nutrition for medicine.
One thing you must know is how to balance your gut after a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics can destroy friendly gut flora, which can be a problem given the role these microbes play in immune protection. The Mayo Clinic recommends a responsible approach after a course in antibiotics. This includes a follow up course of gut-friendly foods such as fermented foods, pro-biotics, and whole, nutrient-dense foods that help gut bacterial to flourish.
A member of my family has extreme distress in her digestive system. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say, what comes out at both ends is explosive. Her physician has offered no nutritional advice, other than to mention that she should probably cut back on the sugar, since her blood glucose numbers are borderline for Type II Diabetes. Her diet contains large amounts of refined carbohydrates, which are correlated with a variety of gut issues. (Gut disbiosis, which is an imbalance in the healthy gut flora, thrives refined carbohydrates.) There is a connection between her elevated blood glucose and her malfunctioning digestive track. Her doctor knows his medicine, but he has offered no support to what might be the root cause, namely her nutrient deficient diet.
I offer this illustration, plus the comments above as encouragement to move toward a wholesome lifestyle. If you do things that make you – including your gut – feel crummy, might that be a good place to start? What would your life be like if you felt great after you ate, had healthy poops, enjoyed the feeling of being comfortably satisfied after a meal, and achieved a great weight without deprivation dieting? All of these, and more, are achievable through lifestyle modifications that help heal your gut.
1. Eat for now, not for later.
Let your digestive system do its thing without taxing it with too much volume. Consider that the food you put in your mouth can not only taste fantastic. It can also provide nourishment to every cell in your body. Allow the digestion, absorption, elimination process to work its magic. Notice if you make unreasonable demands on your digestion system, and if so, learn how to make pro-health adjustments.
2. Consider eating square meals.
My husband and I enjoy three fantastic meals per day. Each meal is a little celebration and I have learned to be a terrific cook. I mention this to make a point. When you allow your body to complete the digestion process, and you wait until you are hungry to eat again, you are allowing your digestive system to perform its functions in the way it was designed. If you introduce food into this system by eating something, and the food you ate, say an hour ago, is still being digested, you tax the system. This makes intuitive sense. Not only did my weight change when I adopted this, but my life changed. I learned to use the food at each meal to energize my body for hours, before getting hungry again. The best book on this topic that I recommend heartily is Mastering Leptin by Byron J. Richards.
3. Be in a relaxed state when you eat.
As you learned in Unwind from Stress, stress hormones compromise your digestive process. If the blood goes to your extremities (so that you can fight, flee, or freeze in response to a perceived threat or challenge), then your gut does not get the biological support it needs from your vessels. (You learned that everything is connected, right?) If you do suffer from any of the classic gut issues that have been described throughout this pillar, practicing breathing and relaxation before and during your meal, plus slowing down and resting your fork on your plate between bites, can make a world of wonder. Your nervous system is designed to support digestion. This is the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which you can turn on through these mindful practices I just described.
4. Consider holistic alternatives to medicine.
I do not disparage medicine categorically. There is a time and place for traditional interventions. However, with a mindset of healing your body (including your gut) you can shift from medicating to sustainable wholesome self-care practices. Two practical examples are to chew your food thoroughly and stop before you are full. This can help reduce the discomfort and pain of indigestion and reflux, or GERD. Bloating can be alleviated by choosing more whole foods and skipping foods that you determine upset your stomach. Constipation can be helped by eating more fibrous plants. It is beyond the scope of this description to go into detail of some of the side-effects of medication for gut and digestion related issues. But if you want to eat, digest, and poop in a healthful manner, use food that is nutrient dense, and try to move away from a dependency on medicine. Your behaviors address the underlying issues. Medicine does not.
5. Eat this not that.
Pizza made on processed and refined white flour, dripping with melted cheese, and covered in pepperoni cooked in rancid oil might give your gut grief after you indulged. Seriously assess how your body responds after you eat certain foods. When I gave up dairy completely and adopted a vegan lifestyle, my body practically sang its thanks and I felt so much better. I did not even have a cheese allergy or a milk sensitivity, yet still my body knew. (Dairy products is a topic for a whole other discussion, but the point is for you to inquire which foods put your gut at risk.) There are some foods that are associated with healing your gut, in particular fermented foods. They do this because the bacteria present promotes healthy bacteria growth in the gut itself. Dysbiosis is a condition in which the delicate balance of micro-flora in your gut is disrupted. It is very individualized which foods are most soothing for your gut, but you can start by increasing whole plant foods and eliminating processed foods.
6. A word about fiber.
If you are used to a diet high in processed foods, it would be extremely beneficial to you for your overall health, including gut health, to include plant fiber on a regular basis. Besides supporting bowel health and elimination, fiber helps you feel full after a meal. Fiber tablets do not always contain the same quality of soluble and insoluble fiber that is ideal to boost health in your digestive track. Neither does fruit juice, from which the fiber has almost always been removed. Whole fruits and veggies are Mother Nature's gifts to your gut. If you are not used to eating like this, be patient as you give your entire digestive track time to learn how to use fiber for a variety of health benefits.
7. Reduce or eliminate toxins.
At the simplest level, a toxin is something capable of causing disease or damaging tissue when it enters our bodies. In general, toxins can take the form of food additives, flavorings, commercial oils, refined foods, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, and artificial sweeteners. Food contains messenger chemicals that play out when metabolized and are either eliminated or sent via the blood as nourishment to the cells. It is the role of the gut to extract the waste and utilize the rest. Eating organic food, for example, can make a huge difference to gut health because of the absence of toxic chemicals. Drinking clear water instead of sugary or artificially sweetened drinks will definitely help your gut.
8. Give it a rest.
Like I mentioned above, it may not be the best thing to try to find something to eat to help settle your stomach. I think in part some people do this because they learned it from their parents. My mom fed us ginger ale when our tummies hurt. Ginger is good for settling your stomach. But the sugar in the ginger ale is not. You might consider some intermittent fasting. You can literally give your entire digestive system a rest. If you don’t feel well in your belly, sipping some soothing herbal tea, like chamomile, can help. Caffeine can exacerbate acid reflux, so this is a good thing to avoid. Not eating can be the best remedy of all.
9. Think holistically.
Your gut is a part of your whole body. It is not something that is “down there”. As you can see in that diagram, like I mentioned, it starts in your mouth and runs through your entire torso. Actually, digestion begins in your brain where you might experience cravings, the need for something sweet, a tremendous desire for a reward, or the need to overcome exhaustion. One client told me that her main goal was to overcome a pressing need to use sugar to wake up her exhausted brain. We did that by going through the distinctions I am laying out for you here. Her issue was, on the surface, merely a craving for sugar. Looked at through the lens of her whole body, we found clues that explained this dependency. She was lonely. Eating sugar at midnight kept her up until 3:00 AM. She was depleted the next day, and the cycle continued. When we focused on her making meaningful social contacts, she was able to sooth herself more easily. The social contacts helped put out the fire of isolation. A side-benefit was that she became more regular, and the bloating and diarrhea vanished. Her body was not tolerating all that sugar. I love this illustration because it points poignantly to the misuse of diarrhea medicine, and to the need to love our bodies in their entirety.
Thomas Edison said,
“The doctor of the future will give no medication, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
My commitment as a health coach is to inspire those who desire to live more successfully in their bodies, and to provide the tools to do so.
There are wholesome, sustainable alternatives to feeling lousy, suffering from chronic belly aches, tolerating a compromised immune system, and the other gut-related challenges I've mentioned. Even diseases like leaky gut can be helped with whole lifestyle modifications.
You can feel vibrant.
Learning how to live and thrive may not be the easiest thing you will learn on your journey of embodiment. But it will become among the most rewarding lessons of your life. Health Matters. And so do you.
Like I do at the end of all the pillars, I want to remind you about getting help. I have coaches in a variety of aspects of my life. When someone knows more than I do on a subject where I long to improve, and she or he can lead me to achieve my particular goals, I bring that coach on to my team. It makes sense to me that a coach will guide me to get the results I am looking for faster, smoother, and with less pain, suffering, and frustration.
If you resonate with this, and if you are willing to find out how I can help you move forward with your life, health, food, and body goals, please let me know by completing this form. My passion for guiding you to feel and look better is in my DNA. If you send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject PILLAR and your contact info, I will gladly add you to my Health Matters newsletter plus call you for a complimentary discussion.
Copyright ©2019 Rosie Bank