Gut health is not only about what happens in the gut; it’s about how what happens in the gut affects your whole body and mental state. We are excited to dive deeper into the subject of gut-health and plant-based eating with the integrative health coach Savannah Rodriguez.
•How did you discover the power of a healthy gut?
Savannah: I discovered the power of a healthy gut after I started to question our food system. Once this level of critical thinking starts it doesn’t stop, you start to question EVERYTHING. Which is a great thing in my opinion, because I started to question the foods I had been eating my whole life and their connection to my health. What I was eating had a negative impact on my health, especially my gut. I became aware, really for the first time in my life, that all of the symptoms I had been experiencing were due to an imbalance in my microbiome which was caused by my poor eating habits. So I put my critical thinking skills to the test and started researching nutrition, exercise, supplements and the whole nine yards. It wasn’t until I put action to my research that I balanced my gut dysbiosis and discovered the amazing power the gut has on our overall health.
Does stress affect gut health?
Savannah: It absolutely does. Our gut is the epicenter of our body. Before we were a complex system we were nothing but a digestive system. This is why there are more neurons (nerve cells) in our gut than in our brain. There is a whole nervous system in our gut, called the enteric nervous system, and it’s a part of the same nervous system found in our brains.
The ENS and CNS are connected by the vagus nerve. And so when you are stressed out the nervous system sends a response to the other systems to carry out a “stress response”, or what we know as flight or fight. Cortisol is released causing decreased immune function and metabolism. These directly affect gut health.
Most of your body’s immune cells are found in the digestive tract and are tasked with fighting off all the invaders that come in from the food we eat.
The main role of the gut, though, is to metabolize food. When you are in a state of chronic stress, which most of us are in (especially right now), these two functions are being inhibited. This causes you to be sick more often and for longer periods of time. You’re not able to fight off microbes you would normally be able to. You can even become nutrient-deficient from not being able to metabolize the food you eat properly.
Stress plays a massive role in the health of our gut which then plays a role in the health of our overall body. Our guts are the gateway to health. When it is out of balance or not functioning properly, you will notice the rest of the body isn’t either. We are all connected.
• We heard that water lubricates the mucosal lining of the gut and helps keep it healthy. What other drinks at home can we utilize to boost gut health? We love kombucha but store-bought kombucha is laden with sugar.
Savannah: I love kombucha as well and you bring up a GREAT point. You do have to be careful when buying store-bought kombucha. Check the labels and if there is added sugar to it, think twice. However, the good news is making kombucha at home isn’t too difficult. You need water, SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), tea, sugar and a container.
Now I know I just said sugar, but the sugar you add to it while it ferments is not in the finished product. It gets broken down and eaten by the microbes that are living in the SCOBY. The sugar is their food. As far as other gut-healthy drinks I personally love tea. Green tea is great, it’s loaded with tons of antioxidants and polyphenols. It also lubricates your gut. Other tea options that are just as good are herbal teas, chamomile, hibiscus, lavender…. I aim to pick loose leaf tea to help minimize plastic consumption that can be found in tea bags.
Another option that I choose is warm lemon water with some fresh ginger. I drink this first thing in the morning on an empty stomach to give my gut a boost of hydration and soothing nutrients after a night of resting and repairing. There are so many great options to choose from to help hydrate yourself and keep your gut healthy. The rule of thumb when choosing a drink is to make sure it doesn’t have any added sugar or dairy and if you can’t pronounce the ingredients you should maybe put it back.
•Why are sugar and artificial sweeteners a big ‘no’?
Savannah: Sugar is an inflammatory food, meaning it causes systemic inflammation in the body. And we know that systemic inflammation can be the cause of many of the disease we see today. Sugar affects the liver a lot; it has been discovered that it can increase fat cell production in the liver leading to liver toxicity, fatty liver, and a condition known as non-alcohol related fatty liver disease.
Sugar offers no nutritional benefits outside of a burst of glucose energy which then raises your insulin production and can have negative effects as well. Artificial sweeteners like stevia have been found to react to a bacteria we have in our microbiome. It converts stevioside into a toxic substance called steviol which can cause a spike in mutagenic DNA damage. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol are not absorbed in the body and end up in the colon. They draw fluid into the colon causing diarrhea. Aspartame has been shown to cause adverse mental effects such as depression, irritability and impaired mental performance. And so when it comes to sugar, PLEASE stick to sugar that is found only in plant foods, such as fruit. Fructose from fruit doesn’t seem to have these negative effects. Mainly because fruit isn’t just isolated fructose, it also has loads of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and fiber. These give our body the boost it so desperately needs and wants.
•What is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?
Savannah: A probiotic is a substance that has living cultures of microbes in it. An example is fermented food or drink, like the kombucha we talked about earlier. These help to repopulate the lost microbes in our gut from damage and otherwise ordinary everyday loss. However, it isn’t truly recommended to take probiotic supplements. They tend to only have a select few strains of bacteria which can cause a monoculture to develop in your gut.
Your gut microbiome has way more than just 5 different strains of bacteria, it has possibly thousands. So when you only add in a select few you create an environment of imbalance. Fermented foods, however, could have a variety of strains and the foods themselves can be used as prebiotics. A prebiotic is the food our microbes eat.
Another way to look at prebiotics is fiber and resistant starch. We don’t actually metabolize these things, the microbes in our gut do. When you eat a high fiber diet you are actually taking care of the trillions of microbes in your gut which is incredibly vital for your gut health. Without these diverse microbes we would be extremely unhealthy. And we are definitely moving towards this
It’s known that we have lost about 90% of the diversity of our microbiome over the last decade or so. This could be the answer to why we are seeing a huge rate of diseases and illnesses. Take care of your microbiome and it will take care of you!
•Plant-based foods like beans, legumes, vegetables and fruits are full of fiber & complex carbohydrates that actually patch up the gut lining. So what do animal-based products do to our gut?
Savannah: It isn’t just the gut that becomes affected by these “foods”. Animal-based foods are very limited in the nutrients they provide us. There is no fiber, resistant starch, antioxidants or polyphenols, nor any of their protective properties, found in them. And these are the nutrients that are found to be THE healthiest for us. Instead, animal-based products are loaded with inflammatory properties like saturated fat, which we have already discussed isn’t good. When cooked with high heat (broiling, grilling, pan frying) they produce heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are known to cause cancer. TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) is produced by meat-eating bacteria found in your microbiome or in your gut. TMAO is linked to kidney disease, heart disease and atherosclerosis.
The protein in animal products causes a reaction in our body to produce IGF-1, or insulin growth-like factor. This is a growth stimulant that floats around in your bloodstream causing your cells to grow inappropriately. Cancer occurs when cells grow at higher rates than they are supposed to. Heme iron has been found to convert less-reactive oxidants into highly-reactive free radicals. Free radicals cause damage in cell structures, membranes and your DNA.
The last thing I will bring up about animals products is the use of antibiotics. Most of the antibiotics that are manufactured go to animal agriculture. Antibiotics are pumped into the animals to help prevent infections that could occur due to the horrible living conditions in which these animals are raised. The antibiotics are still in the flesh of the animal when slaughtered. Meaning you are eating small amounts of antibiotics. This causes a massive negative shift in your microbiome; antibiotics kill off your microbiome leaving room for opportunistic microbes to take over which leads to gut dysbiosis. Animal products are not health food as we are discovering through research. You can get all of your nutrients from plant foods.
•Where do you look for inspiration when creating plant-based recipes?
Savannah: Pinterest is my best friend, honestly. I look up vegan “blank” and so many recipes pop up. I also follow Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen foods to help keep me on track with eating the healthiest foods. Over time you start to develop your favorite recipes and can make them your own by changing out veggies or spices. I have learned to veganize many of the foods I ate growing up.
To contact Savannah and chat about your health goals visit www.rootedinliving.com
Interviewed by Carina Ayden