November 19, 2021
The last thing anyone wants to worry about during the holidays is moderation—including, believe it or not, a certified health coach and gut health expert.
“The holidays are a time to really enjoy some delicious foods and time with friends and family,” says Erica Zellner, MS, CNS, LDN, and Senior Health Coach at Parsley Health, the nation’s largest holistic healthcare practice. “Often, these celebrations also include some overindulgence, and that’s okay.”
So how do you enjoy your favorite holiday treats without letting uncomfortable digestive issues get in the way? According to Zellner, it’s not about limiting yourself, but rather taking care of your digestive system all year long. We recently sat down with Zellner to discuss all things digestion, including probiotics, digestive enzymes, leaky gut symptoms, and helpful tips for how to get rid of bloating.
First, a seemingly obvious question that we think is well worth asking: what, exactly, is your gut, and what does it do?
“The answer I usually give people is that ‘the gut’ is how we describe our digestive system. It’s chiefly responsible for taking in nutrients from our ingested food, sending them out through the rest of our body, through our bloodstream, and it’s responsible for keeping our body running. It’s the main place that we’re taking in energy, nutrients, enzymes, vitamins, minerals—everything our body needs.
The gut is also where 70% of our immune system lives. The largest place where foreign invaders enter our body is through our mouth, so our immune system plays a big role in our gut, making sure anything sent through the bloodstream is actually helpful to our body. Our gut and immune system need to separate friend from foe.”
How does gut health support overall digestion? What other bodily functions does the gut support?
“The gut is an intricate system. It’s often called our ‘second brain,’ because it’s one of the only systems that can work independently from our brain. Simplified, it’s a 16-to-23-foot-long tube that runs from the mouth to the anus. Its most basic function is to turn food into nutrients for our body to use for energy, maintenance, growth, repair, and to dispose of waste products.
More deeply, the gut also helps run our metabolism and protects us from infections and foreign substances that may come in via our food. If our digestive system is compromised, then there’s a downstream effect that can harm our cells or reduce their ability to function.”
What is “leaky gut”?
“When people talk about leaky gut, they’re talking about our intestines. [The gut is a] long tube that’s super coily, and the lining is only one cell thick, so it’s incredibly thin. In a healthy person, that barrier should be more like a brick wall; we want to be very selective about what gets through that barrier because food is on the inside, then it’s broken down and those nutrients are taken through that barrier into the rest of our body. When that gets leaky, that brick wall becomes more like a chain link fence, so too-large food molecules or toxins or inappropriate bacteria — things that we don’t want to get through that barrier — can get through more easily, then our immune system goes, ‘Ooh, you should not be here!’ and creates that immune system inflammation response to get rid of whatever it is that got through that shouldn’t. So a leaky gut really is a physical leak.”
What are some eating tips for people who want to eat differently to improve digestion?
“Often small changes make the biggest impact. It’s really remarkable how much slowing down and chewing thoroughly [does for digestion]. We’re often so go-go-go, and our body doesn’t necessarily like that. If you’re dealing with digestive issues, slow your meals down from start to finish. Chew really thoroughly. The average person only chews until they’re sure they won’t choke, which is around six times. Ideally, we should be chewing until everything in our mouth is the consistency of applesauce, which is about 15-30 chews per bite. The next meal you sit down to, I would challenge you to count your chews.
Stress is the other thing. Try not to keep multitasking: don’t take a work meeting while you’re trying to eat lunch. Try not to watch TV while you’re eating dinner. That stress is going to immediately impair our body’s ability to digest. If we’re chronically stressed — like most people are — our digestive system is not being supported properly.”
What role does hydration play in digestion?
“In digestion, adequate hydration helps to normalize gut motility and gastric emptying. It also acts as a lubricant and comprises the bulk of mucus, which lines much of the digestive tract. Being well hydrated helps normalize stool transit time and emptying of the stomach. Increasing fluid intake can often help solve many digestive complaints, especially constipation.”
What should you do if you suspect that you may have a digestive issue?
“Start with your own symptoms. We can almost become numb to things that are going wrong in our body. If you’re consistently experiencing bloating or constipation, if you have acid reflux, abdominal cramping, diarrhea — it may be normal to you, but it’s not healthy. So we start there.”
Note: Zellner says that if you notice any discomfort or abnormalities in your digestion, that’s when you should seek professional care. At Parsley Health, they would likely then order a stool test to test for things like excess amino acids, viruses, or bacteria that may be a clue about what’s going on in your gut. You may also pay a visit to your general practitioner or a GI-specific doctor for similar services.
While maintaining a well-balanced diet will help to improve your digestion (and your overall health), there are certain supplements you can add to your routine to support your digestive system even further — and keep you feeling great even when you overindulge a bit. We asked Zellner to break down some of the most popular digestive aids.
Prebiotics. “Anything that’s a fiber is technically a prebiotic,” Zellner explains. “We’re talking about the food that feeds our healthy gut bacteria.” According to Zellner, humans actually can’t digest prebiotics; rather, they pass through us in their whole form, and that’s what makes fiber really good for constipation. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics recommends getting between 15-20g of prebiotics daily, whether that’s from supplemental sources or a diverse diet of fiber-rich foods like fruits, dark green vegetables, and whole grains.
Probiotics. “Humans like to think in all-or-nothing terms, so we often group things into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria. But it’s not quite that simple,” Zellner says. That so-called “bad” bacteria is always a part of our gut microbiome, and it only becomes harmful when that bacteria gets out of balance. “We need the bacteria to be abundant and diverse,” Zellner continues. “That prebiotic/probiotic combination really helps with that diversity.” She also recommends eating a diverse diet filled with lots of fermented foods (such as kimchi), which play a similar role to probiotics.
Digestive enzymes. “Enzymes are a catalyst to help break down foods,” Zellner says. There are protein-specific enzymes, fat-specific enzymes and carb-specific enzymes that will be released into our body when we eat. “Taking supplemental enzymes can be helpful if you’re having digestive issues, but it’s really important to know what you’re having trouble breaking down — whether it’s protein, fats or carbs.” She recommends talking to a doctor to find out which type of digestive enzymes are best for your body.
Aside from supplemental enzymes, Zellner goes on to explain that fresh foods also provide our body with essential enzymes for digestion, while processed foods create more stress on our body to create enzymes.
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Digestive bitters. “Bitters are one of my favorite initial interventions for people who are having broad GI complaints,” Zellner says. “They’re not a bandaid — I like to describe them like a giant alarm clock for our digestive system.” According to Zellner, digestive bitters work because human digestive systems evolved alongside more bitter foods than we typically eat today. “The bitter flavor profile is incredibly exciting to the digestive tract, so when you engage with something bitter, our body knows a complex meal must be coming,” she explains. Once the bitter taste happens, “Everything becomes more efficient: your parietal cells in your stomach start to create more hydrochloric acid, your pancreas starts to pump out more enzymes, your gall bladder will release bile — all those gastric juices that we need for digestion get woken up more efficiently.”
Digestive bitters come in liquid form, sometimes with a dropper for easier application. “I advise people to take them before meals, ideally 10 minutes before,” Zellner says. She recommends holding the liquid bitters on your tongue until you start salivating, which allows your body time to send the necessary signals to your digestive tract that a meal is about to begin.
*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
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