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Your Gut Has A ‘Brain’ And 3 Other Things You Should Know

We talked to diet doctor of the LA Lakers to find out everything that athletes need to know about their gut (and it may surprise you).

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An upset stomach or side cramp can stop a run in its tracks. Sure you may get some extra mileage in while you are hunting for a bathroom, but you probably won’t recover enough to get your run back on track.

In order to avoid a flare up we first need to learn about our gut and what can affect them—yes, food isn’t the only reason you may be experiencing issues or discomfort.

We talked with the diet doctor for the Los Angeles Lakers, Dr. Cate Shanahan, MD who authored Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, to find out exactly what you need to know.

What is the most important thing for people to know about their gut?

“Gut health is key to a healthy immune system. If you have inflammation in your gut, this causes not only intestinal issues but can mean your immune system will not be working optimally. In my view, the number one cause of gut inflammation is consumption of processed vegetable oils (like soy and canola). The average American now eats 25-45 percent of their calories in the form of processed vegetable oils, which, in the amounts we now consume and because processing generates toxins, powerfully promote oxidative stress and inflammation.

Unfortunately, I did not learn this in medical school—I went to graduate school for biochemistry before medical school—and too few doctors appreciate that eating these oils leads to serious health problems. This leaves patients to figure out what to do on their own. And often, I find that people get food allergy tests from people who don’t understand their limitations, and come to me with long lists of foods they have been told to avoid. This is a dangerous practice. A better bet for anyone with digestive problems is cutting the processed and refined vegetable oils out, and replacing them with the real, natural fats that have been with us for thousands of generations of human existence.

I’ve heard the gut and brain are ‘connected’—is that true?

The gut has its own “brain” called the mesenteric nervous system and it communicates to the brain in your head via the vagus nerve. So there’s a direct connection. Parkinson’s disease is now thought to begin in the intestine and spread via the vagus nerve to the brain. Of course, there’s also an indirect connection via the circulatory system, which connects the brain, the gut and everything else.

Should people be taking probiotics for optimal gut health?

I’m not a huge fan of probiotic supplementation for the simple reason that we have somewhere around 5,000 bacterial species living in our digestive tract, collectively called the microbiome, and I don’t believe that we don’t know enough yet about these species and their complex interrelationships to be trying to manipulate them by ingesting capsules of bacteria bred on massive scale in a factory. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the monoculture production of bacteria can potentially select for strains that may form biofilms in our bodies and have harmful effects.

In my view, a more logical way to optimize gut health is to adopt a strategy that every culture in the world, traditionally speaking, utilized: the inclusion of fermented and sprouted foods. Fermented foods that contain live cultures, like yogurt, Kimchee and old-fashioned dill pickles (brined, not steeped in vinegar) used to be part of everyone’s daily routines and we should go back to that if we want to optimize our intestinal health. Sprouted foods, like breads made from sprouted wheat and even beans that you’ve partially germinated, provide food for the beneficial strains of bacteria. By eating foods that have pre-biotic effects we are effectively cultivating more probiotics. You need both the pre- and the pro- for a healthy microbiome and optimal gut health.

What else can affect our gut besides food?

Stress, which reduces blood flow to the gut and can cause a kind of mucosal damage that underlies gastritis and ulcers.

Also—and in my clinical experience this applies more to women than men—being too busy to keep up with a morning bowel movement. When we rush from waking up to work and don’t take our once daily few minutes in the ladies room, we disturb the natural balance of our colon in ways that can have repercussions on the entire intestinal system. Being too busy to sit and peacefully poo is probably the number one most easily fixed cause of irritable bowel symptoms I see.