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Gut Health 101 with Barb Brennan, R.H.N.

I think most of us want to lead our healthiest lives.  “Health span“, that part of our lives where we’re generally in good health, matters more than life span. The good news is we can improve our health span at any age.


Gut health determines overall health. Our gut is made up of trillions of organisms and creates what we call a microbiome. Gut bacteria alone weighs as much as 2 kilos!

Picture your gut as a garden. Too much sugar and processed food and the weeds take over. Good gut health requires keeping the weeds down and letting the healthy plants flourish.

As a practitioner focused on holistic nutrition, I take a food-first approach to wellness. That starts with building a diet around whole foods like an apple, an avocado, an egg or a red pepper. No label required.  Whole foods bring us good energy. Try a plant-based meal or two a week. Experiment with a new recipe. If you’re a meat eater, choose grass fed, hormone and antibiotic free and free range whenever possible or simply reduce the amount of red meat you consume.

You’re probably familiar with probiotics, known as the good bacteria, but there are also prebiotics in many of the foods we consume regularly like asparagus, garlic, onion and bananas. Prebiotics help the healthy bacteria grow. They feed the probiotics. Probiotics are found in fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso.

These prebiotics and probiotics then create postbiotics which get released from the bacteria when they feed on the fibre molecules. Long story short… there’s a lot going on in the gut that miraculously happens without us even thinking about it! Our job as the landlord is to create a healthy environment in the gut that allows the magic to happen. It’s as simple as adding in lots of good foods including omega 3s and fibre and avoiding or minimizing things like sugar, refined and processed food.

Hydration is also key.  We need water to live but did you know it also has a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of the gut and helps balance good bacteria? Water, herbal teas and even foods like cucumber and watermelon can be hydrating. Sip water throughout the day, preferably between meals rather than with meals to avoid over diluting stomach acid that’s needed to break down the foods we eat.

Movement truly is medicine. It makes us feel better and if we feel better, we’re more likely to eat better, be happier, and have more energy. Studies have shown that after just a few weeks, exercise alone can change the composition of your gut microbiome… for the better!

Stress is directly tied to gut health. Ever had nerves lead to an upset stomach or diarrhea? The stress of travel can lead to constipation. Gut issues can also surface in the form of gas and bloating, acid reflux, heartburn, IBS, or food sensitivities or intolerances can also be contributors. Finding time to play every day can help keep stress within a manageable range. A walk can work wonders. Get outside in any season and enjoy some fresh air.  Relax, breathe, do yoga, spend time with friends, meditate, take a bath, read a book, paint, sew, explore a new creative outlet. Do something that brings you joy and schedule that time just like you would any other appointment. Make it a priority. Your gut will thank you.

Supplements can be an important part of an overall gut health plan, whether it’s maintaining an already healthy gut or working to get things back on track.

I’ll highlight just a few of the products that are commonly used to support gut health:

  1. Raw honey is a potent prebiotic, nourishes good bacteria and supports healthy digestion

  2. Ginger – commonly used for nausea and upset stomach

  3. Combine honey, ginger and lemon… provides enzymes, stimulates digestion

  4. Teas can offer gentle support for a variety of digestive issues – peppermint, ginger, fennel, dandelion, marshmallow root are all popular options

  5. Probioticsin capsule, liquid or powder form

  6. Enzymes in capsule form taken at the beginning of a meal to help break down food

  7. L-glutamine – an amino acid, top seller; powder (or capsule); supports the mucosal gut lining

  8. Aloe in juice, gel or capsule form

  9. Slippery elm – powder, tea, capsule, lozenges; coats and soothes from the mouth to the intestinal tract

  10. DGL – licorice root; heartburn, acid reflux, stomach inflammation, ulcers; helps relieve symptoms but also helps repair the gut lining; chewable; take before meals

  11. Bone broth – best when you can make it at home but also available to buy in powder or liquid form; nourishes the intestinal lining

  12. A quality fibre supplement can be a game changer

I encourage you to work with a practitioner that understands your history and can make the best recommendations for you incorporating diet, lifestyle and supplements.

If you’re working on your own, aim to add one new healthy habit to your routine… more whole foods, and less packaged food, more water or less caffeine. Try kimchi! Incorporate changes to improve your health span and, remember to play every day. You’ll be glad you did.

Barb Brennan, RHN

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