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Three Pound Universe Part I: How Gut Health Influences Everything, Everywhere, All the Time

gut health jen robinson microbiome Jun 27, 2023

Have you ever wondered if there are unseen forces at work that affect your physical and mental health? Like no matter what you do, it feels like you’re not as powerful as the invisible factors in your environment or DNA, not to mention life’s curveballs that influence the development of illness or disease? And what about stress, that sneaky, elusive villain known to keep you awake at night, increase your risk of heart attack and other diseases, even shorten your lifespan. Are we just sitting ducks or can we fight back? Or is it quack back? 

This edition of the Naked News is all about understanding the latest science on gut health and how it affects far more than your digestion. I'm publishing "Three Pound Universe: How Gut Health Influences Everything, Everywhere, All the Time" in two parts because I know most people, including myself, toss around words like gut health and microbiome as if it’s about yogurt and taking probiotics, but good Lord, gut health is more than encyclopedic it's extremely important. So, in part I, I'm going to…

  • Dive into a basic understanding of your gut, including the billions of good bacteria that reside in your body and go by superhero-like names
  • Learn about something called dysbiosis, or gut imbalance, and the types of diseases associated with dysbiosis. Spoiler: While the good bacteria go by Latin names that are tough to pronounce, you’ve definitely heard of these chronic illnesses and terminal diseases 
  • Look closely at what scientists call the gut-brain connection and what it’s teaching us about mental health conditions like anxiety and depression  
  • Then, we’re going to take a little detour to learn about fecal transplants and why modern medicine is like ‘shut up!’ and ‘no way!’ about the possible ways this treatment could help and heal certain chronic diseases
  • And for the grand finale, I’m going to reveal the loudest way to quack back, to go all gangsta duck, when it comes to your gut health.

And if you’re like, Victoria, you’ve gone too far with your extended metaphor, I know, I mean I don’t even like combative metaphors. Do they even work here? I feel like we need metaphors about balance and equilibrium, something more like Jedi Duck.

What the duck, Victoria, are you done? Almost. Basically, I want to help you start playing offense when it comes to your total wellness, to fly winter in late summer, to soar and nest and to flippin’ enjoy both the sunshine and the sunset. 

If that sounds like too great of a promise, that’s why I made part II. Because I don’t just want to teach you about it, I want to help you turn your gut health wisdom into daily Jedi moves

Real quick:

Here’s your sneak preview of Part II. In Three Pound Universe II, I’m going to introduce you to a board certified holistic health and wellness coach, who helps all people, but especially women going through perimenopause/menopause, reclaim their health without diets or a one-size-fits-all program. Her name is Jen Robinson, and she helps us apply what we learned about gut health in Part 1 to our food habits. Jen has a big heart and is obsessed with a no-shame approach to healthy living – you’re going to love meeting her and want to take notes.

So let’s go knock out part 1, so you can up your gut health IQ and get the inspiration you need to learn from Jen in part II. And because our past, present, and future are all connected, whether we know it or not, I’m gonna kick off this edition with a little story about one of my own multi-verses.

Buckle up, because we’re about to time machine back to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Georgia in the 1980s and visit Memaw. And don’t worry if she seems a little grumpy – that’s on me. I forgot to tell her you were coming.


A Library of Happy Memories


Do you ever think back to times in your childhood and it feels like it’s more than a memory but a whole world? A whole universe of moving parts that make up the whole? 

That’s how it feels when I think about Memaw’s house. Memaw was my paternal grandmother who lived up near Jasper in Pickens County, Georgia, at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We visited her from many directions, sometimes an hour or so away when we lived at Longstreet, over in Forsyth County, other times two hours when we came over from the suburbs of Atlanta, or maybe a three hours ride when we drove northeast from Anniston, Alabama. But time is tricky and ephemeral for children. And as a kid, for the longest time whenever we sang, she’ll be coming around the mountain when she comes, I thought we were talking about going to Memaw’s house.

Memaw’s driveway, which was technically a dirt road or what Dad said was called a right away, was made possible with permission from a logging company. With that permission, my family built a bumpy, hilly lane that felt conjured from storybooks. A reasonable quarter mile of dirt and gravel began at the top of an anonymous country road then plunged down in an undulating style that gave you the freefall shivers. Dad would announce the imminent left turn with the savior faire of a bullfighter, the signal to thrust our hands into the air and prepare for what felt like the first big plunge of a roller coaster. Long before we had science to explain the way neural networks fuse together, our excitement and pleasure and family time synapses were firing away. 

The way down Memaw’s driveway came with its own fascinating scenery. On the right side, you saw mostly tall trees and the neighbor’s hog wire fence. On the left side, as you neared the house, there was an abandoned bus on a hilltop and two rusting antique cars closer to the sliding basement doors which functioned as a main entrance. 

The two story house, although new, felt as if it had always been there. Maybe it was the formal living room on the second floor filled with Louis XVI furniture and paintings of little boy blue, or maybe it was the unfinished dumbwaiter shaft that came from the rustic kitchen downstairs to the incomplete upstairs dining room, a space our gang of eight cousins turned into a stage for elaborate performances. Maybe it was the way Memaw had furnished the three upstairs bedrooms by color: the Red Room with the velvet drapes and red carpet, the Yellow Room with the canopy bed and ruffly bedspread, or the Green Room furnished in monochromatic verdant tones located nearest to a second unfinished bathroom. Maybe it was the billiard room on the first floor or the clawfoot tub in the main floor bathroom. 

Despite all the luxury bedspreads and partial upstairs bathrooms, Memaw slept downstairs in a little bed with a wrought iron frame in the hallway. Later it would be a twin bed on the other side of the brown brocaded sectional in the living room. Even now, I can trace my steps throughout her house all the way up to the attic, a treasured place that showcased our family history – old wigs, our parents polyester clothes, boas, boxes, records. The unfinished aspects of Memaw’s house gave the place a kind of historic ambiguity – was it incomplete or had it once been something lavish and wonderful?

Dad bought the 30 acres for Memaw and Daddy Rab, his parents, in the 1970s. They’d always been poor, he said, and he wanted them to have something of their own. Plus, he needed a faraway hideout to store his large inventory of smuggled marijuana. And my grandparents obliged. When I asked Dad recently about the house’s split personality and about why it was never finished, he explained that Memaw, or Helen Victoria McGuinnis, the name given on her birth certificate, never really had money and just spent it as she went. They built the basement first, he said, and lived there for a few years and then added on, including a wrap-around porch on the second level. Certain portions of the porch like other details of the house were never finished, which made opening the sliding glass door in the red room a special thrill, especially when our game was War. War was a Payne gang original, similar to hide and seek, and mainly consisted of splitting into teams, with the two boss cousins whispering commands and telling us where to hide and how to get back to base undetected. 

Another of the unfinished elements of the second floor was the hallway that connected the landing to the back bedrooms, which meant you had to pass through the Red Room to access the other sleeping quarters. The Red Room was Daddy Rab’s bedroom, although while he lived I don’t remember him staying up there, although his clothes and other belongings could be found in the closets. Daddy Rab was an odd man, who by the time I’d met him, had already been weathered by alcoholism and years of smoking. He’d had his trachea removed due to esophageoal cancer and had a gaping hole in his throat that was inconsistently covered by a handkerchief. When he wanted to talk, which was not much, he placed a little machine that vibrated to the opening in his throat and his voice came as eerie robotic sounds. I never really warmed to Daddy Rab, or who his friends called Rabbit, and his mother named Roy Lee, but at his funeral when I was nine, I cried hard for Dad. All the shows we’d rehearsed on the stage at Memaw's came to my aid, as I worked up some real tears on behalf of family loyalty. 

After Daddy Rab was gone, the gap that existed between the top of the stairs and the other bedrooms became a problem. The cousins agreed the Red Room was haunted, and so we would we hold our breath and sprint the distance from the first steps on the red carpet to the hallway that joined up to the yellow room, where we loved to play despite Memaw’s warnings that bedrooms were for sleeping. Memaw, ever armed with a broomstick and a flyswatter, one for banging on the ceiling and the other for swift licks, got tired of our commotion one day and came upstairs to discover what the hell was going on. Once she heard our story, Memaw marched us straight into the spookiness to demonstrate there was nothing to fear, and to add if Daddy Rab was haunting us, he was our grandfather and loved us.

We were a family who believed in ghosts, after all, no matter what the Bible said about heaven. And several family relatives, including my mother, were magnets for paranormal encounters, which she enjoyed talking about, especially ones about her father, Billy Wikle, who lost both legs, one at at time, from injuries sustained during WWII. After his death, Billy could be heard ambling around in the attic on his artificial leg. Other local ghosts at Mom’s childhood home preferred messing with the light switches, or the man who died while smoking, who enjoyed conjuring the smell of cigarettes burning in an empty upstairs bedroom. Such tales scared the hell out of me and inspired many night time prayers where I begged God to spare me from such unnecessary life experiences. 

The ghost of Daddy Rab was not the only character up in Jasper. Honorable mentions also belong to a crew of living dead like Log Chain, the town drunk and family friend, and to old Jack-o-Lee Memaw’s boyfriend with the long, white beard. Log Chain became legend in our family after helping our parents pull off a Christmas caper, where he stood outside the window of the yellow room on Christmas eve, invisible except for a red glow of what was surely Rudolph’s pulsing nose. Jack-o-lee had an old man cackle and a small pond, where we were invited to fish and wile away many aimless summer days. 

I’ve been thinking about Memaw lately and how little I pondered our unique setting and its inhabitants. I was both surprised and not surprised to learn that today Jasper’s population is listed as only 4,235 residents and that wasn’t even Memaw’s mailing address. Fairmount, Georgia, our technical location, today has just upward of 700 people living there, which perhaps explains why we rarely went to town to buy things at the Piggly Wiggly. Instead, we, the cousins, walked up Memaw’s dirt road and turned left to Frankie’s who lived about a mile away and hosted a trailer in her front yard that operated as a country store. For children of our time, who were not indulged with silly things like food preferences or grocery requests, all we really needed was access to candy and Coca Cola, which Frankie had in regular supply. Frankie was a kind woman who chewed snuff like Memaw and didn’t always wear her teeth. She waved us in, took our dollars, and loaded our stash into paper sacks before sending us on our way. 

Such hazy, layered memories but what strikes me now is that Memaw’s house was not a singular place on a map but part of a world, a somewhat impoverished and depressed world but a world surrounded on all sides by things that made it work. And for all its strangeness, and general lack of TV channels, it was one of the world’s I liked best, a library of happy memories.

I wonder if you have worlds within worlds that come to mind when I tell you about Memaw’s. They’re hard to explain, aren’t they? Especially how they rely so much on memories formed that we had no way of knowing we’d want to return to. As a child, I had no sense of what it would mean to grow up, to visit less, to move away, to have Memaw pass, to lose her home to poor financial planning, or that I would even yearn to return there and compare what I remember to that which no longer is. No one said to little Victoria, hey, you might want to journal. You might want to write things down. Back then I busied myself with poetry and cataloging the different accents of my region, which vary more than an untrained listener might notice, and I seldom pondered the universe where I was deposited in summer and on holidays.

What I didn’t have back then was certain language that’s helpful now. And a certain understanding of how things work together to form a whole. And how pieces of a world influence each other. Memaw’s was what it was because it was rural, surrounded by woods and pastures, filled with canned goods, gardens, Memaw’s chickens and guineas, a pack of neglected dogs, Rockford Files’ reruns that ran on a black and white TV, cousins, aunts and uncles, ones who played piano, guitar and mandolin, who sang standards and old time gospel music, and more important to the adults then than to us, the whole damn region, seemed to have very little governance.

A word that comes to mind when I think about Memaw’s and all the pieces that go with it is ecosystem. From an ecological perspective, ecosystem means “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.” When we use the word ecosystem in an everyday way, we’re probably talking more about a complex network of interconnected parts. 

I’ve been thinking about Memaw’s and the word ecosystem because that’s what I learned is happening inside of our bodies. In fact, a lot of what happens inside of our bodies is an interaction of our genetic inheritance, both physical and emotional, and what we do with our bodies, including what we eat, how we move, and how much stress we’re under, among other things. 

With my hippy parents, we ate a lot of fresh food and meals made from scratch. At Memaw’s we ate a lot of white bread, home canned goods, and pantry staples, which is interesting because that’s pretty much what my father, one of my genetic contributors, ate as a boy. Of note, Dad, while incarcerated for smuggling for 13 years, had quadruple bypass surgery in his mid-fifties. And this was after becoming vegetarian and teaching aerobics inside of the Atlanta penitentiary.

My mom, according to scientists, was responsible for passing down her microbiome to me, which contains billions of bacteria responsible for endless wonders related to immunity, well-being, mental health, and disease. In addition to teaching me the ways of carrot juice and cod liver oil when I was young, or passing on their genetics and good bacteria, my parents also unfortunately exposed me to a lot of stress and chaos in my developmental years as we lived a double life as a ‘normal’ family who also happened to operate an international illegal enterprise with a lot of moving parts. 

So, why does all that matter? 

Because when it comes to your body, and I know this is going to sound weird, it’s more than just you in there. It’s layers of family genetics, worlds of microorganisms, loads of life experiences, both good and bad. And thankfully, just like unwanted family patterns, we’re not stuck inside of what we’ve inherited or what we’ve done with our inheritance up until now. 

So we’ve got a lot of worlds inside of us. And mainly I’ve been talking about one of the outer universes that formed me from the inside out. But now I want to grab the magnifying glass and hover over something tiny that was here before me and will be here when I’m gone. We talk a lot about the conscious experiences and memories that shaped us – it’s a big reason we go to therapy and choose to refashion our identities into something more intentional and whole. But what about all the stuff we can’t see that’s influencing us, whether we like it or not? When it comes to knowing yourself and making healthy lifestyle adjustments, we would be nuts to overlook one of the most powerful operational systems we have going on in our bodies, our own super duper miracle worker and often misunderstood gut microbiome. 


Your Three Pound Universe


So, remember when I said it’s not just you in there? Dr. William Li, the author of Eat to Beat Disease, not to mention over 100 scientific journals, is the founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a leading non-profit in understanding how the body can overcome disease by growing new blood vessels. His TedTalk “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” has over 11 million views, so he’s like the guy when it comes to understanding how we harness our body’s natural superpowers to treat, prevent, and cure illness and disease. According to Dr. Li, calling ourselves human is a bit of an understatement. Instead, Dr. Li claims we are what’s called a ‘holobiont,’ which he defines as “an organism that functions as an assemblage of multiple species that are mutually beneficial.” What’s he talking about? The billions and billions of bacteria that call your body home. Here’s some mind-blowing facts about the bacteria in your body:

  • You have 39 trillion bacteria, mostly good, inside and on your body’s surface.
  • You have as much bacteria as you do cells, maybe more. 
  • When combined, your bacteria weigh roughly three whole pounds. 

All of these bacteria make up the body’s microbiome, defined as a complex biological system of healthy bacteria that interact with your cells and organs in many important ways. In this episode, we’re specifically talking about the gut microbiome. And as we voyage deeper into how it all works, let’s pause for a minute and define gut.  

Although you may think of your gut as your intestines or that jiggly part of your belly that doesn’t play nice with your jeans, gut health is impacted by far more than your small and large intestines. Your entire digestive tract is important when we’re talking about all that bacteria, which means gut health begins in your mouth, includes your esophagus, stomach, known organs like your intestines, and carries on into your rectum and your anus. Understanding the way the entire digestive tract plays a part in gut health is important for two reasons:

1) How your body processes food is one of the ways you make bacteria that feed the other bacteria in your body.

2) Bad bacteria in some of your organs is a major contributor to certain illness and disease. SIBO, for example, is a known condition caused by an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the small intestine that causes diarrhea, malnutrition, and osteoporosis. 

So, if you’re like, ewww, bacteria, rectum, anus, gross, don’t worry it’s going to get grosser. But not gratuitously grosser. The sad truth is we don't know enough about our own bodies and it’s killing us. And if you don’t believe me, let me tell you a little story about the history of bacteria and the folly of man. And when I say man, I mean, actual men. Doctor men to be exact. 

There was a time, not that long ago, when the medical community thought all bacteria was bad. While this seems like hogwash today and so ‘typical’ of the Western world apt to categorize good and bad and move on, the reasoning behind this adds up. Prior to thinking bacteria was bad, doctors didn’t even know bacteria existed. And in one disturbing incidence of maternal mortality in 1861 Vienna, doctors realized that they were the ones responsible for multiple women’s deaths because as a rash of women began to die in childbirth, they would head over to the morgue to conduct an autopsy, then head back to deliver more babies. No hand washing involved. One observant physician, also a man, developed a hypothesis and introduced the notion of hand scrubbing with an antiseptic before deliveries. It worked. 

And so this is an important place to pause and unpack the notion of good bacteria from bad bacteria. Of course, you’re probably familiar with certain bacteria causing ordinary illnesses like strep throat or a staph infection. According to the National Center for Health Research, “Staphylococcus aureus can cause something as simple as a pimple or as serious as pneumonia or toxic shock syndrome. P. gingivalis can cause gum disease and was recently linked to pancreatic cancer. [And] when not suppressed by good bacteria, Klebsiella pneumonia can cause colitis and subsequently lead to colorectal cancer.”

On the flip side, our good bacteria, which go by mellifluous superhero names like Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Lactobacillus, and Proteobacteria, colonize our respiratory and digestive systems and check the bad bacteria and thereby directly influence our immune system. 

And this is what all the fuss is about. Because in the last five years, science has begun to scratch the surface on these universes and their findings are both hopeful and sobering. Because dysbiosis, defined as a severe imbalance in your bacterial ecosystem, affects everything from aging and mental health to a litany of diseases. And when I say affects, there are now studies showing direct links from one to another. Here’s a quick hit list of conditions, alphabetized by Dr. Li for your nerdy pleasure, known to demonstrate dysbiosis. 

Dysbiotic Diseases & Disorders

  • Alzheimer’s disease 
  • Asthma 
  • Atherosclerosis 
  • Autism 
  • Bipolar disorder 
  • Breast cancer 
  • Celiac disease 
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome 
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 
  • Colorectal cancer 
  • Crohn's disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Food allergies 
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Heart failure 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome 
  • Leaky gut syndrome
  • Liver disease 
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Obesity
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Stomach cancer 
  • Ulcerative colitis 

This list is why I wrote this edition of the Naked News. We tend to think of our gut or having a healthy gut as a nice perk to a healthy lifestyle but from what scientists are starting to uncover, we can no longer think this way. Because I don’t know about you but I personally have some family medical history and a few current health concerns listed here. And if you’re thinking what I’m thinking you’re right: this list is not exhaustive. 

So what’s causing all the imbalance in our gut? In addition to our genes (which we mostly cannot control) and our inherited maternal microbiome (which we can in fact influence), our gut is heavily influenced, and remarkably healed, through our diet. 

Once upon a time, those lucky enough to have access to plenty of food and water, got their nutrition locally and from whole foods. Before we learned how to raise livestock, people ate meat less frequently and the meat they did consume came from animals who foraged for food, which is very different from a diet made from commercially produced grain. Even those who raised chickens didn’t always eat the chickens because the eggs were so valuable, either to their own families or to sell or barter with. 

Today, we tend to talk about things like carbs or no carbs, gluten or no gluten, getting off of sugar, etc. But at its most basic level, it’s worth comparing that our ancestors did not eat from boxes, cans, or grocery stores and to notice just how far our advancements in farming and food technology have taken us, for better or worse. 

So that’s the bad news. We haven’t really known much about gut imbalances and when we’ve talked about what to eat or not to eat for years, it’s often been a conversation around weight loss and dieting. 

Here’s the good news. 

When it comes to improving our gut health, the #1 resource, barring some pretty incredible medical innovations I’ll summarize soon, isn’t medication or even commercial probiotics: it’s eating diverse, colorful, whole foods. 

And just to clarify, it’s not a diet. And that’s good. Because when it comes to your health and preventing or even treating the symptoms of disease with food, you don’t want a quick fix. You want a way of eating that helps you feel amazing on a day to day basis and keeps you healthy for the rest of your life. Thankfully, we’ll get some help from our holistic health coach, Jen, in part II. 


A Mental Health Break 


By now you’ve probably heard the term gut-brain connection. But what does that mean? And what does it mean when you hear scientists refer to your gut as your second brain? 

The brain-gut connection is not new exactly new, but like a lot of conditions that can’t be viewed under a microscope, it’s taken modern medicine a while to really investigate this link. If you’ve ever gotten the butterflies, felt suddenly nauseous, lost your appetite due to grief, stress, or trauma, or struggled with an upset stomach or diarrhea while simultaneously feeling anxious, you’ve experienced the brain-gut connection. 

Your brain and your digestive tract have a connection that goes both ways. You can imagine food and your stomach will secrete stomach juices far before your food’s arrival. And there’s growing evidence to suggest that GI issues may not be a symptom of anxiety or depression – they could even be the cause of it. That’s why studies have shown that psychotherapy, in addition to medications, can improve digestive symptoms. 

The term second-brain refers to the way your gut also works as a brain. The enteric nervous system is the big fancy word for your gut brain, and it consists of 100 million nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract from your esophagus to your rectum. While the ENS can’t use reason and logic to make decisions, there is constant communication between your brain and digestive system and has been known to cause big emotional shifts among those with irritable bowel syndrome and other functional bowel issues such as constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, people with IBS and functional bowel issues have a greater incidence of anxiety and depression, and up to 30-40% of people will deal with bowel issues at some point in their lifetime. This discovery is a reason that some gastroenterologists prescribe antidepressants for GI issues. 

If you want to better understand what scientists call the gut-brain axis and the effects of diet and stress on gut bacteria and well-being, I recommend reading a rousing article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information called “Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition.” This review examines human studies that look at how stress and depression cause ‘highly palatable foods’ to seem more appealing, which disrupts the gut microbiome. It also looks at how stress and depression affect the gut by releasing stress hormones, causing inflammation, and affecting autonomic alterations, i.e. unconscious signals to your gut. 

The body’s neurotransmitters have a lot to say when it comes to mood. Specifically, 95% of serotonin, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter,’ gets made in the gut not the brain—another reason to care about the balance of bacteria in your digestive tract. Other mood-enhancing hormones like dopamine and oxytocin originate in the gut. If you’re up for another rabbit hole after this, you can learn more about how the gut also affects certain neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimers in a 2021 scientific article published by the National Institute of Health called “Regulation of Neurotransmitters by the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Cognition in Neurological Disorders.” 

We all know there’s a billion dollar pharmaceutical industry that pushes medication as the solution to health issues but the cool thing about understanding gut health is discovering how food itself can become powerful medicine. Also, scientists, who are now understanding the power of bacteria to fight disease, are starting to experiment with treatments that turn bacteria into medicine   . 

In the last section, we’ll get into the specifics around which foods you want to ensure get included in your regular meals. But first let’s look at some of the weird science that’s coming out of the gut-brain connection.


We interrupt this regularly scheduled program 


So before we move onto what and how to eat for an optimal microbiome, I wanted to tell you about some of the strange and wonderful medicine that’s happening right now when it comes to your gut. 

You may have heard that it’s helpful to take probiotics or eat yogurt when you’re taking antibiotics. That’s because antibiotics, while miraculous at killing off bad bacteria that cause things like strep throat and urinary tract infections, don't discriminate and kill off many good bacteria in your gut as well. According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, or ASAPP for short, "antibiotics don’t typically wipe out all of your gut bacteria but they do disrupt your gut bacterial community, killing many important resident bacteria.” 

And as I shared earlier, a lack of gut diversity is one of the issues that show up in dysbiosis. To further complicate matters, even when your gut heals, the old ‘good’ bacteria that had been fighting off illness and disease may not recolonize, which creates a greater healthy gut deficit. The efficacy of taking probiotics while on antibiotics continues to be a research topic among microbiologists but several studies have shown a reduction in gastrointestinal side effects like diarrhea when pairing probiotics and antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics also contributes to more antibiotic-resistant infections, which you may have heard about in recent years for things like staph infection. 

So that’s scary, right? The idea that you or someone you love could get sick or even die because you have an infection that’s not responding to typical antibiotic treatment. 

If you’re reading this and thinking, wow, I’ve taken a lot of antibiotics over the last few years. Or, if you’re someone who doesn’t need a round of antibiotics to cause tummy troubles, there’s some fascinating work happening in the field of fecal microbial transplantation. 

Yep. That’s what I said: fecal transplantation. And if you’re like, wait does that mean what I think it means? The answer is yes, pretty much. 

While this treatment was news to me, it’s apparently not new. Dr. Liji Thomas, a gynecologist and writer for an online life sciences platform called News Medical, writes that “Though new to the Western medical world, FMT has been described 1700 years ago. It was an ancient Chinese researcher of the fourth century, by the name of Ge Hong, who first used what he called ‘yellow soup’ to treat his patients with severe diarrhea. The’ soup’ was administered orally, possibly accounting for the failure of the technique to become widely known.” Yep, sounds like early instances of fecal transplantation meant you had to eat it. And now you know what that Mary Poppins song is really about. 

But seriously. Aren’t you glad that you live in a day and age when this magical elixir can be shoved up your butt or down your throat while unconscious? Oh, but wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Fecal microbial transplantation (FMT) is a procedure where a screened healthy donor (more on this soon) donates a stool sample that’s inserted into a sick patient during a colonoscopy. Although less common, the transplant can also be administered by a nasal tube that goes down to the duodenum, the place where the small intestine and stomach meet. 

Although many wonder about its ability to treat illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome, right now it’s only being used to treat a condition called C. diff, according to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. C. diff, which is short for Clostridium difficile, occurs when antibiotics kill off all the good bacteria and the gut is overrun by the bad C. diff bacteria. And what’s fascinating about this is that C. diff used to be treated with antibiotics, but as you can imagine, this was met with mixed results. FMT, on the other hand, has a 90% success rate. 

Given the rapid evolution of our understanding of gut health, it may not be too long before FMT is a treatment for some of the illnesses on the dysbiotic list mentioned earlier. Studies are currently underway to see if fecal transplantation works for ulcerative colitis, diabetes, chronic constipation, and obesity. An exciting development in the use of FMT is in the field of mental health, where research is looking closely at fecal transplantation and bipolar disorder and depression.

A word on healthy donors: The donor selection process is extensive for fecal transplantation. In addition to a general health survey that includes no antibiotic use for several weeks or no tattoos for six months prior, potential donors are screened for all manner of physical disease, mental illness, and risky behaviors that could negatively affect the recipient. 

I’ll be honest, when I first heard about FMT, I was like that’s crazy, that’s disgusting! But now, after learning more about so many illnesses affected by our gut microbiome, I feel excited about all the possibilities that FMT could be used for. There’s also a growing field of study called postbiotics, which is looking at how technology might be able to make things out of ‘dead’ good bacteria in order to reduce risks and to advance the speed of treatments that are otherwise slowed down by questions around the use of live bacteria. 

Alright, so if you’re like I am really struggling to keep all of these ‘biotic’ words straight, I’ve got your back. The next section is going to further break down the meaning of some of these keywords and then wrap up with some dietary recommendations that you can add to your grocery list today. 


 The Good Belly Diet 


So you’ve probably heard before that food is medicine, and that’s never been more true than when it comes to turning up your body’s natural healing system – your gut. 

Remember earlier when we talked about the human body as an ecosystem? I want you to think about this metaphor as we do a little gut health vocab work. 

Probiotic: Probiotic foods contain live strains of good bacteria. 

Prebiotic: Prebiotic foods are typically foods high in fiber that feed the good bacteria in your gut. 

Symbiotic: Symbiotic meals happen when you combine probiotic and prebiotic foods, like yogurt and rolled oats. It’s like the Daily Double in Jeopardy, except it’s much much easier to win. And you can win every time you play. 

You can find loads of food lists when it comes to probiotic and prebiotic foods. Just google those exact words, and you’ll have plenty to read. I’m also putting together a resource guide for probiotic eating, which will include some symbiotic recipes. For prebiotic foods, the common denominators are fresh and whole foods. Probiotic foods, which contain the live bacteria, are typically fermented. We talked a little earlier about quality. Some health proponents really emphasize organic, while others stress buying local and seasonal. But that’s not always possible. Given the importance of a high fiber diet, don't be afraid to get some of your nutrients from frozen fruits and vegetables. And if eating organic is important to you but it’s not in the budget, oftentimes organic frozen foods are less costly. 

As we wrap up, here are a few foods that are worth planning some meals around. 

Kimchi: From conversations with friends, I know not everybody likes this spicy condiment. If you’ve never tried kimchi, you should know there are many versions. The traditional Korean dish is a combination of salted and fermented vegetables like cabbage, radishes, peppers, garlic, and ginger, along with a fermented seafood product called jeotgal. Due to its fermentation, it’s a probiotic food and contains many of the good bacteria found in a healthy gut, including Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Lactobacillus. 

The reason why I’m highlighting kimchi is that there’s been a lot of research done on this food, especially when it comes to prediabetes and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a medical term that describes a combination of factors that set someone up for cardiovascular disease: abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and elevated blood glucose. 

In more than one study, participants who ate kimchi daily for eight weeks, and by the way they ate 1.2 cups which is a lot, saw significant health improvements including reductions in blood pressure and up to a 5 percent reduction in body fat. Results were greatest among participants who ate fermented versus fresh kimchi, although both showed health benefits. 

Cheese: If getting kimchi into your diet feels impossible, then let’s talk more about a food group that almost never gets good press. Most of us know cheese is made from milk but did you know it’s also made from a starter culture and an enzyme called rennet? Every cheese has its own microbiome, which makes cheese a probiotic food. Cheese is definitely one of those foods where quality matters. In fact, due to certain food and drug administration regulations, we can’t even buy cheese in the states that contain the same level of good bacteria found in other places in the world. In Dr. Li’s book, Eat to Beat Disease, he spotlights two cheeses worth including in your meals. Camembert cheese is both probiotic and prebiotic and has been studied by the French National Institute of Agricultural Research, which found that people who eat Camembert, a soft cheese similar to brie, had more of a good gut bacteria called Enterococcus faecium. Interestingly, this particular bacteria isn’t actually in the cheese but Camembert prebiotic effects feeds the healthy gut bacteria and thereby increases these helpful germs. Eating Camembert has also been shown to introduce new good gut bacteria into the body, such as Geotrichum candidum which is not normally present in humans. Note: in one research study, participants were given three dice-size cubes of cheese, twice a day, which in my opinion sounds like a wonderful way to live. 

Sourdough: I was already a lover of sourdough bread and was overjoyed to see it as one of the miracle foods of a probiotic diet. A common bacteria used in sourdough is Lactobacillus, which makes lactic acid and gives sourdough the sour taste. Specifically, Lactobacillus reuteri has been studied and found to have fantastic health benefits, including improved immunity and the suppression of tumor development. L. reuteri has also been shown to reduce weight gain and improve wound healing. In fact, in another impressive book on gut health, called Supergut, by Dr. William Davis, he gives a homemade yogurt recipe made with L. reuteri that he’s seen to heal patients with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) which he says affects one in three people. SIBO causes regular stomach aches and diarrhea and is a louder form of dysbiosis. The good news is that SIBO can be very difficult to treat and typically requires a very specific and rigorous diet. However, Dr. Davis has seen SIBO completely reversed by eating yogurt made with L.reuteri. Also, consuming L. reuteri is not just to treat illness – it’s also been shown to smooth skin, increase dermal collagen, accelerate healing, and restore youthful muscle, according to Davis. You’ll want to get his book, which has all the info and supergut recipes to make your own. I have all the ingredients to make mine and will be trying this out soon. 

When it comes to purchasing sourdough, quality counts. If you can’t tolerate wheat, there are excellent sourdoughs available that are gluten-free. You can make your own, of course, but I prefer to buy mine from my local bakery that has a whole grain, seeded sourdough variety that packs the probiotic and prebiotic punch. 

Leafy Greens: Many leafy greens are from the brassica family and are a powerful prebiotic food. Brassica foods are broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, kale, and arugula in addition to non-green foods like cauliflower, rutabaga, and turnips. In one study, adults in their thirties who ate a diet high in brassica foods for two weeks lowered the amount of toxin-producing bacteria in their gut by 35%! How much is enough? In this study, it took only one cup a day to see these results. 

Beans: Beans are high in fiber and are beloved by your gut. Studies have specifically examined black beans and navy beans in laboratory studies of mice who were given bean chow instead of regular chow. Those that ate the human equivalent of 1.2 cups a day saw a seventy-fold increase in a good bacteria called Prevotella. Researchers also found that beans helped support the gut lining and thereby the bean eaters saw significant reduction of harmful bacteria (81%) and an increase in mucus-secreting cells in the upper colon. Both types of beans showed positive results but black beans nearly doubled the amount of beneficial mucus-secreting cells. There have been fewer studies on other beans but scientific theory supports that chickpeas, lentils, and peas would also support a healthy gut. 

Mushrooms: I’ve always loved mushrooms but never knew how good they are for us. But since they grow in bacteria-rich soil, they come with their own microbiome. Studies have found benefit in regular old button mushrooms and have found exceptional results in Lion’s mane mushrooms. One study conducted at Jiangnan University in China found that Lion’s mane is especially beneficial for severe gut inflammation, reducing inflammation by as much as 40% by increasing the healthy bacteria called Akkersmansia and reducing a harmful bacteria called Desulfovibrio. 

Cranberry & Pomegranate: Like pumpkin, these foods should be widely consumed throughout the year not just during the holidays, especially since frozen versions can typically be found year-round. Both cranberry and pomegranate juice are drink superstars when it comes to your gut. In one study conducted by researchers at UCLA, participants who drank one cup of pure pomegranate juice daily saw a 71% increase of Akkersmansia, which supports decreased gut inflammation. Eating whole cranberries, according to Dr. Li, is the best way to get the benefits since cranberry skin and seeds have a lot of the bioactives that are good for your gut inside of them. As someone who loves sour food, I can say with certainty that it’s tough to turn cranberries into a snack. But I am excited about more fresh, cranberry relish in my future. Try sweetening with honey or agave, if you’re trying to reduce cane sugar. Any natural sweetener will raise your glucose levels, which may compete with other health goals, so make sure to do what’s right for you. 

Red Wine: So if you’re like Victoria, I don’t like sour food, I’m gluten-free, and cheese hurts my stomach, I have one more super food I’d like to flood light. Red grapes, like cranberry and pomegranate, are very good for your gut. So, if you’re also alcohol-free, know that you can get gut health benefits from pure grape juice as well. Meanwhile, wine drinkers listen up. Researchers at the Institute of Food Science at Autonoma University in Spain have studied the effects of one large cup of red wine (the equivalent of 8.4 ounces) on study participants who drank daily for four weeks. Scientists found that red wine produced anti-inflammatory properties by increasing bacterial metabolites in the gut. Benefits have also been shown in those who drink only ⅔ glass of wine per day. Finally, certain varieties are better than others. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are best, according to Dr. Li, because they have more potent anti-angiogenic properties. Angiogenesis is the production of new blood vessels and is another one of your body’s amazing healing factories). If you’re trying to reduce your consumption of alcohol or if you have substance use issues, this section is not meant to encourage you to drink more. But if you do drink alcohol, it’s worth noting that few alcoholic beverages contain health benefits, yet red wine shows up in multiple health categories. 


Beauty & Guts


There are so many more foods I could talk about, so if you’re thinking that gut health is out of your reach, you can do it! There are many other delicious whole grains, yogurt, fruits, and vegetables that support your gut. And if you’re like I wanna do better, but it feels like an uphill climb, I got you. Because in Part II, you’re going to meet Jen, and we're are going to talk why it’s so hard for many of us to see food as an important way we care for our bodies, especially when as women, we’ve been steeped in diet culture that’s always changing the game on what’s in or what’s out when it comes to losing weight. Jen and I want to flip that conversation on its head by focusing on gut health and the simple habits you can start today that will upgrade your total health and help you feel better about yourself and what foods you put in your body. 

Memaw used to say that ‘pretty is as pretty does,’ especially when she caught us putting on makeup which she believed was meant for grown women not child’s play. She also threw this phrase down whenever we were mean to each other, since according to Memaw, your actions tell a story about who you are. I think a lot about Memaw as I get older, especially marveling at how young she was as our grandmother yet how old she seemed to be. Memaw died of cardiovascular disease when she was only 68 years old, after having more than one open heart surgery. I have a recurring dream about her, where she did not die back then and lived for a handful more years up in the house in Jasper. While Memaw was not the one to model healthy living to me, she is the one I often think about when it comes to health and aging. My other grandmother, Bobo who was the same age, lived another 20 years after Memaw, and I think about all the important things that happened after Memaw passed, including Dad getting released from prison, which I know she would have loved to see. Memaw spent the last twenty years of her life caring for other family members, even working as a home health aide up in Jasper. But she was far less skilled when it came to taking care of herself. 

So to Memaw, I want to say thank you. Thank you for coming to me in my dreams and being a source of constant health and inspiration to me. I miss you. I miss the old world up in Jasper. Thank you for helping me understand that I want more than a pretty face but a beautiful life. Your interdimensional wisdom is not lost on me, and I plan to do my part in sharing it with others. In the meantime, don’t pay no mind to the F-bombs in my stories. I know lots of other words too.



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