After a decade of swimming in the daily residue of day care, we appear to finally be reaping some bacterial rewards for the kids. Cecilia has been remarkably healthy since about age 3. Ally hasn’t been quite that hardy, but this winter she appears to have turned a corner. No trips to the pediatrician, no major colds, only one extended week-long cough. Michelle, on the other hand, has not been so lucky getting a couple nasty infections over the last six months both of which required antibiotics to clear up. Both of which the doctors believe were happenstance or bad luck.
I will be the last one to bash modern medication as it literally keeps me alive each day and antibiotics definitely have a time and a place, but the downside is that they do not play favorites and do not differentiate in the bacteria they kill. Good or bad, it’s all meat through the grinder and it can take months, or even years, to get that good bacteria humming again and get your gut back in balance.
Here are four simple, everyday habits we have started doing this month to try to keep our guts happy and the antibiotics at bay.
Why has the gut and the microbiome become the kale and quinoa of the zeitgeist? Mostly because it’s become increasingly clear what a large role the gut plays in our overall health. You don’t get the nickname “second brain” for nothing. It’s estimated that approximately 70-80 percent of our nerves run through the digestive system and it has a huge influence over our immunity, brain function, weight and hormonal balance. Seems like it might be worth keeping a close eye on your gut.
Not a new thing for me, but I’m trying to do my best to support Michelle in more consistent exercise. Her job does not make it easy to work out during the week, so I’m trying to keep the kids occupied, or at least tied down in the kitchen chairs, at least twice during the week so she can get something done in addition to her regular weekend runs and spin classes.
Why exercise? Pretty simple. The gingerbread man. Exercise gets things moving in the colon. Helps you maintain regularity. Why is that important? You don’t want things hanging around down there gumming up the works. Those bathroom trips can act as the canary in the coal mine and can be useful in predicting your overall health.
2. Eat more fiber and prebiotics
When people learn that I’m vegetarian and an athlete, one of the next questions out of their mouth is typically about how I could possibly get enough protein (Short answer, I don’t worry about it. Longer answer over here.). They really should be worried more about their own fiber intake. Less than 3% of Americans get even the minimum recommended amount of fiber.
As a mostly plant-based family, we are doing better than most, but given all the benefits of fiber, why not try for more? The key is to ramp up slowly and not completely rely on supplements to fill the gap, but rather try for more beans, fruits and vegetables. Plus, see number 1 above. Fiber is the engine that drives the colon train. Literally. It can’t be digested and it pushes the rest of the stuff down there through the intestines.
So, how are we doing it? Mostly small diet changes and looking for opportunities to get more soluble and insoluble fiber into each meal. For example, opting for oatmeal or 7 grain cereal over eggs or pancakes more often at breakfast. Adding berries and nuts as a snack in all our lunches. Finding more recipes that feature broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and lentils for dinner. Not every night, or every meal, of course, but making a conscious choice when we are meal planning out the week to try. It makes a difference and adds up. Any little action is better than no action.
What about those trendy probiotics? Well….the jury is still out. Here is where it gets tricky. Turns out, while probiotics have moved to the mainstream in the last 25 years, there is still a lot we don’t know (how much to take, when to take it, what strains are best, are what we are ingesting even what we think). Right now, we’ve decided to focus more on the plant-based whole foods high in fiber (and prebiotics) and let that be our medicine.
3. Tea and ACV
Beyond just aiming to drink more water, which isn’t a big problem for us, we are also now trying to start the day with a glass of water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.
ACV (what all the cool kids call it) has many benefits, we are doing it primarily for two reasons. First, to get the body moving toward a more alkaline state. Human bodies tend to be acidic and the body performs best closer to equilibrium or a Ph around 7. ACV can help nudge the body in that direction.
Second, it’s very effective at getting those gastro juices flowing in the intestines and breaking down food.
In the evening, we are trying to drink more herbal teas. Specifically trying new brands with peppermint, ginger, fennel or fenugreek (I know, WTF is fenugreek). Each of which is known for their digestive supporting properties.
If there is one word that’s being said in trendy city boroughs more than microbiome, it’s probably mindfulness. But if you can get past that, there are a lot of benefits to de-stressing with some simple meditation and reframing how you typically respond to stress.
Simply put, stress messes with your gut by pulling resources away from the midsection to deal with whatever is stressing you out. Consistent, chronic stress can lead to inflammation and other serious disorders in the gut and elsewhere. That doesn’t sound pleasant. Mindfulness can help you develop better strategies for dealing with stress and keeping your gut happy.
I think this one could personally really help me with my Addisons, specifically that afternoon low where my hormone levels are falling before my second hydrocortisone dose. I can get, let’s say, cranky, in the afternoon and not all that pleasant to be around. Not an ideal state to pick up the kids, help with homework and make dinner.
In the past, I’ve never been that successful with developing a consistent mindfulness practice, I tend to go well for three or four days, then fall off. Using the Headspace app has gotten me closest to a consistent pattern. I like its simple, down to earth approach and I’m really trying to find space in my day to make this a daily, ingrained practice.
That’s it. Four simple changes that can have big and lasting impacts on your health and each one doesn’t require a lot of effort or re-arranging routines to incorporate into your day.