With summer sadly coming to an end, I know many of us are re-evaluating our health and re-focusing on "getting back on track" for the "new school year" (back to school/back to work/end of summer...you know what i mean). And with that likely comes a re-evaluation of our lifestyle choices, including alcohol. Many of us have likely over-indulged throughout the summer months as we have been more social & been on more vacations...it happens! But, it also begs the question of: what role should alcohol play in our lives? And is there a healthy amount of alcohol to consume?
I often get asked a myriad of questions by my patients about all aspects relating to alcohol consumption. Is alcohol healthy? How much is too much? What kinds of alcohol are best? How to minimize the side effects of alcohol? And how does alcohol consumption fit into other health goals (ie. Weight management, hormone balancing, gut health)?
So I thought I’d give a summary of my suggestions are around “healthy” alcohol consumption….
First of all, let’s just remember that although alcohol has been touted to have certain health benefits (ie. the anti-oxidants in wine, the bitter component in some beers, etc) the reality is that it is a toxin to the body. In fact, the body will prioritize metabolizing and breaking it down over other important processes in the body (which is why in excess it can lead to all kinds of imbalances). So like all guilty pleasures in life, it should be enjoyed in moderation and with a healthy mindset.
So, what is a healthy mindset around alcohol?
Well, part of my process in determining this involves exploring a person’s reason for and behaviours around consuming alcohol.
Some questions I explore may include: Do you use it to bury or minimize stress? Is it used to boost confidence or to be able to engage socially? Do you use it to relax your mind/body? Are you able to limit your consumption (can you have just one)? Do you feel regret the morning after? Does drinking interfere with your relationships, job, sleep, motivation etc? And so on….
These questions provide a lot of insight into whether a person has a “healthy” relationship to alcohol. At the end of the day I employ my patients to do more of what makes them feel alive, feel good and feel connected. And to do less of anything that doesn't….which for some may include alcohol consumption.
So next question is…what does drinking in moderation mean?
The CDC defines moderate alcohol consumption for women as no more than 1 drink/sitting or 5 drinks/week and for men as no more than 2 drinks/sitting or 10 drinks/week.
And remember that a drink is defined as:
So with all that off the table, let’s now discuss which individuals I often advise against drinking until their health concerns have been addressed (I do not discuss substance abuse and/or other serious mental health concerns as this subject is beyond the scope of this blog):
And so if you do fall into one of the categories listed above, it is important to understand that consuming alcohol may be preventing you from achieving your optimal wellness. Ultimately, we all have to make decisions on what we’re willing to and not willing to give up in order to feel our best…it’s a push and pull, give and take…but knowing what factors influence your ability to do so is a first step.
For those who do choose to consume alcohol I’ve outlined some key things to consider that will help minimize the side effects and keep alcohol as a friend, not foe.
Bottom line…choosing to drink alcohol involves weighing the benefits vs risks unique to you. Everyone Is different….metabolizes alcohol differently, has different health conditions to consider, uses it for a different purpose, etc. Carefully considering whether it adds or subtracts to your quality of life is a key part of enjoying it responsibly.
Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND
Wouldn't it be great if we could just take a "magic pill" and all our problems would disappear? Fortunately, we are far too beautifully complex for such a quick fix. However, I am going to provide you with one tool you can begin incorporating today that, with its consistent practice, will drastically improve your health & sense of well-being. In fact, it has been shown to be effective in treating depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, skin diseases, cardiac conditions, insomnia, diabetes, digestive disturbances (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, reflux), asthma, arthritis, and many more chronic and acute conditions.
Learning to be MINDFUL
This is a buzzword that I am sure many of you have heard at some point over the past year, and one that, unless investigated, is elusive and difficult to wrap your head around. In fact, even upon being asked by my partner what it meant I fumbled with my words in an attempt to come up with an articulate response.
So, after some thought and digging back into the books, articles and podcasts that have guided me on my own mindfulness journey, here I am articulating what it means to be mindful, what kind of benefits you can expect to experience by implementing it into your daily routine and how to go about doing this.
What is MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is a psychological state of awareness of one’s moment-by-moment experience. It involves non-judgmentally observing our thoughts, emotions and sensations to see that life is a constantly changing process, which therefore invites us to accept and move through both pleasure and pain, fear and joy, highs and lows with better equanimity and balance. It involves turning our “gaze” and attention inwards (instead of outwards, to the future or to the past) so that we can observe (without judgment) the state and flow of energy in our body. In particular, it gives us an opportunity to slow down and take note of HOW and WHERE we hold tension (which is the physical manifestation of emotions) in our body. This is an important practice because for many of us ruminations about the past and/or the future are what cause us so much dis-ease and difficulty.
“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, it is peace amid the storm”
~The Insight Meditation Center (Barre, Massashusetts)
The resurgence of mindfulness practices is, in my opinion, the result of an unmet healthcare need; poor stress management. By virtue of our go-go mentality and fast-paced world we have subjected ourselves to less sleep, poorer food choices, longer work hours and less time for family, friends and leisure. In response to this our bodies are under constant stress with very little room for rest, digest & reset. When this happens we loose our resilience, our emotional intelligence and our connectedness to ourselves and to those around us. We become closed off, reactive to our environment and stuck in a constant cycle of repeat as we attempt to keep up, and to survive. Additionally, this chronic state of stress throws our immune system out of whack and perpetuates inflammation throughout our body. A recipe for disaster! However, there is a solution....and it is called MINDFULNESS..
“Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in this space lies our power and freedom.”
I love this quote, because it articulates a very basic animal instinct that exists in all of us; one of fear & reactivity (essentially our fight or flight response). However, it also highlights that, as humans, we have a higher cognitive function that enables us to over-ride this primacy. Learning to be mindful teaches us how to harness this innate intelligence so that we may live in greater peace and health.
How can MINDFULNESS benefit you?
It all comes down to this…
Sounds fancy doesn't it? However, all it really implies is the interaction between the psyche (mind), nervous system and immune system. In relation to our topic on mindfulness, it is a way of understanding how by being mindful we can bring our body into a parasympathetic state, open up a space for healing and therefore shift our body out of the inflammatory, fight or flight state (arguably the root of almost all chronic and many acute diseases). Science in this area has demonstrated how intimately connected these parts are and therefore how by impacting one we can make positive strides in the others. In fact, a leading pioneer in this field, Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre, has found incredible success in treating patients with a wide range of medical conditions (heart diseases, menstrual disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, arthritis, etc) by implementing a mindfulness-based meditation into their treatment plan. I encourage you to check out their website for more in depth information on mindfulness: https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mindfulness-based-programs/mbsr-courses/about-mbsr/
For the purposes of satisfying your interest today, here are some common conditions that mindfulness can treat:
AND....by virtue of its ability to induce a parasympathetic state and bring greater awareness and insight into your bodies responses and needs you will experience the following benefits (among many others):
The research is not lacking in this area....in fact, the following excerpt is a summary of the key clinical implications on the findings of a wait-list randomized control trial published in PubMed that assessed the use of a “loving-kindness meditation program for self-criticism” :
“Self-criticism plays a major role in many psychological disorders and predicts poor response to brief psychological and pharmacological treatments for depression. The current study shows that loving-kindness meditation, designed to foster self-compassion, is efficacious in helping self-critical individuals become less self-critical and more self-compassionate. The study also suggests that practicing loving-kindness may reduce depressive symptoms and increase positive emotions.” ()
So….now you want to know….
How do you become MINDFUL?
You can implement mindfulness as either a formal or an informal practice. I suggest starting with a formal practice as this can help to provide structure and tangibility to something that may feel very uncomfortable or foreign in the beginning. There are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life including practices such as Tai Chi, Qigong, yoga and meditation. Some involve stillness and silence (meditation), while others use chanting and/or movement (yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong) to bring an inward sense of focus, calm and awareness. There are two particular practices that I have found to be very powerful, and I will briefly describe a beginner’s method for each.
METHOD ONE: Mindfulness Meditation- Body Scan
This formal practice is good for building self-awareness, self-compassion and self-mastery (of thoughts & behavior). I suggest beginning with a 10 minute seated meditation first thing in the morning. This is an opportune time as it can help to set the tone for the rest of the day. Here is the method I like to use:
METHOD TWO: Kundalini Meditation
This form of meditation and breathing involves a technique that brings into balance the glandular and nervous system. I suggest trying this meditation if you have found regular mindfulness meditation too difficult OR as an initial practice to calm anxiety, improve stress or depression. This practice has the ability to shift your mindset and improve emotional resilience within minutes. There are many different "techniques" under the kundalini umbrella, however, starting simple is the best way to develop a consistent practice. The Left Nostril Breathing technique is used to activate our parasympathetic state. Here is how:
Incorporating Mindfulness into Daily Life
applying it to life's daily challenges will allow you to experience a more consistent sense of calm and ease within your life. Here are some examples of how mindfulness can be useful in your day-to-day life:
I hope you have found this information to be useful and inspiring. Making changes and taking time for ourselves is difficult, however, building a mindfulness practice into your day is the closest thing to a “magic pill” there is. Chronic stress is at the root of all chronic dis-ease, and so the most effective way to combat this is to build resilience by learning how to activate our parasympathetic state. Often we say we don't have time, however, I challenge you to take an inventory of your day and I am confident that you will find a way to fit 10 minutes into your daily routine.
Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND
The health of your gut plays a central role in your overall health. It is involved in detoxification, digestion, nutrient & hormone synthesis, mental health, and immunity. In fact, 70-80% of your immune system is located in the gut! The importance of this lies in the fact the majority of diseases involve some form of immune dysfunction. From the cold & flu, to depression & anxiety, to diabetes and thyroid disorders, the immune system plays a significant role in their pathogenesis. I imagine most of you think of the immune system as only being active during a cold, infection or fever. However, it actually interacts with our environment on a daily basis in an attempt to keep our body in homeostasis and free from foreign invaders & substances that cause both acute and chronic illnesses. There are several organs that play a role in our immunity, however, our skin and our Gastrointestinal tract (which is essentially an extension of our skin) are the two major players. In fact, they form a protective barriers that separates our insides from the outside world. It is therefore crucial that we keep them intact and functioning properly. In particular, because our gut plays such a diverse and critical role in our overall health, ensuring its function and integrity is preserved is one of the most impactful things we can do for our health.
Let me give you a quick example of how this all plays out. Let’s say you’ve been under chronic stress be it from work, family, relationship, money, etc. Because of the perceived "threat" your body diverts precious resources (such as blood) form your gut to other more important areas of the body such as the heart, lungs and muscles as part of a survival mode instinct (as if we are running from saber tooth tiger). In doing so, the ability of your gut to digest food properly is compromised. Eventually you begin to experience symptoms such as acid reflux, bloating, gas, stomach pain, and constipation or diarrhea. What is happening here is that, among many pathological processes, food is not broken down properly & therefore cannot be absorbed. Instead it remains in the gut & is fermented (eaten) by certain populations of your gut bacteria. When fermentation happens in your gut it produces gas, which causes the symptoms of flatulence and bloating. Further, by feeding certain populations of bacteria in your gut the delicate balance (that is essential for good gut health) is thrown off which further perpetuates other digestive problems including diarrhea, pain, and constipation. Eventually these changes lead to a breakdown of your gut lining (aka. Leaky Gut), which triggers your immune system (since our body is desperately trying to protect us). Once the immune system is triggered, this is when we begin to experience symptoms outside of the gut including headaches, skin problems (rashes, acne, eczema), depression/anxiety, joint pain, thyroid problems, sleep disturbances, etc.
As a Naturopathic Doctor I use a framework when addressing gut issues, which serves a backbone for almost all healing protocols. It is called The 4 R’s of Gut Healing, and here’s how it goes:
This involves removing anything that may be impeding function, disturbing microbial balance or destroying the gut lining. By doing so, we aim to put out the fire so we can create a foundation upon which we build & restore healthy function.
Some of the common offenders are:
During the initial stages of gut healing it is often necessary to provide the body with digestive enzymes and HCl (hydrochloric acid, aka. stomach acid) to replace what may be deficient.
It is important to establish a balanced microbial population in the gut, the lack of which is often a major culprit in digestive disturbances. This often involves a combination of consuming fermented foods and a probiotic daily.
This is oftenthe last phase of gut healing since repair only happens once the fire is out (ie. Once we have removed the gut destroyers). Repairing is process of both soothing and helping to initiate the “closing” of the leaky gut lining. We do this by feeding the epithelial cells of the GI tract with nutrients such as l-carnosine, zinc, l-glutamine and prebiotic fiber. Other important nutrients include anti-inflammatories such as MSM, chondroitin sulfate, curcumin, boswellia and ginger.
Soothing an inflamed gut involves helping to promote the regeneration of the mucous lining and can be done with the use of slippery elm, marshmallow, chamomile, etc.
Health problems can be complex as there is often several factors at play, however, using a framework like the one above provides structure around how to take steps towards improving your gut health. At the very least, it’s an excellent place to start! I have seen time and time again with my patients that by simply beginning with step 1, removing the barriers to health, we make drastic improvements. The reason lies in the inherent load we take off the gut in dealing with irritating or immune provoking substances. Think of an inflamed gut as burning embers, that in order to burn-out need to be free of any spark, gasoline or flame that have the ability to reignite the fire. So give it a try! Just don't be discouraged if you hit a stand still in your symptom resolution, sometimes that’s an indication that we need to do some more investigative work (to uncover the root cause), which is often a good time to engage the help of a health professional.
Rock bottom is a place of humble beginnings, a place of rebirth. As humans, we are driven by an innate desire to survive, however, for many reasons we cause our own suffering, often because, at some point…
we stop listening to our inner wisdom
.....the compass that leads us through life. Whether driven my shame, greed, pain or fear we move away from our unique balance and into habits, thoughts, relationships, jobs, etc that do not serve us. My own story is a poignant example of this. Although unique in it’s own way, I hope it serves as a guiding light or inspiration for those of you who are suffering, whether quietly or out loud.
I experienced several “traumas” throughout my youth, however, the resilience of being young and naive was on my side. It wasn’t until mid-twenties after a break-up and the pressure of graduating from university did I begin to experience a breaking of that resilience. Up to that point in my life anxiety was a foreign concept (or at least I was unaware of it), but the balance was beginning to tip. It was a gradual process in which I began to experience increasing episodes of heart palpitations, nervousness, insomnia, and lack of focus. To cope with this I began looking for ways to escape through food, alcohol & exercise. I was pushing my body to the limits; ignoring the messages it was sending me. It’s no surprise that this wasn’t going to last long, and eventually I had my first panic attack.
IT. WAS. TERRIFYING!
And although I recovered unscathed, the fear of having another one loomed in the darkness of my mind and body for years afterwards. I ebbed in and out of anxiety & depression as I tried to find ways to cope. It was also from here that my gut started to deteriorate. I began experiencing the classic symptoms of IBS; periods of diarrhea followed by periods of constipation, bloating and gas. It was torture. The worst part is that I suffered in silence because of the shame I felt over my anxiety & depression. I thought I was stronger than that, that there was no way (with all the good things I had in my life) that I could be “plagued” by mental health issues. I began to loose hope. And began to view my body as the enemy because it was causing me so much pain.
In an act of desperation I decided to go visit a doctor to see what insight he/she might have for me.. In a 15 minute appointment, I was labeled with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and DEPRESSION and sent on my way with a prescription for an anti-depressant. I remember walking out of the office in disbelief and felt even more ashamed. It took me a week to fill the prescription because deep down I intuitively knew there had to be another solution, however, at that point in my life I was unaware of those alternatives. So begrudgingly I filled the prescription and began taking the anti-depressant. After only a week I knew something wasn't right as it felt like a veil had been placed over my mind. I immediately stopped taking them. I was now back to square one, but felt even more scared, lonely and hopeless.
I had hit rock bottom.
In hindsight, the beauty about rock bottom is that when we feel we have nothing to loose, we are closer than ever to our own truth.
“From our darkest moments we are forced to dig deep into our hearts to find direction; to connect with our intuitive knowledge, strength and resilience.”
~Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND
I could no longer ignore the loud, unbaiting signals my body was sending me; the anxiety, the depression, the digestive issues, the poor sleep, etc. The signals that were telling me something was out of balance. My body was crying for help. So, I finally decided to listen.
I began the process of searching for a “natural therapy” for depression. That is when I stumbled across the book Clean, which my dear brother had given me a few months earlier. It couldn't have been better timing; and I now consider it a serendipitous miracle because it changed the course of my life!
After reading the book, I decided to begin the detox program (you can read more about it here). I won't lie and say it was easy, but the desperation to see it through to the promised benefits on the other side kept me going.
On the 7th day I remember waking up with a strange sensation. I woke up happy, energized and with a sense of calm and clarity I had not felt in years. It felt like I was finally home, in my own body, present and aware. Like the fog had finally lifted (not to mention that all my digestive symptoms had resolved).
The process was soul quenching because it reaffirmed what I already intuitively knew; that the body knows what to do if given a fighting chance. That fighting chance was an opportunity to build a foundation of resilience rooted in nutrition and elimination of toxins. The resilience also gave me an opportunity to address the emotional baggage I had been carrying with me for so long. Because when we feel supported by our body we have the resources to explore the deeper parts of our mind.
It was from this experience that my passion for health was reignited. I had experienced first hand that the body is connected, and that by “feeding” one part of it we feed the whole. By addressing my nutritional and digestive concerns (for example by putting out the inflammatory fire in the gut, read about this in my previous blog) I was able to fix my mental health concerns. Our body’s parts are all connected, and so it is imperative that we address health and healing in this way.
So, in coming full circle I share my story as a way to inspire and give you hope. We are incredibly resilient as human beings when we pay attention to the messages it is sending us. The physical, emotional and mental symptoms we experience are pieces of information from our body that something is out of balance. When we look at them that way, we have 2 choices;
1) Listen and make meaning out of them to create instructions for our health
2) Ignore and suppress them & continue to incur suffering
I think the choice is pretty clear?
This alternative approach to mental health involves being curious and willing to go on a journey of self-exploration in which we uncover the sources of our pain so we can touch it with kindness and compassion. I love how eloquently Dr. Kelly Brogan, a leading expert on the subject of non-pharmacological treatment of depression & anxiety, summarizes the process of healing from the inside out:
“We can move beyond the chemical theories, the complex analysis, and simply be in the process of sending the body-mind a signal of safety. Safety looks like ease. Trust. Curiosity. And even surrender. It’s not a fight. It’s not a battle. It’s a cooperative exchange and an exploration. It’s becoming more of our whole selves because we are becoming less fragmented and self-evasive. We stop hiding parts of our personhood from our awareness. We embrace it all in order to heal.
I now look for the story in any physical symptoms that arise in me, and in the physiologic specifics of my patient’s conditions. Exploring these stories often reveals the key to true wellness.”
The first step towards healing is simply awareness. Paying attention. Being curious about our symptoms. Changing our frame of mind to see our body as a wise guide instead of the enemy. One simple way to begin to change this relationship is through our breath. Learning to breath again is incredibly empowering because it proves to ourselves that we have the capacity to influence our experience in each moment. We have the power to shift ourselves out of panic, fear, stress and anxiety and into calm, peace, acceptance and relaxation. And once we learn to do this, we cultivate a physiologic body response (our parasympathetic state) that is fertile grounds for healing to begin. So here’s how it works:
Our diaphragm is one of the major muscles involved in deep inspiration. We can purposefully learn to activate it by breathing deep into our belly. You can practice this by placing your hand on your belly, and with each breath in imagine filling your belly up with air (like a balloon). In doing so, the diaphragm expands down into your abdomen and “massages” the vagus nerve. This nerve is the key to activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your rest & digest state. So with each breath in, we trigger a response in our body that tells it “you are safe now” (aka. "you don't need to run from saber tooth tiger anymore"). To know we hold this ability is incredibly powerful, because it means we always have a safety switch for our overly active stress response.
I encourage you to try this exercise seated or laying down. Aim for 10 breaths in and out. It is best used as a technique to calm yourself prior to bed, prior to meals, when you are feeling tense or wound-up, as part of your meditative practice, or simply at a moment when you are feeling overwhelmed by your pain or difficulty (whether physical or mental). And remember, learning to breath again is like any skill in that it requires practice. So be patient and diligent in its pursuit.
Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND
Do you suffer from low mood, depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration, irritability, mood swings and/or digestive problems including gas, bloating, IBS, diarrhea, constipation, reflux?
Did you know that the health of your digestive tract has a profound impact on the health of your brain (and vice versa) and therefore on your mood?
Well, I'm sure at some point in your life you've had the experience of feeling "butterflies" in your stomach in anticipation for an event? This is no coincidence. The gut and the brain are connected, and I'm going to connect the dots for you. I'm also going to provide you with a few simple things to incorporate into your daily routine that will have an enormously beneficial impact on both your digestive and brain health. We are going to hit 2 birds with one stone!
But, before we get to the goods, I think it's important you understand how these two seemingly distant "organ" are so intimately connected....
Your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which runs from your mouth to your anus, is, in a structural sense, quite simple. It is a hollow tube that takes food in one end (your mouth), breaks it down, absorbs what it needs and then excretes what it doesn't out the other end (your anus). However, while relatively simple in its structure, it is arguable one of the most important and influential organs in the body, it is literally your “second brain”. So important is it’s role in overall health that it even has it’s own nervous and immune system (the enteric nervous system and gut-associated lymphatic tissue)! It plays a large role in immunity, detoxification, hormone & vitamin synthesis, blood sugar regulation, and brain health. (1)
In this context of mental health, our discussion will focus on the incredibly influential role of the gut-brain axis.
The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional (travels in both ways) communication pathway whose main highway is the vagus nerve. Along this "highway" travels nerve signals, hormones and other signaling molecules that impact both gut & brain health. And while we’ve termed it the gut-brain axis, the latest science has shown that it is actually a microbiome-gut-brain axis. (2)(3) The “gut” being the hollow tube made up of epithelial (skin-like tissue), muscle and mucosal (mucous) layers. The “microbiome” being the complex community of microorganisms that line the inside of this tube. The importance of making this distinction lies in the fact that the gut flora (the population of microorganisms) produce a multitude of neuroactive (brain influencing) molecules, such as acetylcholine, histamine, melatonin and serotonin, that act locally, but that also communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. Therefore, the state and health of these microorganisms plays a vital role with regards to the types of "messages" sent to the brain. For example, when we consume foods that are allergic or inflammatory in nature (we’ll talk about which ones below) our gut flora initiate an immune response that eventually reaches the brain, resulting in brain inflammation. This is bad news, since overwhelming research is now showing that inflammation in the brain is at the root of almost all chronic diseases including mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimers and ADHD. In fact, in one double-blind crossover study, 20 healthy male volunteers were administered an endotoxin that resulted in an increase in inflammatory markers, which also triggered classic depressive symptoms. (4) Now, this is not to say that inflammation is the only cause of depression and anxiety. However, if by fixing our gut we can reduce symptoms of bloating, gas and discomfort while also improving our mental well-being, isn’t it worth doing?
So, now we get to the good part.
Here are some tips you can begin implementing today that will promote a healthy flora, improve digestion and invariably result in a positive impact on your brain, and therefore mental health.
1) Avoid or minimize inflammatory triggering foods
Each of the foods below is known for triggering inflammation by activating an immune response in the body (which starts in the gut). In general, the extent to which these foods provoke an inflammatory response is person and dose dependent. However, for those of you in poor gut or mental health it is good to consider a 3-6 week period of abstinence while your body “puts out the inflammatory fire":
2) Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables
I know, I sound like a broken record. However, eating your vegetables (especially dark leafy greens) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to boost antioxidant & anti-inflammatory levels, increase fiber, and provide a multitude of other essential vitamins and minerals. In the context of gut health, fiber has 2 very important roles. One, it helps to move things along in your bowel, which means food doesn’t sit and ferment. Second, many vegetables contain prebiotic fiber that helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut. And remember, a balance of good bacteria is needed to maintain a healthy gut and therefore a health brain. Vegetables high in prebiotic fiber include onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, leeks and dandelion greens.
3) Eat more probiotic rich foods
Fermented foods are an excellent source of gut-friendly bacteria. Examples of this include: cultured vegetables (sauerkraut & kimchi), kombucha, kefir based beverages, tempeh, and yogurt (preferably sheep or goat, grass-fed and organic).
4) Promote your ‘Rest & Digest’ state
One of the biggest impacts you can make on your gut & overall health is by managing your stress. I intently chose to use the word “manage” because not all stress is bad. Stress can be motivating and through it’s actions in the body allow us to be alert and focused to be able to perform certain tasks. However, chronic stress becomes harmful as it depletes our resources and causes many important body systems to break down. One of the vulnerable systems is our gut as it relies heavily on a “rest & digest” state for it’s optimal function. Only when the body is relaxed is the GI tract and all it’s associated organs (liver, gallbladder, pancreas) able to work cohesively to break down food, assimilate nutrients and move toxic waste for excretion. Dysfunction in these processes due to chronic stress often results in the symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, poor immune function (chronic cold & flu, auto-immunity), food allergies, hormonal imbalances, and mood disorders including anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc.
As an added insult, stress can directly alter the composition of our microbiome, shifting it towards a more immune-provoking population of bacteria.
Stress is a constant part of life. However, we can learn to manage it so that our body is not compromised by it. When it comes to your digestion, the following exercise is an excellent way to initiate a rest & digest state and prepare your body for food. In doing so, you can ensure that what you eat actually gets translated into nutrients that your body can use to heal, repair and make important brain neurohormones.
First: Sit down. Yes, that means no standing while eating.
Second: Take 10 deep belly breaths before putting any food in your mouth. What does a belly breath mean? It means with each breath, focus on filling up you lower abdomen with air. It may sound like a silly technique, but the science behind it is real. With each deep breath in you cause your diaphragm to move downwards, and in doing so it “massages” (causes stimulation) of your vagus nerve. And just to remind you, your vagus nerve is the nerve responsible for initiating your parasympathetic nervous system that causes us to transition into our ‘rest & digest’ phase.
Third: Chew, chew, chew! The act of chewing is another key part of the digestive process that has gotten swept aside in the name of our go-go mentality. However, the mechanical act of chewing is actually the first step in digestion. When we compromise this important step, we put a larger burden on the rest of our digestive tract; forcing it to chemically break down “chunks” of food. Inevitably we end up with some undigested particles that remain in our gut. This has 2 important consequences: 1) We don't maximize the absorption of important brain nutrients & 2) Undigested food is allowed to ferment and cause gas and bloating, which also disrupts the balance of good and bad bacteria.
I hope I've helped you to understand the connection between your brain and your gut. And I hope I've inspired you to know that you can make a profound impact on your mental health by promoting a healthy flora. Depression, for example, is not a disease state; rather it is a symptom of an underlying problem. And although not the only cause, inflammation (caused by poor gut health) has been elucidated as a major underlying cause of this symptom. So, when we "put out the fire" in our gut, we build a foundation of resilience that supports a healthy brain.
Supplements to consider
I always promote dietary and lifestyle changes as the foundation of any healthcare protocol. A golden rule in naturopathic medicine is that you CANNOT supplement/medicate your way out of a poor diet/lifestyle. In plain terms, you will never be able to put out a fire if you keep feeding it fuel. However, in situations where an individual is nutritionally taxed and/or to provide some support during the initial phases of a treatment plan, supplements can be enormously beneficial. I have provided a list of some important categories to consider in any protocol that addresses gut health.
Happy gut healing!
Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND
Dr. Rachael Lovink is a licensed Naturopathic Physician in Victoria, BC. She has a passion for helping you uncover the root cause of your illness. Her special interest is in the treatment of mental illnesses (such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc) with the use of non-pharmaceutical intervention such as targeted supplements, dietary intervention, IV nutrients/injections and lifestyle counselling.
The Information provided by Dr. Rachael Lovink is intended solely for educational purposes, and is not a substitute for the medical advice provided by another physician or healthcare professional. You must never disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking medical advice because you are accessing and using the information provided by Dr. Rachael Lovink. The Information cannot be used for the purpose of diagnosing, treating, or in any way mitigating a specific health issue or disease. It can also not be used with the intention of prescribing a medication or other modality of treatment. You must always speak with your physician before starting any new approach to managing your health, including vitamins and minerals, exercise and other therapeutic modalities. Further, you should seek medical advice immediately if you suspect that you have a medical problem regardless of using the information provided through the website.