Category Archives: Gut Health

coach-tawnee

Advanced Health Coaching to Improve Athletic Performance, Part 1

Health and fitness are not synonymous. As I noted in my last post, I’ve rethought my training strategy to emphasize good health and patience vs. strictly fitness. Health is the basis for longevity in sports and focusing purely on building fitness can eventually come at the cost of longevity. This is why I gravitated toward the MAF training method, since an inability to make fitness improvements under MAF may indicate underlying health issues.

MAF training varies by individual. There are no standard 16-week MAF training programs for a particular endurance event.  Therefore, I don’t follow a regimented training schedule. Instead, I stay in tune with how my body is feeling and do what feels right on a particular day.

For the past two months my improvements under MAF have plateaued and my body has felt a bit off…not bad…just not ideal. As a result, I wanted to take a deeper look into my health. Coach Tawnee Prazak started offering a new Advanced Health Coaching (AHC) consultation option which is exactly what I was looking for.

AHC differs from my previous consults with Tawnee in that she also brings in a naturopathic doctor (ND), Erica Cowan, to develop a health plan. AHC includes the following:

  1. Completion of a comprehensive health questionnaire along with providing food logs, sports history, etc.
  2. An initial consult to discuss items in #1 to figure out what lab tests should be ordered and the creation of an initial health plan
  3. Upon receiving lab results, Tawnee and Erica meet for lab analysis and creation of a health plan
  4. A follow-up consult with Tawnee and Erica to discuss the lab results and the corresponding health plan

ND’s put much more emphasis on prevention and holistic wellness (diet, lifestyle change, supplements, etc,) to support the body. They focus on the underlying causes of symptoms and not the symptoms themselves. Conventional medicine has a tendency to focus more on treating the symptoms than figuring out the root cause.

After my initial consult they recommended two lab tests: Genova GI Effects (gut health) and DUTCH Complete (hormones). A few days later they sent me my initial health plan that included recommended diet and lifestyle changes that I can start working on immediately while we are waiting for my test results. Once my test results are in, they will fine tune my health plan with much more detail. Below is a summary of their initial recommendations for me:

  • Reduce FODMAP intake
  • Limit caffeine
  • Limit/eliminate alcohol – preferably 1 month of no alcohol
  • Screen cleanse – eliminate screens after 7-8pm
  • Keep a food journal – note foods that make me feel great or trigger negative issues
  • Stick with MAF training
  • Find activities for de-stressing/parasympathetic activation
  • Turn Wifi off at night

As far as implementing the above recommendations…it is still a work in process across many of the items. One great comment that Erica made in an email to me was “Lifestyle changes are often the hardest to implement, but also the most effective!” I 100% agree! Making these lifestyle changes has been difficult. However, even with making some small progressions, I have already noticed improvements with fewer gut issues and an improved MAF pace. Even though it may be hard, it definitely seems to be worth it!

Below is what I’ve been doing to progressively implement the above recommendations:

Reduce FODMAP Intake

Tawnee sent me this great list. It is the best FODMAP foods reference I’ve seen. I eat a lot of vegetables so I was initially discouraged that most of my favorites tended to be in the “more fermentable” categories. However, Tawnee told me there is an individuation aspect to FODMAPs and that is where a food log can be a useful tool. There are indeed certain FODMAP foods that bother me more than others. I’m anxious to get my GI Effects test back to see what is going on with my gut.

Limit Caffeine

I’ve already been working on this one – check out this post. The amount of fully caffeinated coffee I drink now is a fraction of what it used to be.

Limit/Eliminate Alcohol

Ugh! San Diego is the craft beer capital of America and I also enjoy having a glass of wine in the evenings. I have never considered myself a big drinker but I’ve started to realize that I likely drank more often than I thought. My strategies for cutting back have been:

  • Order Pellegrino/sparkling water with lime at restaurants. This helps me feel like I’m getting something special without it being alcohol (helps save some money as well!)
  • When I do drink, I try to keep it to red wines from Dry Farms wine (less alcohol, sulfites and additives)
  • When I just “need” a beer I’ll have a session IPA. Session IPAs have great hop flavor like a standard IPA but the alcohol content in a session IPA is typically in the 3.5% to 5% range vs. the 5.5% to 8% of a standard IPA.

I’m down to having four or fewer drinks per week. However, I’m going to go big…30 days of no alcohol (started yesterday)!

Screen Cleanse – eliminate screens after 7-8pm

Surprisingly, this one has been easier than I thought. I shifted my non-screen activities (cleaning the kitchen, prepping for the next day, etc.) to the evening. I’ll also read a physical book before bed instead of perusing the internet/social media and/or watching TV. This also helps my productivity because I need to get all my necessary “screen work” done by 7-8pm.

Keep a Food Journal

Easy…Evernote – DONE

Stick with MAF Training – No Added Intensity

No problems here either. Except for the occasional spin class that I’ll go to with my wife, all my workouts are at my MAF heart rate. I forwent my normal training buildup to my half Ironman, which I’m only doing for fun with no performance expectations.

Find Activities for De-Stressing/Parasympathetic Activation

I don’t have a good de-stressing routine at the moment. However, I started journaling again in the evenings (which also helps with the screen cleanse). At the end of every day I’ll write down my accomplishments, memorable moments that made me happy/smile/laugh, and other reflections.

Turn Wifi Off at Night

Zero progress here but I have an idea that I’m going to try…

By the time my test results come back in another 3-4 weeks, I’m planning to fully incorporate all these lifestyle changes. Stay tuned…

fermented-foods

My Favorite Gut Friendly Foods to be a Good Bacteria Host

In my opinion, there are two primary things linked to gut health:

  1. Proper digestion
  2. Gut bacteria / microbiota

In my last post I covered how digestion is linked to gut health and what I have been doing to optimize my digestion. The other key component to a healthy gut is the trillion+ gut bacteria that we have a symbiotic relationship with. If you’ve been paying attention to health & wellness and/or food trends lately, you’ve probably heard something about probiotics and gut bacteria. If you need a refresher on why gut bacteria are important to gut health, make sure to go back and check out this post.

In addition to improving my digestion, the other thing I’ve been doing to improve my gut health is trying to be an ideal host to all my good bacteria friends. There are four different diet strategies I’ve been using to be a model bacteria host. Just like any good party host knows, you need to invite the right people, keep the guest list interesting, provide adequate food and drink for the guests, and make sure the cops don’t shut it down. #PartyPlanningBasics

Don’t know how to be a bacteria party host via your diet? Let me explain:

  • Invite a lot of the right people by eating plenty of fermented foods and/or taking a probiotic supplement. Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha contain beneficial probiotic bacteria. Consuming these foods supplies the gut with more good bacteria (just like inviting good friends to a party). Keep in mind though, your gut has trillions of bacteria so this is like dumping a cup of water into a swimming pool so the key is consistency and eating a little every day with every meal. Some of my favorite fermented foods at the moment are:Fage Yogurt

Fage Total Greet Yogurt – Instead of ice cream for dessert, I’ll eat full fat plain greek yogurt with berries, chia seeds, and coconut flakes.

Farmhouse-Culture-KrautFarmhouse Culture kraut and kimchi – the key to kraut/kimchi is getting the refrigerated stuff that isn’t pasteurized (which kills the bacteria). I really like the different flavor varieties that Farmhouse Culture offers.Synergy Kombucha

GT’s Enlightened Kombucha – This is basically fermented tea and is becoming much trendier. There are lots of different brand options and places popping up that offer “Kombucha on tap”. I’m starting to substitute Kombucha for my afternoon coffee.

primal-probioticsPrimal Probiotics – If you don’t like fermented foods or can’t eat them frequently, probiotic supplementation is another good option. The tricky part is that quality and potency can be all over the board with these so beware of just buying whatever is on the shelf of mass retailers. Good supplements offer a diversity of bacteria strains with capsules that can make it through the stomach to decrease the amount of bacteria killed by stomach acid.

  • Keep the guest list interesting and diverse by switching up the types/brands of fermented foods you eat and supplements you take. The best hosts bring together different people, that otherwise may not mingle, to create great new relationships. Therefore, I make it a point to change-up the probiotic supplements I take and the types of fermented foods I eat. This also helps prevent flavor fatigue.
  • Eat plenty of prebiotic fiber so your bacteria friends always have enough food. Great parties never seem to run out of food or drinks so you gotta make sure you keep your bacteria guests fed. Bacteria eat prebiotics, which is essentially fiber (carbohydrates that can’t be digested by our body) that is abundant in vegetables. My favorites are:Leafy Greens

Lots of green vegetables (especially leafy greens) – I probably eat 1-2 of the large plastic containers of organic leafy greens each week. I put a few giant handfuls in my morning green smoothie, saute them with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, and add them to scrambled eggs. I love my leafy greens.

Garden of Life Greens Formula

Garden of Life Perfect Food Super Green Formula – This is a super concentrated dose of leafy green vegetables that I’ll add to my morning green smoothie. It even has probiotics!

 

  • Never let the cops break up a good party so avoid taking “just-in-case” broad spectrum antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria. There continues to be more and more evidence about how important gut bacteria are to our health. Broad spectrum antibiotics don’t discriminate amongst bacteria and will kill even the good ones. This reminds me of a classic high school movie party scene. So…I avoid taking broad spectrum antibiotics unless ABSOLUTELY necessary.

little-girl-running-from-police

One caveat…I’m far from a medical professional and some of the things I mention above may actually be counterproductive depending on individual issues. The severity of gut issues may dramatically change the things necessary to bring everything back into balance.

 

improve-digestion

Optimizing Digestion for Better Gut Health

As I explained in my last post, gut health is vital for immunity, reducing inflammation, and nutrient absorption, all of which are important for athletes and just general overall health and wellness. In my opinion, there are two primary things necessary for gut health:

  1. Proper digestion
  2. Gut bacteria / microbiota

Therefore, those are the two main things I’m focusing on to improve the health of my gut. Gut bacteria have been getting most of the attention on the health scene lately but something that I think should be equally considered in the gut health equation is optimizing the digestive process. Before we all start ordering probiotic supplements and devouring fermented foods we should all take a moment to understand how digestion works.

The sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous systems are the two parts the autonomic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling bodily functions like breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are like yin and yang. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate increases, muscles contract, saliva production is reduced, and the stomach stops many of the digestive functions (one of the reasons we get stomach cramps if we eat before a hard training session). Correspondingly, when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, muscles relax, heart rate drops, saliva production increases and digestive enzymes are released.

It important that our parasympathetic nervous system is active when we eat because proper digestion requires saliva and the release of various digestive enzymes in addition to the acid in the stomach to properly breakdown food. Problems can start to occur pretty quickly if food isn’t properly digested when it is released from the stomach into the small intestine. Undigested food molecules can compromise the lining of the gut and lead to leaky gut. If these undigested molecules pass through the gut lining into the blood stream, our immune system is called into action and it creates inflammation. Undigested food particles that make it all the way to the large intestine can even disrupt the gut flora and cause various other issues. Let’s be real…angering the large intestine is ill-advised. Nobody wants to be the third stall bandit.

bathroom-stall-7

Now that we know how proper digestion and gut health are connected, these are some of the things I have been doing to optimize my digestion:

  • Eating in a more relaxed state to activate my parasympathetic nervous system. I’ve been trying to sit down to enjoy my meals vs. devouring food on the go or shoveling food in my mouth between meetings. Essentially just trying to get my body into the rest-and-digest mode when I’m eating.
  • Thoroughly chewing food so it is can mix with the enzymes in saliva and is broken down enough for the stomach to do its thing more effectively.
  • Taking a digestive enzyme supplement prior to big meals because the body may not be able to produce adequate enzymes to break down meals that are high in fat and protein. Therefore, I take one to two capsules of this digestive enzyme supplement prior to my biggest meals to give my digestive system a little extra help.
  • Not drinking a lot of water before, during, or after meals because it may dilute stomach acid. Pepsin is the enzyme that breaks down protein and is more effective with a lower pH level (higher acidity) in the stomach. Drinking a lot of water before, during, or immediately after meals has the potential to slightly dilute stomach acid and raise the pH environment in the stomach that may inhibit the breakdown of harder to digest proteins. I try to limit water intake ~20 minutes before and up to an hour after a meal.
  • Not snacking unless I’m truly hungry. For one, there really isn’t any evidence that snacking throughout the day increases metabolism beyond what is required to digest food. For two, the gut needs some downtime to take care of housekeeping activities like repairing the gut lining. If it is constantly digesting food…these activities can’t occur.
  • Not eating too close to bedtime because laying down isn’t exactly an optimal position to digest a meal. I try to avoid eating at least two hours before bedtime.
  • Letting it all hang out and not sucking in my stomach. Over the years I’ve developed a habit of holding in my stomach. This may help me look better in a swimsuit photo but it is not good for promoting proper digestion. Sucking in the stomach doesn’t provide the digestive system with the space it needs to function properly and interferes with the wave like motion of the intestines, causing a delay in digestion. Contrary to popular belief, sucking in the stomach doesn’t activate the abs.
  • Limiting and avoiding foods that could promote leaky gut like excessive sugar, grains, and dairy. Gliadin is a protein molecule that is found in most gluten containing foods (wheat and processed foods being the biggest culprit) that can cause an inflammatory reaction in the gut. Gliadin tolerance can vary from full-blown celiac to total tolerance. As we know, inflammation in the gut can increase gut permeability (leaky gut) and nutrient malabsorption. Here is the deal…I’m not saying gluten is the root of all food evil like it often gets made out to be because everyone tolerates it differently. All I’m saying is that, because of the potential implications to gut health, I would prefer to make other food choices that are more gut friendly.

I’ve been doing the things above for a few weeks now and I’ve definitely started to notice a an improvement in my digestion. One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed is that my food and sugar cravings have gone way down and I actually feel like I don’t need to eat as much. #Boom

Based on my experience, I’m starting to be a big believer in this whole gut health movement.

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The Importance of Gut Health and Why It’s My Focus Area

Gut health and the microbiome are the next health frontier. In the past, the only time I would have thought about my gut is when it was in pain and holding me back from peak performance. Even though I don’t have major digestive or autoimmune issues, I have come to realize there are still some compelling reasons why the gut needs a little more love and attention.

The digestive system is pretty hard to love after all. It is essentially a giant mucus lined tube that is home to over 500 hundred species and three pounds of bacteria. And why should we care about giving TLC to something like that? Oh…I’ll tell you why:

Over 70% of our immune system is in the digestive tract. Our digestive system is one of the main ways nasties from the external environment get into our bodies. Think about the all things that can hitch a ride on the food we eat, the chemicals that are in processed food, or the mouthful of pool/lake/ocean water that inadvertently gets swallowed once in awhile. One of the greatest challenges for the digestive tract and surrounding immune system is differentiating between the good stuff we ingest (nutrients, good bacteria, etc.) and the bad stuff (toxins, parasites, bad bacteria, etc.). We rely on this system to let all the good stuff in and keep all the bad stuff out.

The good bacteria in our gut help train the immune system to identify what is good and what is bad. They even attack foreign invaders. Therefore, the health of our gut and our immune system are vitally linked. When one is in balance, the other is usually in balance as well.

Our bodies are protected from the toxic environment in our digestive system by a layer that is only one cell thick. We basically have a tube of toxins and sewage running through us that is lined by a single layer of epithelial cells whose cell membranes fuse together to form protein complexes called tight junctions. These junctions have the final say on what gets into our bodies and what doesn’t. The nerd in me can’t help but think of a bunch of Gandalfs…

You-shall-not-pass1

Unfortunately, these junctions can be comprised by things like a poor diet, chronic stress, medications, low stomach acid, overgrowth of bacteria and yeast, parasites, and excessive environmental toxins. When these junctions are compromised they can allow un-screened molecules to flow directly into the bloodstream (aka, leaky gut). Our immune system attacks these foreign molecules and this creates inflammation. If leaky gut is left unchecked it can cause systemic inflammation. Systemic gut inflammation is correlated to food intolerances, eczema, celiac disease, and other autoimmune diseases. Of course, these correlations could just be coincidental but a leaky gut definitely isn’t helping the matter.

The good bacteria in our gut help play defense by taking up space and providing an additional layer between the bad stuff and the tight junctions. They also help prevent bad bacteria and parasite overgrowth by using up all the necessary resources so the bad guys don’t have any resources to utilize for themselves. Good bacteria even secrete chemicals that influence the integrity of the intestinal lining.

A comprised gut may not effectively absorb nutrients. Gut inflammation impacts the gut’s ability to effectively absorb nutrients. All that money spent on the highest quality food and supplements and time preparing nutritious meals won’t be as beneficial if you can’t effectively absorb all the goodness.

As noted above, good gut bacteria help prevent the causes of gut inflammation. Additionally, gut bacteria help synthesize vitamins and breakdown carbohydrates, that would normally be indigestible, into short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids not only provide a major source of energy and nutrients but also help with the absorption of certain minerals and lipids.

Since I want to be as productive as possible at all times (not getting sick), minimize inflammation except the good, self-inflicted kind from training, and optimize my nutrient absorption to take full advantage of all the high-quality foods I eat, paying attention to and improving my gut health is a no-brainer and is currently a key focus area of mine.

So…what am I doing to improve my gut health? Stay tuned…