Restoring Digestive Health

Fall harvest mandala

Late summer harvest mandala

“All diseases begin in the gut.” ~ Hippocrates

I just taught an intensive in Asheville, NC for the Organic Grower’s School on Restoring Digestive Health and it got all kinds of juices flowing on this topic (smile).  Distant memories from my psycho-spiritual break-down (and break-through) re-emerged and reminded me how far I had come.  Truly, if it weren’t for falling apart, I wouldn’t have known how to put myself back together again.

In 2000, I had an onslaught of hyperthyroid symptoms (arrhythmia, racing heart, weight loss, and other hyper-metabolic issues), a self-diagnosed thyroid storm, psychosis, depression, dizzy spells, strange gastric complaints, tingling sensations in parts of the face and fingertips, paranoia, and intrusive thoughts…I decided not to reveal to anyone what was really going on inside for fear of being misunderstood by the medical or mental health community.  However, I actually did talk to a couple of allopathic doctors, one suggested green tea and the other suggested birth control…so you see…I was kinda on my own.

Fortunately, I had enough of a sense of center that I figured out ways to navigate this state of being and to take the steps toward healing.  One of the first things I did to restore balance was change my diet by going on the Revised Adkins Diet.  Looking back now, I would have probably gone on the GAPS diet or simply followed a Paleo dietary protocol.

The change in diet (to a Revised Adkins Diet) had a noticeable affect on my mood and quality of life.  So, I went further.  I met an herbalist and started taking tinctures.  I discovered permaculture and I went out into nature.  I deepened by yoga and meditation practices.  I received massage therapy, energy work and acupuncture.  Meanwhile, I became part of the Weston A Price community and delved into nutrient-dense foods, ferments, and traditional food preparation.

Many of the things I pursued for my own healing have become my way of life and what I offer others in my life-work (a common chronology for many who begin to work with healing modalities).  One of the areas of wellness that I tend to geek out on and be inspired by is the microbiome and digestive health.  It has taken me years to fine-tune my own digestive health and to simply arrive at a place of understanding how it all works on a physiological and pscyho-spiritual level.  The following post is my first attempt to express what I’ve learned over the years.

“When the gut colony becomes unbalanced, with more harmful microorganisms than helpful ones, the flora in the belly begin to produce toxins that wreak havoc with the immune system, alter brain function and mood, and weaken immune defenses.” ~ Alberto Villoldo, PhD

More and more emphasis on the health of the gut due to the proper cultivation of beneficial bacteria is being acknowledged by science as a way to maintain a strong immune system, a balanced nervous and endocrine system, and vital well-being. Scientists are now confirming what traditional cultures knew all along, that fermentation, bacteria-balancing plant medicine, stress management, and traditional food preparation are all vital ingredients for health and wellness.

Psycho-spiritually, the gut has to do with who you are, who you are not, what you allow in your life, and that which you do not allow. To me, the gut and the digestive system responds to what you say “yes” and “no” to in your life.  It gives you honest information about our choices in life (and even, I sense, the choices of our ancestors).  Key words: instinct, discernment, relationships, boundaries

Our First Inheritance

To understand the gut microbiome, we have to start with our first inoculation of gut flora.  By traveling through the birth canal of our mothers, we are inoculated with our first community of microbes.  This is our true inheritance from our family…one that will weigh in on how we grow and develop and how our immune systems will function and protect us.

We are literally “downloaded” with choices and decisions our mothers made in regards to diet and lifestyle via the collection of microbes we receive.  If a baby is born C-section, the baby is born sterile and typically its but is populated by skin flora or whatever is found in the surface area of the hospital setting (to read more about this, I highly suggest this post written by a midwife).

Although C-section is a necessary operation for *certain* birth situations, it’s important for us to learn how to mitigate harm when a baby is born this way.  Research is happening right now on the benefits of inserting a cloth into the mother’s vaginal canal and then swabbing the baby all over when born via C-section to inoculate them with proper vaginal and gut flora.  They are already seeing long-term, positive results from this.

When a mother breastfeeds, we now know that microbes from the mother’s gut are carried via the lymphatic vessels to the breast milk and into the baby.  We also know that breast milk provides the baby with oligosaccharides which are not digestible by baby but actually only feed the beneficial bacteria in their guts.  So, the entire birthing process is such an elegant system of setting up the baby’s immune system for optimal functioning.

I write about this because the birth story is so important in terms of understanding immune function and digestive health..  I actually ask two questions to start things off when meeting with a client:  Were you vaginally birthed?  And, were you breast fed (and for how long)?  These questions give me the first clues on how to proceed with the client.

The Return of the Nourisher

Right now we are experiencing the impact of the loss of the people who nourish or the archetype that nourishes with the rise of digestive disorders, mental health issues, and degenerative diseases.  The “nourisher” has long been undervalued and deemed irrelevant in the modern craze of progress (that is, progress at all cost) and many are suffering from this backwards logic.  We are slowly discovering, though, that when we redesign our lives for nourishment…within our own personal lives and our own digestive systems…that we can positively impact the environment around us, whether at home or in our communities.

I remember a friend telling me about her trip to Kenya years ago.  Her eyes lit up when she told me this story as she knew I would appreciate it.  She said that when meals were prepared, all the tribal women were involved.  In the mud hut there was a large pot with stew in it.  All the middle-aged women were around that pot tossing in ingredients and stirring.  The elderly women sat around the edge of the hut, silently watching and keeping an eye on what was going on.  They spoke only to remind the middle-aged women what to do.  The young girls fetched wood to keep the fire going under the pot and would sometimes bring in vegetables or other foodstuffs from outside the hut.

When my friend told me this story, it quickly became a image branded in my mind forever.  It was perfectly symbolic of the word “nourishment.”  The importance, care, and focus the women gave the meal, food, and sustenance was palpable even through her story.  This kind of nourishment…this kind of presence and focus around sustenance is missing in many parts of the modern world.

The nourisher is an archetype…it can be found in a woman and a man.  I do sense that women carry the torch when it comes to nourishment by nature and design of our bodies…  However, women and men both have this capacity and its so important to exercise and explore it.

Keepers of traditional food ways are just now re-emerging in the modern worlds…  Traditional food processes are finding their ways back into kitchens and homes…  The idea that to nourish and sustain is desirable and valuable…is just now clicking in the minds of certain people (and so many are just hungry for it).  In America, we are just now beginning to realize that we can’t monocrop and standardize and industrialize our way to nourishment…  We have to have steadily cultivate rich soil, we have to have many hands in the kitchen, and we have to remember traditional food ways so that we can create the nourishment we need on a daily basis.

Nourishment is a foundational element to any community or culture.  Without it, there is nothing to stand on as degenerative diseases will eventually take hold.  Cultivating the nourisher archetype will not only feed our hearts and souls, it will rekindle a connection with the basic elements of life…with ecosystems and natural cycles…and our relationship with it all…

Potential Signs of a Digestive Disorder

– Long or short transit time
– Pain, gas or bloating after eating
– Diarrhea or constipation
– Discolored stool (grey, yellow, etc)
– Low energy
– Lack of appetite or large appetite
– Mental fog or sluggish mind
– Nutrient deficiencies
– Mental health issues or mood disorders

Overview of Digestion

– Saliva is secreted in the mouth to help begin the process of breaking down food while chewing
– Food passes through esophagus into the stomach
Stomach secretes hydrochloric acid; acidic stomach environment allows pepsin (stomach enzyme) to break down proteins; the acid also breaks down harmful microbes in the food (and protects body from infection); acid also helps prepare minerals like calcium, magnesium, copper, and zinc for absorption
– Once digestion is complete a small valve in the bottom of the stomach opens for the good to go to the small intestines
– Highly alkaline secretions from the pancreas and gallbladder neutralize the acid
– Small intestine breaks down food using enzymes form the pancreas and bile from the liver; where most of the nutrients are absorbed
– What’s left over from the extraction of nutrients in the small intestine travels to the large intestine which processes the “waste” and excretes it from the body (stool is a combination of digested food and bacteria)
– Stool in the large intestine begins in a liquid form and eventually becomes solid; any remaining water is absorbed by the large intestine
– It should talk about 24 hours for processed food to show up in the stool; should be cleared in no more time than 36 hours

Our Somatic Abdominal Area (smile)

Stomach – The ability to transform and digest what is happening in our lives; can we stomach it?
Liver – The seat of growth and regeneration; seat of the emotion of anger if in imbalance or blocked
Gallbladder – Will-power and motivation; do we have the gal?
Small intestine – Discernment
Large intestine – Grief and letting go

Our sacred digestive tract is roughly a 30-foot tube connecting our inner landscape with the environment around us. Through eating and breathing, we are constantly informing our body on the nature and contents of our daily lives and what we chose to put inside ourselves and actually *become.*  I think you are what you eat takes on a whole new meaning when we consider this. What kinds of messages are we sending our cells, bacteria, and body with what we are bringing into our systems?

The Enteric Brain

– The gut is now being called the ‘enteric’ brain or the second brain
– We have more than 3000 square feet (about the size of a tennis quart) of gut surface area
– The gut-brain produces, and uses, 95% of the serotonin in the body (serotonin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter)
– The vagus nerve connects our brain with our digestive system, heart, lungs, and other organs; this communication is sensory and informs our instincts
– 90 % of the information goes from the gut to the brain in terms of systemic health
– About 70-85% of the cells that make up your immune system are found in the gut

Common Digestive Ailments

– GERD – gastroesophageal reflux disease or acid reflux – when the muscular valve at the top of the stomach allows acid to seep back into the esophagus
– SIBO – chronically low HCl in stomach allows the migration of bacteria from large intestines into small intestines (lactic-acid producing bacteria, typically), thus fermenting food in the small intestine and causing digestive distress (can also cause acid reflux)
– IBS – Irritable bowel syndrome – does not cause inflammation, ulcers or other damage like IBD; typically caused by holding too much stress in the stomach; painful cramping, bloating, gas, mucus in stool, diarrhea, constipation; digestive system looks normal but doesn’t work like it should
– IBD, Crohn’s, Ulcerative colitis – Inflammatory bowel disease – diarrhea, abdominal cramps, rectal bleeding, fever, joint pain, loss of appetite and fatigue; a big factor for the cause of this may be balance of beneficial bacteria
– Leaky Gut – byproduct of intestinal inflammation; partially digested foods and proteins (and even bacteria, yeast, and fungi) enter the blood-stream through intestinal membranes that have been damaged, loosened, or lost their integrity; associated with a lot of mental health issues; has been linked with auto-immune issues as well
– Genetic mutations/MTHFR
– Food allergies and intolerances – A food allergy will trigger an immune response that will effect different organ systems while an intolerance simply causes a short-term digestive problem
– Celiac disease – An inflammatory condition of the colon that causes the breakdown of intestinal tissues due to a gluten allergy

What do all of these have in common? What I see is an issue of the breakdown and vulnerability of the microbiome.

Microbiome Destabilizers

– Birth control
– Psych meds
– Antibiotics
– Chlorine and fluoride in drinking water
– Chronic stress
– High sugar & processed foods diet
– C-section birth
– Born to a mother with severe gut dysbiosis
– Vaccinations
– Pain-killers
– Steroids
– Sleep pills
– Certain diseases

Restoring Digestive Health

REMOVE harmful substances and drinks and foods that trigger
REPLACE with wholesome foods
REPAIR with beneficial bacteria, gelatin and bone broths, herbs, enzymes
REPEAT and fine-tune as needed

Types of Foods for a Healthy Gut

Gelatin-rich foods/bone broths (providing gelatin, collagen, cartilage, marrow, and amino acids to repair the gut lining, support healthy bones and teeth, and nourish healthy joints)
Soaked, sprouted, or fermented nuts, grains, seeds, legumes (traditional preparation denature harmful anti-nutrients)
Fermented vegetables (and some fruits)
– Nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables low in sugar content and high in fiber
– If omnivorous, organ meats, animal protein, pastured animal products (rich in Vit A, D, & K2)
– Healthy fats (pastured butter, coconut oil, EV olive oil, red palm oil, pastured animal fats)
– Herbs and wild foraged foods (packed with phytonutrients)

Bacterial Breakdown

“In contrast with our eukaryotic cells, with fixed genetic material, prokaryotic bacteria have free-floating genes, which they frequently exchange.” ~ Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation

– Bacteria outnumber human cells 10 to 1
– Like the quote above mentions, bacteria can pick-up and drop DNA at will, a highly adaptable system!
– About 100 trillion bacterial cells are found in our intestines alone
– Benefical bacteria are numerous strains of bacteria that assist the digestive system in assimilating and absorbing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients; they keep pathogens at bay and interact directly with your immune system >>> Bifidobacteria, Lactobacteria, Propionobacteria are some of the main ones
– One of my favorite, Lactobacteria, you can find on anything near the soil or even in the soil and it is common all along our digestive tract from the mouth to the anus
– There are pathogenic bacteria in the gut no matter what; if your beneficial bacteria are thriving and healthy – the pathogenic bacteria will be kept in check and will actually participate in some small beneficial functions within the intestines
– Pathogenic bacteria also bounce back and reproduce faster than beneficial bacteria
– Pathogenic bacteria also produce very toxic substances as byproducts called endotoxins which can cross the blood-brain barrier
– H. pylori, which used to be found in all humans for the past 60,000 years is now only found in 10% of the population and headed toward extinction; it is linked to stomach ulcers but also linked with obesity, acid reflux, and asthma when not present

Benefits of Fermented Foods

“Fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms.” ~ Sandor Katz

– Pre-digestion of food (including difficult to digest proteins such as gluten in grain and casein in milk); increased nutritional bioavailability of food
– Detoxification; toxic compounds found in food stuffs are digested and broken down into benign forms (for example, cassava tuber and cyanide, oxalic acid and spinach/chard, phytic acid in grains, legumes and nuts); some reports state that pesticides can also be broken down in the fermentation process
– *Added* nutrition due to the fermentation process ~ commonly B vitamins are an added benefit (even beneficial bacteria in the gut can create needed B vitamins when your body needs them); some examples are Vit K2 in natto and Vit C in sauerkraut
– Inoculation of a diverse culture of beneficial bacteria (and sometimes yeast) into the body; helps to synthesize nutrients in the gut, supports our immune function (as 70-85% of immune cells are found in the gut), protects the gut lining from alkaline loving pathogens (by creating an acid barrier), helps detoxify the body, and aids the liver in its regeneration process
– Extends shelf-life of food (yogurt, kefir, veggies, fruits, etc)
– Increases enzyme activity in food
– RAP (Replicating Ancestral Processes); it’s our ancestral way of preparing things and they knew what they were doing (smile)
– Fermented foods are safer than raw foods

All-star Ferments

– Beet kvass
– Sauerkraut
– Lacto-fermented fruit chutney
– Whey cooler
– Kombucha & jun
– Sourdough
– Kefir & yoghurt

Contraindication for Fermented Foods

– If someone has been diagnosed with SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) => an overpopulation of large intestine bacteria (like Lactobacillas) in the small intestine
– There are various diets to help adjust SIBO which largely draw on traditional food ways and, for the most part, the Paleo Diet (no difficult to digest carbohydrates and very little carbs in general)

Fermented Foods and Probiotic Supplements

– Introduce beneficial bacteria and certain yeast strains to our guts
– Can be applied to the skin for skin issues and can be inserted or applied vaginally for yeast infections
– Yogurt, kefir, lacto-fermented fruits and veggies, kombucha, water kefir, unwashed organic or chemical-free veggies and fruits, traditionally fermented sourdough
– My favorite probiotic brands: BioKult, Prescript Assist
– Probiotic pill or ferment >>> both are fine, however pills can be expensive. Once you are in the rhythm of ferments, it takes no time at all. Probiotic pills have between 50 million to 10 billion beneficial bacteria strains; ferments from 1.5 billion to 10 TRILLION beneficial fellas (.9 ounces of sauerkraut, in this example)

Prebiotic foods

– They feed friendly bacteria and help them proliferate, not digested by humans (also found in breast milk to feed the newly introduced beneficial bacteria in the baby’s gut)
– Act in concert with probiotics
– Oligosaccharides (for example, oligofructose and inulin) – increase magnesium and calcium absorption, ease IBS)
– Traditional diets were definitely richer in prebiotics than our current diet in the US
– Fresh dandelion greens, radicchio, frisee, endive, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, asparagus, chicory root, jicama, garlic, leek, small amount in whole grains, asparagus, prebiotic supplements, fibrous wild plant matter

21 Day Challenge to Reboot Your System (avoid the following food items)

– Dairy
– Gluten
– Alcohol
– Soy
– Peanuts
– Sugar
– Eggs

Herbal Allies for Gut Health

– Gut inflammation – astringent and/or cooling herbs help – peach twigs/leaves, wild cherry bark, hawthorn leaf/twig, slippery elm bark and/or marshmallow root
– Intestinal cramping – peppermint
– Yeast overgrowth – garlic, usnea, oregano, black walnut hull, spilanthes, monarda
– Diarrhea – blackberry root, yellow dock, rose, rose hips, red raspberry, marshmallow root
– Constipation – drink more water, flax seed (ground) and ginger tea, yellow dock root, aloe vera, magnesium-rich herbs like nettles or magnesium supplement
– Bloating and gas – peppermint, fennel, chamomile, cardamom, ginger

Favorite ferment recipes!

Ginger-garlic Sauerkraut Recipe
Makes 1-2 quarts

1 medium cabbage head, cored and shredded
2” chunk grated garlic
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T sea salt
4 T whey (if not available, 1 more T sea salt)

In a bowl, mix cabbage, garlic, ginger, sea salt and whey. Squeeze with hands for about 10 min to release juices. Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly you’re your fist (or a wooden pounder) until juices come to the top of the cabbage (add a little water if needed). The top of the cabbage should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about 3 days before transferring to cold storage (40 degrees cool or cooler). The sauerkraut may be eaten immediately, but it improves with age.

Beet Kvass
Makes 2-quarts

3 medium or 2 large red or golden organic beets (peeled and chopped coarsely)
1/4 cup whey
1 Tablespoon sea salt
filtered water

Place beets, whey and salt into a 2-quart glass container (1/2 gallon). Add filtered water to fill the container. Stir well and cover securely. Keep at room temperature for 2 days before transferring to the fridge (3 days if you have it in a colder room). It is ready to drink (I definitely prefer it chilled).
When you are almost out of beet kvass, fill the jar with water again — keep at room temperature for 2 more days and then put in fridge again. This second batch is way less potent, but still some good stuff in there. You can also use the liquid from the first batch as the inoculant for future batches instead of whey.

Suggested Readings

A great article on the herb and whole foods approach to digestive health/mental health
“Gut and Psychology Syndrome” by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride
“with Love from Grandmother’s Kitchen” by Monica Corrado
“Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon
“Alchemy of Herbs” by Rosalee de la Foret
“Wild Medicine Solution” by Guido Mase
Rosemary Gladstar’s “Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health”
“Wild Fermentation” and “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Katz
“Childhood Disrupted” by Monica Nakazowa

10 thoughts on “Restoring Digestive Health

  1. This is fascinating information. Thank you for sharing. I just recently learned about the benefits of fermented foods, and was delighted to discover kefir. Such a delicious drink! I would like to try your recipes. For those of us who do not make our own cheese, how do I get whey? I have never seen it sold.

    • Suzanne ~ so glad you enjoyed the post! I’m sipping on homemade, local milk kefir and blueberries right now (smile)… You can strain yoghurt from the store to get whey…however, it’s never enough for what I need in my kitchen…so finding someone with a local dairy is key. I would suggest emailing a local WAPF chapter leader in your area about this. You can find someone via this link ~

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  6. Thank you for this article. I’ve suspected that I’ve had gut issues for a while and was diagnosed with Leaky Gut early in the year. Dietary changes and supplements have helped tremendously, along with probiotics and fermented foods. I’ve also been adding collagen to my daily smoothie and making my own gelatin gummies with grass-fed beef gelatin and fruit, juice, and kombucha tea. What are your thoughts on gelatin and collagen for gut repair?

    • Well done! Absolutely… Powdered gelatin and/or bone broths are great tools to repair the intestinal lining. The amino acids in the gelatin are the building blocks for tissue repair. That is one of the primary nutritional tools used in the GAPS Diet or Gut and Psychology Syndrome.

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