By Thrive Sacramento’s Registered Dietitian Supervisor Kailey Cunningham, MS, RDN, CD
WHAT IS GUT HEALTH?
While the term “gut” can refer to many parts of the gastrointestinal (GI) system, “gut health” refers specifically to the balance of bacteria in the large intestine. To be considered healthy, the large intestine should include a balance of both “good” and “bad” bacteria — also known as gut flora. The “good” bacteria feed on fiber while the “bad” bacteria feed on simple sugars, producing vital compounds like vitamin K and biotin. These compounds are absorbed into the bloodstream directly from the large intestine. Without a healthy balance of bacteria in the large intestine, the production of these vital compounds can be compromised and the entire body can consequently suffer. Achieving a healthy balance of gut flora begins with nourishing your body adequately and consistently with a wide array of foods.
EATING DISORDERS AND GUT HEALTH
Typically, individuals dealing with eating disorders don’t fuel their bodies adequately or consistently. They also tend to limit the variety of foods in their diet. As a result, they don’t have the necessary balance of gut flora. Without both “good” and “bad” bacteria, their bodies can’t function properly.
People experiencing eating disorders often have GI issues such as:
- Gastric reflux (heartburn)
- Early satiety (feeling full fast)
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Slow gastric motility (slow movement of food through the digestive system)
Eating Disorders and Slowed Enzyme Production
One effect of an imbalance in gut flora is slowed enzyme production. Specific enzymes are involved in breaking down foods. If an individual isn’t eating the foods that require those enzymes for digestion, the body slows down the production of that enzyme.
For example, people who typically avoid eating dairy products may experience an upset stomach when they do eat dairy products – not because they are lactose intolerant, but because they lack the necessary enzyme to break down the sugar in dairy products.
Slowed enzyme production is especially prevalent in individuals struggling with eating disorders. When a person is struggling with an eating disorder, they are typically undernourished. Without the fuel necessary for proper functioning, their body preserves as much energy as possible. One way the body conserves energy is by slowing its enzyme production, which can contribute to the GI issues listed above.
Dangerous Clinical Misconceptions Around Eating Disorders and Gut Health
Often, clinicians who lack experience treating clients with eating disorders refer these clients to gastroenterologists, who specialize in treating digestive conditions, or naturopaths, who rely on natural remedies to support the body’s healing. Many times, these specialists place individuals with eating disorders on elimination diets, intending to discover the food that is causing their digestive problems. Unfortunately, elimination diets risk worsening the person’s eating disorder behavior, imbalance of gut flora, and digestive issues.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GUT HEALTH AND MENTAL HEALTH
In recent years, researchers have discovered more connections between gut health and mental health. As Harvard Health Publishing put it, “The gut-brain connection is no joke; it can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa.”
We as humans seem to be intuitively aware that our mental-emotional state can impact our GI system. For example, we describe feelings of excitement and anxiety as butterflies in our tummy, anger and fear as knots in our stomach, and intense situations as gut-wrenching experiences.
On a more technical level, our gut and brain are constantly communicating through a variety of bodily processes. The enteric nervous system (ENS) of our gut is interconnected with our central nervous system (CNS), so the gut and brain are able to use intricate neural pathways to send messages to each other. Additionally, the gut and brain use hormones and the immune system to communicate with each other.
Because of this intertwining relationship between the gut and brain, if your digestive system isn’t functioning properly, your mental health can also suffer, causing conditions like depression and hopelessness to manifest or worsen. Alternatively, if someone is anxious about eating, an upset stomach can result from the anxiety, not the food.
HOW TO PRACTICE GOOD GUT HEALTH
While societal messaging has made practicing gut health seem complex, time-consuming, and even invasive, you can promote a healthy gut by embracing three simple principles.
The three basic principles of practicing good gut health are:
- Eat enough food.
- Eat consistently.
- Include a wide variety of foods from different food groups in your diet.
Balance Your Diet With Prebiotics and Probiotics
When diversifying your diet, try to incorporate foods that contain natural sources of prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics and probiotics are compounds in foods that promote a balance of “good” and “bad” gut bacteria.
Prebiotics induce the growth of bacteria. These compounds are found in fiber-rich foods such as:
- Whole grains
Probiotics are bacteria found in fermented foods, including:
- Sourdough bread
- Some kinds of cheeses (including swiss, provolone, Gouda, cheddar, Gruyère, and cottage cheese)
Don’t Be Enticed by Gut Health Fads
As collective interest in gut health has heightened in recent years, misleading claims about ways to care for your GI system have also risen in prevalence. Be wary of gut health fads, such as:
- Overpriced prebiotic and probiotic supplements.
- Home testing kits to evaluate your gut flora.
- Detox kits claiming to “reset” or “cleanse” your microbiome.
- “Gut health hacks” that encourage you to avoid many foods.
- Harmful practices such as fasting with the intention of “allowing your gut time to rest.”
Opt For Intuitive Eating To Promote a Healthy Gut
Instead of being tempted to engage in trends claiming to boost your gut health (most of which are propagated by the diet industry), stay true to the three principles above. As you practice eating a variety of foods that fuel your body adequately and consistently, be mindful of the food combinations that make your body feel best and adjust your diet accordingly.
“Honor your health [with] gentle nutrition” is the tenth principle of intuitive eating as set forth by IntuitiveEating.org. In other words, you do not need to micromanage your microbiome. As you become more adept at interpreting your body’s internal cues, you will likely notice that you’re drawn to foods that support flourishing and balanced gut health.
NUTRITIONAL GUIDANCE AND EATING DISORDER TREATMENT AT THRIVE
Thrive’s team of nutritionists, therapists, psychiatrists, and primary care specialists are well-versed in nourishing the body and mind. In addition to outpatient therapy, Thrive offers nutritional guidance and eating disorder treatment. Reach out to us to learn more.
About the Author
Thrive Sacramento’s Registered Dietitian Supervisor Kailey Cunningham, MS, RDN, CD
Kailey Cunningham, MS, RDN, CD, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who obtained a Master’s of Dietetics degree from the University of Kentucky after completing both her undergraduate studies in dietetics and accredited dietetic internship at the same university.
She has been a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist since February of 2013 and has been working in the eating disorder field since 2015. Kailey has experience treating clients at many levels of care, from partial hospitalization programming to outpatient, with a variety of diagnoses including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, ARFID and OSFED.
She began working at The Emily Program in Lacey, Washington for three years where she acted as the full-time programming dietitian. While in this position, she worked directly with a lead therapist to develop an adolescent treatment track implementing elements of Family-Based Treatment and gaining invaluable experience working with adolescents and their parents. She then worked at Center for Discovery in Tacoma, Washington while building her nutrition counseling private practice. She began her successful practice in April of 2018 and moved it with her from Olympia, Washington to Rocklin, California in October 2020. Kailey is excited to now be a part of the Sacramento Thrive Wellness team providing support for adult and adolescent clients in intensive outpatient and outpatient levels of care.
Kailey’s primary motivator and true passion is supporting others on their journey to a more peaceful and balanced relationship with food and their bodies. Through individualized nutrition counseling and education, she helps those struggling with eating disorder behaviors, body image issues, food aversion and health anxieties find what is right for them while leaving diet culture behind.