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What is Food?

Hello, dear Reader. I have some questions for you this week -- do you eat to live or live to eat? Do you think a lot or a little (or not all) about the food you put into your body? Have you ever thought of food as fuel or even medicine?  I love learning and when I've got some "new" knowledge, I like to pass it on. Here's what I've got for you this week.

Food provides our bodies with information and instructions. It regulates every aspect of our biology and has an effect on our hormones, brain chemistry, immune system, most of this through the gut microbiome. I've mentioned this before, but let me get into it with more detail. Ready for a little science lesson?

For the rest of this post, when I write about your gut, I'm referring to the gastro intestinal tract. It includes the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine or colon. The gut biome (GB) is a microscopic world within the whole of your body. There are trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites within our GB and they float around or attach to the mucous lining of the GI tract. In fact, these microbes so outnumber the human cells in our bodies, we could be considered more bacteria than human! 

We host these microorganisms in our gut in a symbiotic way. We "house and feed" them and, in turn, they provide "services" for our bodies. They also keep potentially harmful microbes from intruding. The GB can be like a flourishing garden where we get nutritious foods and medicines. A healthy garden = a healthy you. If there is bad soil, pests, and weeds taking over and weakening or killing the helpful plants = a sick you. As infants we get our first gut biome through delivery and breastfeeding. Then, being exposed to a different diet and other environmental factors brings in new microbes. Some enhance and some start to harm the GB. What we eat creates the structure, composition, and function of our gut biome. 

What does your gut biome do for you? Lots! It helps with digestion by breaking down certain complex carbohydrates and dietary fibers and it provides enzymes to synthesize certain vitamins and metabolize bile. This means, if it all breaks down, cholesterol can build up in your blood.

Our guts are the largest immune system organ and contain 80% of our immune cells. This immune system uses beneficial microbes to help clear the bad ones. 

Autoimmune diseases result from chronic inflammation. Helpful gut bacteria suppresses hyper-reactive inflammatory reactions through short-chain fatty acid production. 

The gut-brain axis is a network of neurons, nerves, and neurotransmitters that run through the GI tract. The same short-chain fatty acids mentioned before appear to have a positive effect on the nervous system. Toxic bacteria is probably damaging it. 

Finally, gut microbes interact with endocrine cells in the gut lining. They put out hormones that help regulate your metabolism including blood sugar, hunger, and feeling satisfied. 

Dysbiosis is a gut biome that is unbalanced and unhealthy for one or more of three reasons: 

  • loss of beneficial bacteria

  • overgrowth of potentially pathogenic/harmful bacteria

  • loss of overall diversity in bacteria

How can we not only protect but nourish our GB? Chemicals such as alcohol, tobacco, air pollution, and pesticides are known to poison your microbiome. The GB can recover from short exposures, but chronic or frequent subjection can definitely keep certain microbes from thriving. Being aware and controlling your vulnerability is one step in the right direction. There's something even more important that we can do. As Dr. Mark Hyman says, "We all want to function at our optimal level. It's the science of creating health." The question is, how do we do this?

The "old" way, some might call it the "Western" way of thinking about disease was based on symptoms. For example, being depressed might mean feeling sad, hopeless, helpless, not interested in sex, can't sleep, overeat or don't want to eat ... these are all the signs and symptoms. We're given anti-depressants because we have a Prozac or Zoloft deficiency?!? No -- it would be more helpful if we were exploring what's causing these symptoms. 

In the same way, metabolic illness is on the rise: low energy, brain fog, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia. We have a plethora of medications to try and treat these and we are not looking enough at the causes.

The best way to start taking care of our gut biome and healing or preventing poor health is through a healthy diet. Unfortunately, many of us have no idea what that really means. We've been hijacked by Big Pharma and Big Food companies who neglected to inform us about the problems with processed and convenience foods and too many drugs. A person could have many symptoms and complaints and they might be all related to what we're feeding ourselves.

Dr. Hyman gives the following examples: "The body is a network. It could be ... that you have a gluten sensitivity that causes an auto-immune disease called Hashimoto's that gives you a low thyroid function. It could be because you've been taking an acid blocker for 10 years and [now] have a B-12 deficiency. Or because you don't go outside ... and have a vitamin D deficiency. ...or hate fish and have an Omega-3 deficiency or are taking antibiotics that destroy your gut flora, or have pre-diabetes because you eat too much Cinnabon."

The simplest way to turn things around is by trying out a healthy diet. Our gut bacteria is influenced by what we eat. Follow the KISS principle -- keep it simple, Sweetheart. Start adding wholesome items to your food plan. Go for a variety of plant-rich, whole foods, including lots of vegetables, some whole grains (if you can handle them), some fruits, and simple proteins. Educate yourself on what foods offer dietary fiber for good gut microbes and micronutrients for your overall well being. Consult with a functional nutritionist. As you introduce foods that support your system, you'll feel better and it will be easy to let go of the items (I can't even categorize them as "food") and drinks that are literally poisoning you. 

Make food your medicine. This is the best way to live at any age and a really good plan for aging well and care-fully. 

Happy Healthy Habit Hump Day,


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About the Author




Barbara L Cummings, MS, RN

is a sassy Queen-ager whose mission is to co-create a happier, healthier life with and for others.

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