Ah, January. The month of resolutions, commitments, and fresh starts. And then comes February, the month when, on average, 80% of resolutions fail. There is increasing support for ditching all-or-nothing New Year’s goals in favor of more sustainable lifestyle shifts. Considering a whopping 95% of all resolutions are health related, it’s clear many of us want nothing more than to feel better in 2022.
Kylie Fagnano from Strata Nutrition believes feeling well starts in the gut. “About 70% of the immune system is found in the gut,” she says. “The health and proper function of the gut plays a huge role in the overall ability for the body to maintain it’s wellness.” How well your gut operates can be influenced by—and influences—food (what you eat and don’t eat), chronic stress, hormonal imbalances, medications, antibiotics, environmental toxins, even mold exposure. “Taking care of the gut means taking care of the entire body as a whole,” Kylie says.
For most of us, the thought of revamping our entire system is, at best, overwhelming. At worst, it seems totally unmanageable, which is why so many people tolerate chronic discomfort. Kylie walked us through the journey to gut health with suggestions for DIY work and professional resources. If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide to feeling your best this year, you’ve come to the right place.
Step 1: Identify the problem
Physical signs of gut distress fall all over the map. This is no surprise, given how many systems the gut interacts with. Kylie says any of these symptoms could signal a problem:
Bloating, abdominal pain, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, nausea, headaches/migraines, joint pain, eczema/psoriasis/acne, autoimmune diseases, brain fog, anxiety, exhaustion… pretty much any ailment!
Step 2: Where do I start?
There are so many variables that can contribute to gut distress, including diet and lifestyle. Often we’ve lived with discomfort for so long, it’s hard to know what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t.
Kylie suggests these immediate steps to begin diagnosing and relieving gut discomfort:
- Keep a two-week food journal to closely track what you eat and any symptoms you have. She often asks her clients to take pictures of ingredient labels in case there’s a connection between a specific ingredient and a symptom. You may start to see causes and effects right away, especially if you’re looking carefully. Sometimes problematic ingredients like soy, wheat, or dairy are lurking in products you wouldn’t think contain them, until you check the label.
- Breathe deeply. Kylie says, “There is a direct connection between the brain and the gut via the vagus nerve. When you are stressed it sends the wrong signals to the gut for digestion.” She suggests 3-5 deep breaths as you sit down to any meal. This simple practice can shift energy toward the GI system for better digestion.
- Drink up. Hydration is essential for proper gut function. Kylie calls it “low hanging fruit.” Keep a bottle in your purse, on your desk, and in the kitchen and sip frequently. Your pee should be clear or very pale yellow, which generally requires about 91 ounces (11-12 cups) of water daily for women.
- One thing at a time. This is one of the hardest parts of diagnosing gut problems. There are so many potential culprits, and it’s tempting to change everything at once. It’s fine to cut out a bunch of foods, but make sure you add them back in one at a time so you can have a clear sense of which ingredient is causing problems.
- Start with gluten and dairy. Many people find eliminating these reduces inflammation and gut upset fairly quickly.
- Try a digestive enzyme or digestive bitters. Kylie refers to this option as a “bandaid” until you find the root cause of your discomfort. But, she says, “Adding one of these in with meals can aid digestion and provide a lot of relief.”
- Consider past antibiotic and PPI medications usage. If you’ve taken either of these prescriptions in the time leading up to your symptoms, you may be looking at deeper, longer term healing for the gut. “Both of these can disrupt the sensitive microbiome in the gut,” Kylie says.
- Follow a plan. If you need more guidance, Kylie offers a free step-by-step gut health workbook, available on stratanutrition.com. This guide will tell you what to cut out, when to reintroduce, and how to start healing.
Step 3: I’ve tried a few things but nothing has worked
If you’ve already tried an elimination diet and/or a variety of probiotics and supplements with no remarkable results, ask yourself these questions:
-Did you stick to your elimination diet 100%?
If not, it may be worth retrying making absolutely NO exceptions until you can really determine if the thing you’ve removed is actually problematic.
-Did you try eliminating your suspected food(s) for long enough?
“1-2 weeks isn’t going to cut it!” Kylie says. “You need a solid 4-8 weeks to really see a difference.” In some instances, you may even need months.
-What are you currently eating?
What you are putting into your gut is just as important as what you are not putting in, Kylie says. Are you consuming a variety of proteins and colorful fruits and vegetables, or are you eating the same meals every week? “The body requires a wide array of amino acids and nutrients, which requires eating a variety of different plants and protein sources every day,” Kylie explains.
Unsure how to mix things up? If you’re comfortable eating the same things, Kylie suggests switching up the components of the meal, not the meal itself. That way, you’re keeping the same basic structure but adding variety. For example, if you always have chicken on your salad, next week choose shrimp. If you always have almonds as a snack, next week grab some walnuts.
Step 4: I’ve tried everything, what now?
For those who have struggled with sticking to an elimination diet or have suffered from gut discomfort for a long time, it’s common to feel desperate and frustrated. Kylie says, “Your gut did not get where it is right now overnight and any intervention you choose for healing is going to take some time.”
If you’re feeling discouraged, Kylie says, you’re not alone. It may be time to seek professional help from someone who can tailor a plan for your personal needs. “You need some testing, you need to understand your starting point, you need support, a community, and specific guidance,” Kylie says. At Strata Nutrition, Kylie offers a 10 week group program called The Gut Tribe, which combines both individual and group sessions. She also offers private consultation, plus a lot of free information and tools on her website. Her goal is to teach people how to take care of their gut health on their own, forever.
Any way you tackle it, healing an unhealthy gut is a serious undertaking, and it requires commitment. But the results can be truly life changing. Science has linked a well-functioning gut to a long list of benefits, including a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, better sleep, and effective digestion. Some studies even see a link between gut health and the prevention of some cancers and autoimmune diseases.
Whether you want to take on the gut challenge alone, with a crew of friends, or under the guidance of a health professional, there’s no better time than the new year to make changes that will last a lifetime.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving.