Why Gut Health Is Critical for Optimal Performance and Wellness

Kimchi cabbage, cucumber and radish in jars
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This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of impact, growth, and continual learning.

There’s a tight connection between our gut health and overall wellness. It impacts a dizzying number of bodily functions impacting your brain, metabolism, mental health, performance, digestion, immunity, and inflammation.

The vast majority of the research on the microbiome has been conducted in animals (typically mice), but we now have a few small studies in human subjects. The available data so far indicates an unhealthy gut microbiome is associated with depression, anxiety, and various other mood disorders. Research also suggests gut microbiota interacts with the reward system of the brain as it relates to the individual pursuit and use of food, drugs, and pleasure.

In 2020, we published a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders with 111 adults who were inpatients in a psychiatric hospital to examine the gut microbiome among people with severe mental illnesses. Patients reported their clinical symptoms through a battery of self-report questionnaires related to psychiatric symptom and functioning, then provided fecal samples shortly after hospital admission. We worked with a team of microbiologists to sequence the DNA of the bacteria and identify different types of bacteria.

Analyses indicated the severity of depression and anxiety at the time of hospital admission was negatively associated with gut bacterial richness and diversity. We also identified patterns of gut bacteria associated with depression and anxiety treatment resistance by the time of discharge from the hospital. In other words, we were able to identify patients who did not benefit from treatment, based solely on a fecal sample! Much more research is needed before we’ll be able to fully understand the gut and its role in health and behavior.

Our gut microbiome weighs up to five pounds, and has 200 times the number of genes found in the human genome. It’s symbiotic, not parasitic, to us. We need our gut microbes and they need us. We survive and thrive together, and therefore it’s imperative we take good care of it. A healthy gut is an essential component of health, performance, and general wellness. So, how do we best take care of this mysterious universe of organisms that live within us?

Lifestyle Habits to Promote Gut Health

1. Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fiber, lean protein, fats, and water.
2. Consume prebiotics, plant fibers that facilitate the growth of healthy bacteria, such as apples, bananas, barley, berries, cocoa, flaxseed, garlic, oats, onions, tomatoes, soybeans, and wheat.
3. Prioritize probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, vinegar with active cultures, fermented pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc. You can even take dietary supplements.
4. Eliminate or minimize consumption of processed food, junk food, fast food, soda, and added sugar.
5. Consider an intermittent fasting or time-restricted feeding approach.
6. Consider whether you have food sensitivities or allergies that might benefit from a special diet (e.g., low FODMAP).
7. Exercise on a regular basis—with an emphasis on strength training.
8. Pursue high-quality sleep, and plenty of it.
9. Eliminate or minimize alcohol consumption.
10. Regularly engage in meditation, yoga, prayer, or other relaxing activities.
11. Consider past exposures to toxic chemicals, heavy metals, excessive smoke, etc., that may require medical consultation.
12. Spend time outdoors.

Our scientific understanding of the gut microbiota is still in very early stages, and it’s true that most human studies to date only examine the strength of the association between psychological functioning and gut health. From Psychology 101, we’re reminded that “correlation is not causation.” Nevertheless, with what we know now and what we can hypothesize, there’s every reason to take good care of your gut health—and absolutely no reason not to.

The best part is that whatever is good for your gut, is also good for your weight, heart, lungs, muscles, skeletal system, skin, brain, cognitive functioning, wellness, and functional performance (and we mean performance in your personal and professional life, too).

Example Meal Plan

I take a daily intermittent fasting approach, with a feeding window of about six to nine hours most days. My first meal is a smoothie made with a varied mixture of frozen fruit (e.g. blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, pineapple), fresh fruits (bananas, apples, exotics), vegetables (carrots, spinach), dairy (yogurt, kefir), avocado, MCT or olive oil, and a blend of nuts (walnuts, pecans), seeds (flax, chia, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower), cacao nibs, a variety of so-called “superfood” powders (e.g. ginger, beetroot, cinnamon, mushroom extracts, noni, maca, acai), shredded coconut, oatmeal, and unsweetened protein powder.

I prep a week’s worth of this dry blend of nuts/seeds/powders/oatmeal every weekend using 2-cup plastic containers. This means I can blend and eat my first meal of the day in about 15 minutes. My preference for protein powders is unsweetened pea powder, collagen powder (with multiple peptides), and grass-fed beef/egg white powder (e.g., PaleoPro). (Note: I rarely use whey powder because of the impact it has on my gut.)

For dinner I usually eat beef or seafood with a salad and/or a large serving of mixed vegetables (baked, stewed, or stir-fried). By now you’re probably wondering where I stand on carbs like bread, pasta, and rice. I do eat them…in moderation. Typically, I have a half-cup of oatmeal at my first meal and one to two pieces of bread at my second meal. I bake all my own bread using a homemade sourdough starter, which is so much easier than we’ve been led to believe, and organically grown whole-grain ancient and heirloom wheats that’ve been stoned milled (e.g., Janies Mill). So, my homemade bread has lots of healthy fiber, nutrients, and fermented dough, which is filled with lactobacilli, a healthy bacteria.

If my dietary protocol sounds a little hard or too time consuming, it’s actually not. It’s easy once you’ve put in a few reps and it’s extremely time-efficient. If it sounds too crunchy for you, all I can say is this: Try it for two weeks. You’re likely to feel so much better that you never return to your old dietary habits. You don’t have to be perfect. I’m certainly not, and even small changes can be transformative.

B. Christopher Frueh, PhD is a novelist, clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and chair of the SEAL Future Foundation medical advisory board. He has thirty years of professional experience working with the veterans/military community, has conducted clinical trials, epidemiological, and neuroscientific research, and has authored 9 fictional crime novels and co-authored over 300 scientific publications.

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