When it comes to diet and nutrition, we usually start off with a negative mindset, built-up by preconceived ideas about what our bodies are capable of. Dr. Will Bulsiewicz hopes to change that narrative.
During an incredible interview on The Sonya Looney Show, we learned that it’s the choices you make during your lifetime that ultimately determine whether or not you actually manifest disease, regardless of dispositions.
If you’re feeling equal parts encouraged and intimidated by this idea, take a few minutes of your time to read through our conversation on empowering yourself (and your body) to improve your gut health.
Who is Dr. Bulsiewicz?
An MD, a gastroenterologist, and internationally recognized as a gut health expert, Dr. Bolsiewicz was our first choice to have this conversation with. He’s incredibly passionate about the healing power that lives inside of you: your gut microbiota.
His medical training involves 16 years at America’s elite institutions, including a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, a medical degree from Georgetown University, and a master of science and clinical investigation from Northwestern University. He’s published more than 20 papers and he’s presented more than 40 times at national conferences. Finally, he is the author of a highly anticipated book to improve your gut health coming out fairly soon.
Gut Basics: The Gastrointestinal System
When we talk about gut health, we’re talking about the gastrointestinal system which includes the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, and colon.
If you haven’t heard, you are (in theory), 10% human. Here’s why:
- Our bodies (specifically, our gut) are filled with microorganisms. We now know that there are between 15 thousand and 36 thousand types of bacteria living in or on the human body. While bacteria makes up the majority of microorganisms, there’s also fungi, parasites, archaea, and viruses.
- We look at this community of microorganisms, the microbiome, and we see that there are about 39 trillion microorganisms that inhabit the human body, whether it’s on your skin, in your mouth, in your colon (which is the densest population for men) or the vagina (the densest population for women).
- Those 39 trillion microorganisms are more than you have human cells. In fact, if you were to take the red blood cells and the platelets (the very, very basic cells that don’t carry DNA in the traditional sense), throw them out, and just look at the regular cells (that have organelles, that have a nucleus, that have DNA, etc), you would discover that we have 10 times more microorganisms than human cells.
There are so many parts of the human experience that are deeply intertwined with parts of us that aren’t even human, and that includes the brain gut. The term that communicates the complexity and diversity of the gut is the enteric nervous system. Here are some things you might not know about this system:
- The gut functions on its own, independent of your brain. It does not require any sort of signal from your brain to work.
- The gut produces 90% of the serotonin that’s in your body. (For more info on gut health and hormones, check out our interview with Alison Tierney).
- The vagus nerve is a super powered phone line that allows the gut to talk to the brain and the brain to talk to the gut.
- There’s only one part of your body that has more nerves than your gut: your brain.
It’s fascinating to think about the way the gut influences so many things within the body.
Diversity is The Key to Improve Your Gut Health
The biggest takeaway from this information is that you should eat as much variety of whole plant foods as you can. Diversity is key. But why? Here’s the breakdown:
As we said earlier, the unique community of microorganisms living in and on the human body is called the microbiome, and we are only just beginning to understand how it works, and what it does. We now have studies showing us that the gut may control your dietary impulses to some degree, similar to food cravings. What drives pregnant women, or people diagnosed with PICA?
It really depends on the makeup of your microbiome. If you have a micro microbiome that loves sugar, then guess what? You’re going to crave sugar. Kind of a relief to know that, isn’t it?
Many autoimmune diseases have increased 500% in the last 50 years. When you see emergence of disease on that scale, it begs the question, what is driving this? Is this genetically motivated or is this motivated by something different? Is it motivated by our environment? By our lifestyle?
With that extreme of a change, there’s something else that’s going on. Most people would estimate about 20 or 25 percent of disease is motivated by genetics, which means that the majority of disease is not motivated by genetics. This means that you are not the victim of the genetic profile that was handed to you.
Over 20 years ago, Dr. Dean Ornish did some extremely forward-thinking studies that showed us that you can actually reverse coronary artery disease with diet and lifestyle.
It was a whole foods plant-based diet and it involved exercise and meditation, but he was able to show, not with pills, not with stenting, not with surgery, but diet and lifestyle can actually walk back coronary artery disease and make it better than it was before. Up to that point, we didn’t know that was possible. To hear a similar story, listen to this podcast with Kate McGoey-Smith.
So, what does this mean? Do we just reject modern medicines, and the other resources we’ve found to treat illnesses? Absolutely not.
Why not fire on all cylinders, take advantage of the best that we have in medicine, but also recognize that the root cause of most disease comes from our lifestyle?
Following a plant-based diet means you’re giving your body the best chance possible to have optimal health. It’s not a silver bullet. There still will be disease on the planet. If everyone goes plant-based, there still will be disease. We’re not going to live in utopia and live to 150 years old, but we will dramatically reduce the burden of disease.
Rethinking the Fight for Health
Our bodies are not perfect. It’s actually rather common for precancerous or cancerous cells to be created, but the body has a mechanism to clear them out before they cause a problem. The part where we make a mistake is when we don’t identify that they exist and fail to clear them out, then we are giving them a chance to multiply and divide.
We can’t say that we always know exactly the way infections are transmitted. In some cases it’s through human touch, it’s through contact. In some cases it’s through the air or water droplets: a cough or a sneeze. Sometimes it’s a malfunctioning process in the body, as mentioned above. But the key that we are forgetting is that our microbiome plays a huge role in our body’s effort to protect us.
We have an instinct as humans to decimate our enemies. It’s something we’ve always done. Looking back at the 19th century, the top causes of death were infections. So we worked to find solutions to this infection problem, and, well, we found solutions. Infections aren’t killing people the way that they were before.
But have we taken it too far?
Have we over-sterilized our world?
Have we done too much to decimate the bacteria? Dr. Bulsiewicz argues that the answer is yes.
When we talk about an illness, we ask what we should do to kill the sickness, instead of what we should do to empower our body to do its job. Why don’t we just try to get more good bacteria? Because, when we kill the bad guys using antibiotics, there are consequences for the whole microbiome.
What Should I Eat?
This is the most common question experts like Dr. Bulsiewicz hear every day. The truth is, every single unique plant food that exists is going to have a mix of vitamins, minerals, and unique types of fiber phytochemicals. These offer you a unique package that will help improve your gut health and nourish your microbiome. If you’re looking for some plant-based meal inspiration, check out my cookbook!
Rob Knight created a project called the American Gut Project that surveyed people internationally about their microbiome, and evaluated their health based on diet. Over 11,000 people have participated, and what they’ve found is that the greatest predictor of a healthy gut microbiome was the diversity of plants in your diet.
The single greatest determinant of a healthy gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in your diet.
Obviously, switching to a plant-based diet can’t happen overnight. This is not an all or nothing phenomenon. You don’t need to be a hundred percent or bust. Think of it this way:
The average American right now is 10% plant based.
If you go from 10% to 30%, that’s a great change.
If you go from 30% to 60%, even better.
But as you get closer to 90%, which Dr. Bulsiewicz outlines as the ideal zone, you’re going to feel so good that you’re going to want more.
So what amount do we make room for? That’s a personal choice. But, the only way to discover what changes are manageable for you is to get started. To learn How to Make Habits that Stick, check out this conversation I had with James Clear to get started.