Go With Your Gut: The Basics of Digestive Health


Written By Toni McKinnon, AsktheScientists.com

You really should start trusting your gut. That’s because it has a huge impact on your mood, brain, and overall health.

The gut—which is a short way to say stomach, small, and large intestines—processes your diet. It absorbs the energy and nutrition you get from your food. So, without good gut and digestive health, your cells aren’t getting what they need to thrive every day.

Any discussion of gut health has to start at the microscopic level with your microbiome. This collection of bacteria and other microbes lives in your intestines and helps you process the food you eat.

It’s totally normal for the gut to be home to trillions of bacteria. There’s actually as many microbial members of your microbiome as human cells in your body. You’ll find them mostly in the large intestine and to a lesser extent in the small intestine, but not much in the stomach. The harsh, acidic environment of the stomach isn’t very inhabitable. Most of these single-celled primitive organisms are just hanging out where the food stays the longest, waiting for free meals.

But you benefit, too. Your gut bacteria help out, breaking down food. And all it costs you is a little bit of space at the Hotel Intestine and a meal.

Adding Probiotics to Your Diet

This win-win symbiotic relationship is typical. Most of the microbes (also called microflora) are harmless if they stay in the right place and in manageable quantities. Of the 40,000-plus different strains and species, there are well-studied bacteria shown to help.

We call these probiotics. And you’ve probably heard that term a lot.

There’s a definition—provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—that’s widely accepted: “Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” But most people probably know probiotics as “good bacteria.”

Labeling the bacteria “good” might be going a little bit too far. Even if it’s compelling and simple, it’s not perfectly accurate to start calling some bacteria heroes and others villains. All bacteria are selfish and are just looking after themselves and their descendants. We just happen to benefit from that selfishness sometimes.

Because we do gain health benefits from some, it’s important to maintain a thriving population of bacteria shown to be helpful/useful. Probiotics can help provide reinforcements that can tip the balance of gut bacteria in a positive direction.

Research on probiotics shows ties to healthy digestion, and even healthy immune function. That makes sense because your gut contains a high concentration of immune cells that can help the good bacteria take foothold which helps to support a healthy immune system.

Not all probiotics are created equal, though. When you’re looking for one to help balance your belly, make sure to look at the research. Two of the most clinically studied strains are Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.  One of the core benefits of these strains is supporting a healthy gut microbiota by making the gut environment more favorable to the healthy strains of bacteria that already live inside you, so those groups can thrive.

Other Tips for Good Gut Health

Taking a probiotic is just one way to help maintain your gut health. Lifestyle factors can play a big role. That’s because you are the environment for your microbiome, so you have the chance to influence the type of bacteria that coexist with you.

Bacteria are still living organisms, so you don’t have total control. But here are five ways to provide the best environment possible for beneficial bacteria:

  1. Eat a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Make sure you get plenty of fiber—beneficial bacteria like it and it’s good for overall health.
  3. Exercise regularly.
  4. Get plenty of restful sleep.
  5. Find ways to productively deal with stress.

About the Author

Toni McKinnon RN, CCRP, & USANA’s Director of Health and Science Education

“Nurse Toni” is a Licensed Registered Nurse (RN) and a Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP). Toni began her career at a local trauma one hospital specializing in orthopedic nursing. She joined USANA’s department of Research and Development in May of 1996 to be a resource for health and nutrition information for customers, and to help start the human clinical research program. She has been involved in human clinical research for over 20 years and is a co-author of several scientific, peer-reviewed manuscripts. She has written numerous research-related articles on nutrition and health and has been responsible for overseeing the organization of third-party published research to support product efficacy and safety. She formally joined the Department of Health and Science Education in November of 2014. Toni is the creator of USANA’s Ask the Scientists website and the weekly Nutrition Spotlight eNewsletter. Both resources help educate consumers on the role of nutrition in health.

The Important Cancer Screening Test You Need to Know About

No smoking

We recently asked viewers, both online and in our studio audience, which cancer they think kills the most women. Here is what everyone thought:

  • Breast cancer – 33%
  • Ovarian cancer – 23%
  • Lung cancer – 21%
  • Cervical cancer -15%
  • Colon cancer – 7%
  • Endometrial cancer – 1%

The correct answer is actually lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both women and men in the United States and around the world. Here in America, lung cancer claims over 155,000 lives every year. We all know the habit that boosts your risk the most, which hopefully you’re not doing, but what most people don’t know is that there is now a screening test for lung cancer that can literally save your life. In fact, the results of a new survey from the American Lung Association found that 84 percent of people at a high risk for lung cancer didn’t even know there was a screening test. Well, that changes today.


Sex Addiction 101: Signs, Secrets, Symptoms, and Solutions



The truth is this: sex occupies much more time in our minds than in real-time, that’s for certain. So when you bring up the recent inescapable news cycle telling us of fallen stars, predators, and sex addiction at your next dinner party, brace yourself for strong opinions from every side. Sex is natural. Sex is fun. But sex for someone who is addicted is a cycle of craving, minimal attachment to a partner, and an inability to stop in spite of negative consequences.


Q & A With Fitness Expert Jay Cardiello

Athlete running road silhouette

Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking with Jay Cardiello, a fitness professional, author, and TEDx presenter who beat the Guinness World Record for one-minute chin-ups earlier this year. Read on to find out how he trained for this event, stayed motivated, and achieved his goals.


Everything You Need to Know About Natural GERD Remedies

Young woman in pain

By: Scott Gabbard, MD

We spoke with Dr. Scott Gabbard, a doctor who specializes in gastroenterology and hepatology to learn more about natural remedies for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Take a look at his answers below to get the scoop on alternative cures for this often painful and comfortable condition. 

What are the natural remedies for GERD? 

This is a great question.  I think that lifestyle changes should be first-line therapy for GERD.  Here are a few things that have been shown to help reflux in clinical trials:

–Weight loss of 3 BMI points (if the patient has BMI > 30)

–Limiting meals to 500 calories and 15-20 grams of fat (this may mean 4 meals per day, instead of 3)

–Smoking cessation

–Use of antacids or alginate.  Alginate floats on top of the acid in the stomach and can help post-prandial (after-meal) symptoms

–Sleeping at an inclined position with a wedge (regular incline wedge)

Building on the above comment, we demonstrated that sleeping with a reflux sleep system (that positioned patients at an incline and on the left side) reduced nocturnal heartburn/regurgitation by 70%; and reduced nocturnal cough by almost 50%.

Remedies that may work, but no randomized studies available:

–Melatonin 5-6mg at night

–Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) – available in gum form

–Wearing loose clothing to reduce intra-abdominal pressure

–Chewing gum to promote saliva production

Should you try any of these remedies in combination with one another or on their own?

I generally recommend trying one at a time for patients with mild symptoms.  For more severe symptoms, these may be used in combination. I really tailor the therapy to the patient’s complaint – use the reflux sleep system if they complain of nocturnal symptoms vs. use of alginate for post-prandial symptoms.

Are the remedies on an as-needed basis or should they be part of your daily routine?

It depends on the frequency of symptoms.  I generally tell patients to use as needed, if they only have symptoms 1-2 times per week.  For more frequent symptoms (3 or more times per week), patients should incorporate them into the daily routine. Of course, some remedies should be part of everyone’s routine (smoking cessation, weight loss if obese).

How long does it typically take for a patient to see progress in their symptoms?

Everyone is different.  Some therapies work immediately (alginate), others take a few weeks. For the reflux sleep system study, we found significant improvement within two weeks, but patients continued to improve further over the next month.

What are the main GERD triggers?

Interestingly, everyone is different. In general, fatty and spicy meals tend to cause the most problems for patients.  I also believe that large portion sizes affect patients – these meals take the most time to empty from the stomach, and likely cause the lower esophageal sphincter (lower valve of the esophagus) to open -> resulting in reflux.

Can GERD ever be cured entirely?

Good question. The lower esophageal sphincter is designed to open when patients swallow (to allow food to pass into the stomach) and when the stomach fills with air (belching). In fact, even normal subjects (without GERD symptoms) have some reflux during the day. When pH tests were done on normal individuals, we have found that the general population may have up to 1 hour of reflux per day – that is considered normal. Because of this, GERD can be induced with eating large/fatty/spicy meals and being obese. That said, many patients have completely resolved their symptoms, by adhering to the lifestyle changes above.

What kind of diet do you recommend for people with GERD?

I recommend lower fat and smaller meals. Interestingly, coffee has never been shown to cause reflux, despite what many experts claim. My patients love me, as I tell them they can drink coffee again!

Any foods you recommend avoiding?

I think high-fat foods should be avoided and meals that contain a significant amount of fat/calories above what I listed.

Are natural GERD remedies as potent as drugs? 

For nocturnal heartburn/regurgitation, we found that using the reflux sleep system worked as well as proton pump inhibitors (PPI). The other remedies/lifestyle changes work well for mild symptoms, but probably not as well as PPIs for severe heartburn. However, if a patient has ulcers in the esophagus (erosive esophagitis), then PPIs are required – they are the only therapy that has been proven to heal erosions in the esophagus.

Do you recommend using drugs in conjunction with the remedies? 

In general, we recommend using PPIs in all patients with erosive esophagitis or Barrett’s esophagus. Patients with these conditions need to be on PPIs indefinitely. For patients with mild symptoms and normal esophagus on endoscopy, we generally try to maximize lifestyle therapy first. If symptoms continue, then we have patients take the lowest effective dose of medication.

Any warnings before starting to use natural remedies? 

The main points I would like to make are in regards to alarm symptoms.  Patients need to see their doctor immediately if they have any alarm symptoms (difficulty swallowing, unintentional weight loss, vomiting, signs of gastrointestinal bleeding – red blood in stool or dark tarry stools). If patients have mild symptoms without those alarm signs, then they can try the therapies listed above.

Do the remedies have to be organic, locally sourced, cold pressed, or any other specifications? 

Really good question. As of now, there are no good studies to guide us. But a nice area for future research!

In the News: Exercise May Improve Brain Efficiency, Junk Food May Increase Distraction, Pesticides May Lower IVF Success Rates

Exercise may improve brain efficiency. A new study has found that just two weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) lowers the amount of blood glucose the brain has to use up for energy in participants with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. This study also found that moderate exercise for the same amount of time improves insulin sensitivity in participants as well. Using a positron emission tomography (PET scan), researchers observed these promising changes in middle-aged men and women who don’t normally exercise and have either type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. These findings seem to suggest that even a small amount of exercise can significantly change how the brain uses up energy, making it a promising option for the 29.1 million people who have diabetes in this country, along with the 8.1 million who may have this condition but aren’t diagnosed. (F)

Junk food may increase distraction. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University examined the impact that food has on our ability to concentrate and found that when it comes to healthy or unhealthy food, the unhealthy stuff can provide a serious distraction. In fact, when examining 18 participants, they found that any and all food imagery was distracting, but that the images of caloric and fattening foods were two times as distracting compared to the images of fruits and vegetables. When looking for an explanation, they found that sugary, high-fat foods activate the reward system in the brain, making it easy for us to succumb to distraction. Want to say goodbye to junk food? Here are six ways to kick the habit. (MN)

Pesticides may lower IVF success rates. New research has found that eating fruits and vegetables that are high in pesticides may make it harder for women to get pregnant with IVF. Scientists studied 325 female participants who were using assisted reproductive technologies and found that those with high exposure to pesticides (large numbers of which are found in strawberries, spinach, and peppers), were eating more than two servings of these fruits and vegetables and were 18% less likely to get pregnant than those who had less exposure to pesticides, and were also 26% less likely to have a live birth. While these findings do suggest that high pesticide exposure can lower IVF success rate, they don’t yet link pesticide exposure to reproductive health issues. While more research will be needed to get a better picture into what this means, eating organic produce is a good way to avoid harmful exposure to these chemicals in the meantime. Want to learn more about avoiding pesticides? Follow these guidelines. (T)

Everything You Need to Know About HPV


We usually think of HPV as the cause of cervical cancer and most of us are familiar with HPV screenings as part of the pap smear process. But head and neck cancers are increasingly becoming a concern because studies show that they are actually on the rise, especially oropharyngeal cancer in men. Rates have been increasing about 2.9% per year in men and have remained relatively stable in women. And now, the number of cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in men is now about the same as the number of cases of cervical cancer in women.

This begs the question why and a new study out this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine is getting a lot of attention because it attempts to uncover an explanation for this phenomenon.

What You Need to Know About Maternal Mortality

Pink and Blue Blankets in Bassinets

We have the most technologically advanced healthcare in the world, but you may be shocked to learn that when it comes to maternal mortality, our statistics look more like those of a less developed nation than a world leader. In fact, our rate of death for recent or expectant mothers is the absolute worst among developed nations, in North America and Europe. To make matters worse, rates have risen over the past 25 years, while they have fallen in many other places.  


The #1 Lifestyle Change to Improve Your Brain

running sunrise sunset

Written by: Wendy A. Suzuki Ph.D.Professor of Neural Science and Psychology, New York University.

Doctors often recommend a long list of lifestyle changes to help protect your brain from the damaging effects of aging, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A model described at the most recent Alzheimer’s Conference in London in 2017, identified nine lifestyle changes that could help prevent one in three cases of Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s truly impressive, but how could we hope to tackle so many life changes all at once? Should I start that Mediterranean diet today? Or should I try to get 8 hours of sleep in tonight? Should I finally learn how to meditate to decrease my stress? We clearly need a better strategy and as a neuroscientist who has studied the brain and the effects of exercise on the brain for over 25 years (think of me as your exercise doctor), I suggest to start with the single lifestyle change that packs the strongest punch: adding more aerobic exercise into your life.


Are Your Shoes Making You Sick?


Around the world, it is customary for many households to require you to remove your shoes upon entering the home, and with good reason! As we find ourselves back to work and back to school, those sparkling new shoes or the kids’ new kicks can quickly become a source of contamination. After a day of contact with the outside world, we may be tracking some nasty bugs back home without realizing it.