5 Things This Gut Doctor Wishes Everyone Would Do This Winter

Integrative Gastroenterologist By Marvin Singh, M.D.
Integrative Gastroenterologist
Dr. Marvin Singh is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California. He is trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology.
Gut Health

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

Well, it's that time of the year again—the most wonderful time of the year! Alongside all the excitement and parties, what commonly comes along for the ride are the coughs and colds.

You might be asking, "Why is a gut doctor talking about coughs and colds?" Well, about 70 to 80% of our immune system lies in the gut. Kind of crazy when you think about it, isn't it? We have an ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live inside of our digestive tracts, and this is what we collectively refer to as the gut microbiome.

These little guys are basically running the show and play a large role in our immune system and how we fight off infections. Have you ever noticed that when you are sick or not feeling well that your bowel habits might not necessarily be perfect? Consider your gut to be the tattletale of the whole body. When something seems to be off in someplace in your body, oftentimes, you will find that you'll have some sort of digestive symptom.

So, what do we do? Protecting and taking care of your gut and the little microbes inside of it is one big way to keep your immune system working well for you. Here are my top five tips to try to reduce your chances of getting sick this winter: 

1. Don't give up on exercise.

Exercise can "induce increased microbial diversity in the gut microbiome of humans" and "improve the Bacteroidetes-Firmicutes ratio and, in turn, affect obesity, a variety of gastrointestinal conditions, and simultaneously improve immune and gut barrier function." So, yes, by exercising, you are getting your heart pumping, but you are also creating a better environment for your gut microbes—as a thank you gift, they will help you stay well.

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2. "Hara hachi bu."

I love this principle. It's a Japanese saying that translates to, "Eat until you are 80% full."

I think this is a good principle to follow in general, but especially during the holidays when people tend to overindulge. We want to have fun, socialize, and enjoy ourselves (this is part of lifestyle medicine as well). However, we don't want to overdo it because all that accomplishes is more stress on the body. If you pace yourself, eat only when you are hungry, and focus on enjoying your experiences with family, friends, and colleagues, your gut microbiome will enjoy the holidays better.

Also, try to avoid eating too many sugary and processed foods. Just because it's the wintertime and holiday parties are in full swing doesn't mean that the microbes in your gut will like that stuff any better—they always prefer to be doused with healthy, clean foods.

3. Watch your alcohol intake.

This is an important one. This is the time of the year when there are tons of holiday parties and there tends to be some increase in alcohol content. Keep in mind, however, that this is one of the easiest ways to damage your immune system. Alcohol-induced changes in the gut microbiome are well established, and it is known that alcohol can cause oxidative stress, leaky gut, inflammation, and an imbalance of the gut microbiome. So, take it easy on the drinking and protect your microbiome, which is working overtime to keep you healthy and well!

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4. Give your body some immune-boosting ingredients.

It is also not a bad idea to give yourself a little bit of an extra boost during the winter, as viruses are a bit more rampant. Sometimes our microbes can use a little extra help, so a probiotic can be helpful, especially if you are traveling and may have a higher exposure to infections. Turmeric is a good anti-inflammatory and immune-supportive supplement. Additionally, elderberry is one of my favorites, because it is packed full of antioxidants and vitamins that can support the immune system, just like vitamin C. Milk thistle is something we often don't talk too much about, but I love it as well. The active ingredient in milk thistle is called silymarin, and it acts as an antioxidant and protects the liver.

There are a lot of supplements you can take to support your immune system beyond these, but remember that not everything settles well with everyone, so make sure you consult with your doctor before taking anything. And remember that what's better than any supplement is proper nutrition itself. Foods are the best medicine. Eat plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits, throw in some fermented and prebiotic foods, and reduce the packaged and processed foods full of food additives, GMOs, and sugars. Your microbes (and immune system) will be thanking you all winter long.

5. Relax!

During the winter season, most people are go, go, go. We often forget that the place we are going is actually a place to relax. That said, the road to that place shouldn't be paved with stress! It's always good to give yourself a "gut check" and remember that this is a fun time of year, so make sure you have fun. Your gut will appreciate it, and so will your immune system.

Stress (even emotional or situational stress) can trigger the fight-or-flight response system in our bodies, and this can disturb the gut microbiome and its ability to make anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids. So, if we practice some simple techniques like the 4-7-8 breath, yoga, tai chi, qigong, meditation, or some other mindfulness-based practice, it will go a long way—not just for the holidays but for your whole life and overall health.

So, remember, it certainly is the most wonderful time of the year, but we don't want to be sick the entire time either. If we do our best to enjoy and have fun but also remember that our gut microbes want to have fun too, then you might have a better chance of escaping the winter bugs that are running around out there!

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