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Sorting myth from science: How nurses can improve gut health

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While medical researchers can still be somewhat skeptical of the claims made about probiotics, nurses can feel completely confident in the value of a gut-healthy regimen.

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For one thing, nurses are a population quite comfortable with concepts like beneficial bacteria that lives in the stomach –– and they aren't too delicate to explore a health benefit that involves extra attention to the lower gastrointestinal tract.

But besides the "this isn't even gross by nursing standards" description, the concept is a good one for immunity boosting, something every nurse could use. And Atlanta-based nutritionists, dietitians and holistic health coaches are big proponents.

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"We've all heard about the gut-brain connection, and that there's good bacteria in our bodies that works to keep us thriving and functioning our best," notes Atlanta's Margaret Schwenke, a certified eating psychology counselor and certified holistic health coach. "What you might not know is that about 80% of our immune system function is the result of a balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Studies show that our gut health is linked to supporting immune function, hormone balance, healthy glucose levels, regulating inflammation, mental clarity and many other biological systems."

Schwenke also emphasizes the critical need for gut health in a stress-filled world (yes, exactly like ER, ICU and other nurse-work settings). "Many aspects of daily life, including chronic stress, can deplete our good bacteria, leading to health imbalances," she says.

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Of course, you do have to take probiotics with a grain of salt, just not literally. There are solid studies that see the value, like the one in Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, which established that the amount and diversity of good gut flora can be an indicator of overall wellness. But there are other researchers who urge gut-health aficionados to take this science slowly.

According to a March 2019 study published in the Frontiers in Microbiology journal, for example, "the term 'probiotic' is often misapplied to describe any microbe with plausible therapeutic utility in the human host." Those researchers called for "avoidance of generalizations to the whole field of probiotics based upon studies of one product," and more comprehensive data-based evidence and consistency in research standards.

Meantime, though, nurses might want to give gut health a try, especially since it mostly involves whole foods you can incorporate on the cheap and without a lot of rigamarole.

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Jenny Askew, a cancer survivor and registered dietitian at Balance Fitness and Nutrition in Alpharetta, sees value in probiotics. "Taking a probiotic can help support the immune system because about 70% of the immune system lives inside of your gut," she says. Askew's practice is dedicated to helping patients manage medical conditions ranging from celiac disease to high cholesterol and diabetes. To get good gut health working in your favor, she recommends taking probiotics and eating probiotics found in foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha.

Schenke, who is also educated in culinary arts and mind-body nutrition, recommends some additional steps that would enhance anybody's health even if their gut bacteria stayed the same. "An emphasis on a healthy whole food diet, restful sleep, probiotics and physical movement are all beneficial things you can do to support a healthy balance of gut bacteria," she advised.

Atlanta nutritionist and registered dietitian Page Love of Nutrifit Sport Therapy Inc. does have one qualifier about gut health strategies that might give some nurses pause, though. "Eating wholesome foods like probiotic yogurt or pickled foods are the best way to populate our gut with healthy bacteria," notes Love, who works with a handful of nurse clients and also athletes. "But then you need to feed that bacteria with healthy carbs, such as high fiber foods like whole-grain breads, cereals, legumes, sweet potatoes and quinoa."

Want a strong gut? "Say goodbye to low carb diets!" Love adds.

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