Host: Welcome to the Lifelong Wellness podcast where we talk to wellness professionals from around the world to gain their insights into healthier living. I’m your host, Wes Malik. Today our guest is a certified health counselor, personal trainer, yoga teacher, and an executive functioning coach who specializes in the gut-brain axis. She's been working in the health and wellness industry for over 18 years. She's an accredited health counselor at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and she also hones her culinary skills at The Natural Gourmet School and Pratt Institute. Lisa, welcome to the Lifelong Wellness podcast. How are you doing today?
Lisa: I’m good. Thank you.
Host: You have been a certified health counselor, a personal trainer, and a coach. You’ve been involved in the health industry for many years – over 18 years now, and you specialize in the gut-brain connection. Why the health industry and why specifically this?
Lisa: Because I’m just really passionate. I believe in being healthy and feeling good. And I think you have a lot of control over this by making the right dietary and lifestyle choices to heal your gut. And one of the amazing things about the gut is that even if it’s not healthy you can then do things to make it healthy. And it can affect so many different things, everything from your skin to your mood, to your energy level and lots of other illnesses. So I love that you have that power in your hands and in your control.
Host: Now, when you talk about the gut, what is the gut exactly?
Lisa: Sure. So, the gut actually is everything from your stomach all the way to your large intestine. But most of the time when we’re talking about the gut, we’re really talking about, it’s also called the microbiome, in certain instances, but the small intestine where most of your nutrient absorption happens from the food that you eat and digest.
Host: I see. I see. And when you talk about gut health, how do we know that it's unhealthy?
Lisa: So there are lots of different signs that your body will give you when you have an unhealthy gut. And usually what I tell people is there are a lot of expensive tests that you can get. You can go to functional medicine doctors and those things can be very helpful to get really solid answers. But if you don’t want to go that route, I usually tell people to look and see if they have three of these symptoms. And it can be anything from fatigue to bad breath, to skin abrasions, to joint pain, a lot of headaches, brain fog, focus and concentration issues. It can also be irritable bowel symptoms, a lot of GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) reflux. So if you have three or more of those symptoms it’s often the case that you have what’s called leaky gut.
Host: Oh. And what is…Now, those are the symptoms of a leaky gut. What is a leaky gut?
Lisa: A leaky gut is basically… we have this wall that we’re born with that is a protective barrier in our gut. And so, when that wall starts to get microscopic holes in it, it can let toxins and inflammatory things into our bloodstream. And that’s when you start to get what’s called leaky gut. A leaky gut can also consist of an imbalance because you’re born with a balance of good bacteria. There’s always some not so good bacteria, but there is an equilibrium balance in your gut when you’re born and when your gut is healthy.
Lisa: When your gut is leaky, you may be messing up that balance where the bad bacteria that will live on things like sugar or they can be things like yeast, have an overgrowth also called Candida. These things can also lead to a leaky gut. And when you have a leaky gut, it will start to depress your immune system.
Host: It sounds really gross having a leaky gut. (laughing) I mean the juvenile point of it is like, “Oh, my God! My gut is leaky. Oh, gross”. But if I’m now, now I'm concerned about my gut, Lisa. I don't even know if it's, this is a leaky one or not but now I'm concerned. What are the ways to ensure that my gut is healthy? What are the ways that I can, you know, make sure that I have a healthy lifestyle and make sure the gut is fine?
Lisa: Well, there are many, many ways and I don’t necessarily recommend trying to tackle all of these things all at once because it’s really hard to make so many different lifestyle changes at the same time. But a few different things that I do recommend and you can try to create habits by trying each one, one at a time and getting that into your life over 2 to 4 weeks and then starting on another one. So create these better habits over a lifetime. And so different things, everything from exercise to mindfulness and relaxation techniques, to dietary changes like really focusing on things high in fiber like a lot of dark leafy greens, trying to avoid all sorts of refined sugars and only choosing naturally occurring sugars, things that are low on what’s called the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly foods make your blood sugar rise. So low glycemic index foods are like sweet potatoes and berries. Things that might taste sweet but is not a factor of if it’s actually high or low. Those sorts of foods will help you keep your blood sugar lower and also not feed those bad bacteria and candida in your gut. Other things include other dietary changes like eating a lot of alkaline foods which are mostly plant-based foods like, believe it or not, lemon and limes are very alkaline as well as nuts and nut butter. So a whole mix of all those types of things will really help to start to get your gut, you know, healed and not be leaky. Then there are also some supplements you can take like licorice and also aloe vera juice, magnesium. But I always tell people that before starting any sort of supplements or supplement regimen to just check with your doctor to make sure it’s okay if you’re on any other medications.
Host: Do a lot of people have problems with their guts? Is this something that, you know, that we should be concerned about?
Lisa: It’s extremely common but people just don’t know that that’s what actually happens to them. And so often, and I will propose by saying I’m very pro-medication when it’s necessary.
Lisa: But so often people will just, you know, go to the doctor and get a prescription for something that they might be on for a very long time when they probably could have healed their gut over about a 6-month period with some lifestyle changes and avoiding that medication and that medication may have side effects and things like that.
Host: Okay. You are also a…Are you a chef? Is that your title?
Lisa: I’m not an official chef but I have a lot of culinary training.
Host: So you have a lot of culinary training?
Host: If you are to advise things that I should remove from my diet and possibly add that thing that I'm not getting, what would those things be?
Lisa: The things that I would immediately… the first thing that I would tell you to remove would be sugar, refined sugars. And to your body, refined sugar can be anything like white table sugar or sugar that's added in so many package foods that we don’t even realize. It could also be like white bread and white pasta, anything with white flour or white potatoes because your body doesn’t really make a distinction. It's just both of those things, white sugar or white flour have very high glycemic index levels. So they’ll just raise your blood sugar quickly. That’s the most important thing I would recommend getting rid of and then switching to really healthy unsaturated fats. Things like avocado and avocado oil, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, things like that. Again, plant-based unsaturated fats.
Host: I see. Those are very, very good tips. Would you consider changing out white flour with whole wheat or something else?
Lisa: I definitely would. I mean some people have more gluten sensitivity than others. So, it’s important to watch your body and watch the signs. Because gluten, if you think of it kind of like when you’re making dough for bread, it’s very sticky. The reason it can be so highly sensitive is the gluten in our wheat today is different than our ancient grains were and it’s stickier. And so when it’s sticky, it can get stuck in that gut lining that we’re talking about before, and start to cause problems. So whole wheat products are definitely better because they’re much higher in fiber, which is good for our gut but you just have to be aware of whether you have a gluten sensitivity or not. Like I have one, my husband doesn’t. So it just affects people differently.
Host: Differently. When we talk about sugar, we’ve been talking about sugar and the elimination of sugar a lot on our podcast and it's quite difficult because when you go out grocery shopping, sugar is rampant in pretty much everything you buy. It's very, very, hard to avoid. And plus, you know, maybe going the diet route isn’t recommended either because there are different chemicals that are present in like a Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi or a diet soda, with aspartame or some other chemicals which have…
Lisa: Right. Those are really no better.
Host: No better at all. Yes. If we have a sweet tooth, what is a guy or girl to do if we really have a sweet tooth? We have to have something like a sweet drink or should I be using honey?
Lisa: So, what I usually recommend and I actually have a whole lecture series, I do called The Sugar Blues on this.
Host: Oh, really?
Lisa: So what I recommend, yes, and what I generally recommend because sugar is literally like a legal drug in our country. I mean it’s overly addictive as are lots of other drugs. So it’s really hard when you get addicted to sugar to get off of it.
Lisa: So a couple of tips that are helpful… One is that a lot of times people feel a sugar craving coming on and the cause of it is dehydration. So one thing I always recommend to people is when you feel a sugar craving coming on, drink a glass of water. I prefer to recommend room temperature because it’s easier to drink it in a bigger quantity, and just wait 10 minutes. In 10 minutes, if you’re still craving sugar, go ahead and indulge in it and I’ll explain the things I recommend to indulge in it with. But just give yourself that 10 minutes to see if it was caused by dehydration. Another thing is to really stick with natural sugars that are low on a glycemic index. So we talked about some of those before. Those are things like those are found in berries, in sweet potatoes, even watermelon, things you wouldn’t necessarily think are low on a glycemic index. And a quick Google search makes it easy to find food that is low on the glycemic index.
Lisa: Another thing is if you like to use a sweetener, I always recommend making coconut sugar your go-to sweetener because again, it’s very low on a glycemic index. It’s very versatile, it can be used in anything from coffee to baking, and it’s very, very sweet. Its consistency tastes almost like brown sugar. That’s how sweet it tastes, so you really only need a little bit and it’s a great option instead of table sugar. The other thing is to try to get into the habit of just not buying as many packaged foods. Whole foods and fresh fruits and vegetables is really where it’s at. That’s your best defense to ultimately, you know, depress your sugar craving because you’ll be having it so much less since it won’t be hidden in those packaged foods.
Host: It’s better to stay in the fresh fruit and vegetable aisle rather than the other sections which are huge and gigantic. (laughing)
Host: Everything we eat that is basically processed comes from a factory to save us time and energy and effort. And I guess taking care of our health requires just a little bit of prep time and just a little bit of effort but I think it will go a long, long way.
Lisa: Exactly. Exactly.
Host: Forgive me, you know, naivety. Coconut sugar. Tell me more about this. I’ve never heard about it or haven’t seen it.
Lisa: Oh, really? So, yes, it’s just in…I mean, I live in Boulder, Colorado, which is a very health-oriented place. So in Boulder, we can get it pretty much in any supermarket, whether it’s a Whole Foods or a Safeway.
Lisa: So, it’s becoming more known. It just comes from coconut, and it looks just like brown sugar and it’s low on the glycemic index. So it’s just a great option.
Host: That’s wonderful.
Host: That would be an easy fix to swap out for baking or other things as well.
Lisa: Exactly. Exactly.
Host: I understand you work with people with mental health struggles and you help them optimize the health of their gut, which in turn helps them improve brain function and decreases the severity of their mental illnesses and symptoms. How long have you been doing that?
Lisa: Exactly. I have been doing that for about 8 years. Before that, I was just doing plain old health and nutrition counseling and fitness. And about 8 years ago I just started really exploring…I’ve always had a general personal interest in Psychology so I just kind of actually fell into it a little bit and then I started learning about the relationship. And there is such a significant relationship between the health of your gut. I mean, in your gut lives the same neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that are living in your brain to cause mood changes. So that’s like the first clue that there can be such a symbiotic relationship between the two different organs. And the more that I started to dive into it and research it, the more it was so apparent how much the health of your gut affects your mood, your concentration and focus levels, your anxiety, and depression. And what it had led me into has been helping people also then, a lot of people with mental health struggles also have what’s called executive function disabilities.
Lisa: So it’s hard for them to do things that people without mental health struggles might take for granted, such as just keeping a calendar or showing up for work on time, holding down a job, budgeting things, like that. So once you start to heal the gut, you can then feel better and more clarity and focus to start focusing on the executive function skills. So that’s exactly what I do. I help people with executive function through teaching those skills, while simultaneously making better lifestyle and wellness choices to feel better. And it takes a little time, it can take about 6 months or so. Maybe, even more, depending on the severity but really it is effective and it really works.
Host: How many people have you worked with to improve their mental health through optimizing their gut? But that's not the only thing that you work on. You also work on their immune system, their weight, their cardiovascular health, right?
Lisa: Right. All of it.
Lisa: It’s all related. Oh, my gosh. How many people? I don’t really have a count at this point. I mean, I have a pretty full practice. You know, I work about 30 hours a week and for some people, I see twice a week, some people once a week. And I’ve been doing it for, you know, 7 or 8 years. So I’ve helped a lot of people over the years.
Host: Are there any studies that show the correlation between gut health and mental health?
Lisa: Oh my God! There are tons. The best one to look up, it’s called the Gut Biome Project, and it’s an on-going study over years and years. It was out of the UK and now it’s also coming into the US. Johns Hopkins doing a lot of research on it, too.
Lisa: It focuses exactly on myths. But the health of your gut and how it relates to the health of your brain. It’s becoming a much more Wells study topic because the relationship is becoming so much more apparent.
Host: Now, when you work with your clients, how do you work on strengthening their immune systems?
Lisa: Well, that part is just an amazing side effect of healing your gut.
Lisa: So once you start to heal your gut you’ll have a lot less inflammation in your body. And once you have a lot of less inflammation in your body, your immune strength starts to get better. So I do all those things like all the tips I was telling you before about teaching them how to heal their gut and it becomes very customized because not everything works. It’s definitely, the soul of my company is actually killing the diet. Because there’s not a one-size-fits-all diet for this stuff. Healing the gut is very, very customized, and personal. You know, I might tell one person to start eating avocados and the next person might say to me, “Well, I hate avocados”.
Lisa: And I don’t want to start making them eat something they hate. So, it’s very customized and as long as we’re getting a healthier diet, some form of movement in a consistent basis, and some sort of mindfulness for relaxation since stress is such an enemy of the gut, we figure out and tweak it until we find a good combination of those three factors and then stick to it.
Host: Let’s talk about stress. You’re a yoga instructor.
Lisa: I am,
Host: And how does yoga help in relieving stress?
Lisa: Well yoga has been around for thousands of years and I can speak personally that it has done wonders in my own life, in my own stress. The thing Ì love about yoga is that you’re moving but it keeps you really present and focused in the moment, so that the whole idea behind mindfulness and stress relief is to stay in the moment and try not to let your mind roam about other things that you have going on. And that calms and quiets the brain just like meditation does. So the studies show that over time a consistent practice of doing that really helps just lower your baseline stress level. And so that’s one of the many reasons that I just love yoga and mindfulness for helping with gut health.
Host: I don’t have too much experience with yoga. I just recently took it up a couple of years ago. I thought it was going to be very easy and then, you know, going through the movements, I’m sweating like anything like I have a full workout. I’m like, “How did this happen?” (laughing) This is not supposed to happen. I thought this is going to be easier. And some of the advanced moves are very, very, you know, taxing on the body. I haven't noticed any meditative or relaxation benefits of yoga. Maybe I’m doing it wrong but I have noticed a lot of balance, you know, core strength, the breathing, it opens up the lungs. I noticed these changes and these effects.
Lisa: Right. Well, there are really three parts to yoga. The Prana, which is the breath. Well, I call it two parts. The Prana, the breath.
Lisa: The Asana, which is the poses, and then the third part is really that being present in the moment part.
Lisa: And trying to really focus, just on what you’re feeling in your body instead of focusing on what’s off, like your grocery list or your kid’s schedule or things like that. And I think that it takes some time and it’s definitely an accumulative effect, but if you really practice very regularly, you will start to feel those benefits. Definitely not an overnight thing, I mean, you’ll feel like the strength in your triceps from the chaturanga before you’ll feel that focus and being present feeling. But if you stick with it and really practice over time I can promise you that you will feel the relaxation that it brings to your baseline stress level because it’s teaching you to just stay focused on the moment instead of staying focused on other things while you’re in that moment. If that makes sense.
Host: Maybe I’m just naturally chilled out as it is all the time. (laughing) But I do have a session coming up. We've got some essential strength yoga coming up on Friday and dynamic restorative yoga coming up on Saturday.
Lisa: Oh, cool.
Host: Which I'm doing, I’m trying to get my son interested in yoga. Daughters were very easy. They’re into it wholeheartedly, but sons are a little, you know, a tough sell.
Lisa: Yes. You can introduce them to it but they have to, I guess, grasp onto it on their own. I have two high school kids, it’s not easy to force them into it.
Host: Let’s talk about cardiovascular health along with gut health, the immune system. You also focus on your clients in cardiovascular health and weight. How do you go about helping your clients with those two things?
Lisa: Well pretty much just by doing straight personal training and teaching classes mostly. I don’t do as much of that as I do the yoga things. I am certified to do it. And I try teaching a class or two a week just to kind of like, stay in it. But, you know, I am always encouraging my clients and trying to create schedules where they allow themselves time to make sure they’re doing a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise where their heart rate is elevated because that’s really where you get the cardiovascular benefits from. And it can be anything, it can be power walking, running, jumping jacks in your basement, whatever works, dancing. I tell my clients to make it anything that feels enjoyable rather than a task that has to be completed.
Host: You work with a lot of corporate clients and, you know, going to the office, even working from home, people don't find the time, you know, to focus on their health. You know, workout or anything especially when you're working office 9 to 5. Sometimes, you know, 8 to 7 or longer even, shorter even. It's quite stressful. You know, day-to-day sometimes weekends as well. How do you motivate people to start focusing on their health and exercising while they're at work or after work?
Lisa: Sure. Well, what I actually tell people is to think of it this way. I’m a busy, full-time mother of two teenagers, working full time. You know, I like to cook so that we’re eating healthy foods. Like lots of things are in my schedule. So, I’m always busy, I’m always hearing people asking the first thing they need from me, and the reason I love my hour of exercise every day is that that’s the only hour in the day that I get that is all mine.
Lisa: And I find that to be therapeutic, I find that good for my cardiovascular health, my mental health. So I tell people to maybe try and take a different spin on the way they look at exercise. Instead look at it as the one hour a day you have to either exercise with a friend so you get time with that friend. Exercise by yourself and listen to music so you get time to listen to music or just have your own time by yourself with your own thoughts, if that’s what you’re looking for. But make that hour your own, wherein you’re doing something that you enjoy while you’re exercising. Because then it doesn’t feel like a chore or something you have to fit in, it feels something you look forward to and it becomes more self-care.
Host: Right. You’ve given us such great advice at the beginning of the podcasts. I need to rewind this and go back and listen to what you said and write these points down. And, you know, actually, I don't. We’ll have a, you know, a transcript up on our website so you can just go back and read the transcript on lifelongwellness.org. But if we want to reach out to you for more help or some more tips, do you have a blog or a website? How can we get in touch with you?
Lisa: Sure. The best way really is to visit my website which is just www.lisashanken.com. There are links on there just to contact me or to schedule an appointment, that’s all on there. I also put a blog on there with different things. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter or if you want more personalized attention and question and things like that then you can just shoot me an email from there and I’m pretty good about getting back to people within 24 hours.
Host: That’s Lisa Shanken, S-H-A-N-K-EN dot com. Lisa, thank you so much for being on the Lifelong Wellness podcast today.
Lisa: Thank you so much for having me. This is great. I love sharing this information.
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