We all know a strong immune system is a way to fight off sickness, but did you know the health of your gut relates directly to the health of your immune system? A healthy gut means a healthy you.

We all know a strong immune system is a way to fight off sickness, but did you know the health of your gut relates directly to the health of your immune system? A healthy gut means a healthy you.

[Check back the last Thursday of every month for a new article by Angela Lehman, an educator who runs The Fit MT, providing self-care information to massage therapists.]

Gut Health Affects Every System in the Body

When you think back to anatomy-and-physiology class, what comes to mind when you hear the word, “gut?” Maybe the large and small intestine. You may think of the stomach or even the esophagus. These are all pieces of the gut and are important for optimal gut health.

A lot is going on in your body’s gut and every system of the body including organs like the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are dependent upon the balance of the gut.

The gut can be thought of as its own ecosystem. From the first digestive enzymes breaking down the food in your mouth to the bacteria inside your intestines, your gut is the hub and affects your immune system. Eating certain foods will keep or disrupt the good and bad bacteria balance within the gut.

You may have experienced mild discomfort after eating certain foods or food combinations. Pay attention to which foods make you feel sluggish or bloated. Digestive upset and IBS are common and can usually be solved by regaining the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.

Gut imbalances don’t happen overnight. It’s like the client who’s sat in front of a computer for years wanting you to correct their forward head posture. It’s not possible in three massage sessions. Similarly, eating French fries once a week isn’t going to upset gut balance but eating fatty foods and consuming high amounts of sugar and processed foods over a 30-year timeframe could certainly create enough disruption in gut balance to send someone to the doctor looking for help with a digestive disorder.

Digestive disorders including colon cancer can be healed or prevented with attention to what foods are consumed.

So now that we know the importance of a healthy gut, how do we get one?

Take probiotics, eat a largely plant-based diet, drink kombucha. You’ve probably heard of these but let’s get more specific and provide you with foods to eat and ideas to carry out.

Eat Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are good for digestion and gut health. Fermentation allows for nutrients to be absorbed quickly and used efficiently by the body. The good bacteria found in fermented food adds to the overall healthy bacteria in the gut.

Certain fermented foods, like yogurt, also contain probiotics to give the gut an extra boost for digestion. You may have noticed “contains live bacteria” or “active cultures” listed on yogurt containers and those are all good choices to have in your refrigerator at home.

Some examples of fermented foods are yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, and tempeh, made from fermented soybeans.

Avoid Refined Sugars

Sugar is added to almost all packaged foods and it’s over the top in the amount contained in drinks of all kinds. I’ll bet you’d be hard-pressed to find your daily drink containing less than 15 grams of added sugar. A 12-ounce soda can have a whopping 46 grams of sugar. And your favorite Starbucks beverage? Let’s just say there could be more sugar in one Vente than is recommended for an entire day’s sugar intake.

Stay away from the obvious: cakes, cookies, and soda. Next, look for the not-so-obvious. Begin to look at the nutrition labels on the food you buy regularly and see how much added sugar they have. Move towards finding the least processed options when grocery shopping.

Eat a Variety of Organic Products

Incorporate as many fruits and vegetables into your diet as you can. If you can eat a largely plant-based diet all the time, great. For those lovers of meat, try a day or two per week eating mostly plant-based. Another good way to transition yourself into eating more produce is when filling your plate at mealtime, put 50% veggies on and then add the rest of the meal.

Add Fiber to Your Diet

Fiber is highly under-consumed and yet has such positive benefits to gut health, it’s worth adding to your diet. The recommended daily fiber intake is 20 to 35 grams and the average American eats roughly half of that. (To get an idea of the amount of fiber you’ll need to eat, one apple contains 4.4 grams of fiber; a cucumber contains 2 grams of fiber.)

Here are some easy ways to add fiber to your diet:

• Make beans a staple at mealtimes. Add to chili, soups, stews as well as cold salads of all types.

• Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, like cabbage, green peas, edamame, potatoes with skins, corn, and carrots.

• Add wheat germ or bran to crumb toppings for casseroles or blend in smoothies.

• Enhance green salads with raisins, nuts, shredded carrots, sunflower seeds, or fresh apple slices.

• Breakfast cereals, hot or cold, can be good sources of fiber. Check nutrition labels to find good choices. Top with fruit for more fiber.

• Chia seeds are a simple way to sprinkle more fiber into any meal. You can even add a tablespoon of chia seeds to water or tea for a fiber-filled drink.

Eat with Purpose

Have you heard that saying, “food is medicine?” Some parts of the world have this idea put into practice better than others but it’s never too late to change your outlook on food.

When you eat, think of nourishing your body and giving it what it needs to fight disease through what you put into it. Modern-day conveniences make it easy to grab food quickly and a week can easily go by without eating anything green. Sound familiar?

Choose foods with purpose. Choose foods as close to how they are found in nature. Avoid putting food into your body that could stay on a grocery store shelf for two years.

Wherever you find yourself grabbing food, there are always higher quality choices than others. Ideally, bring your food to work with you but when needing to grab something in a pinch, eat something that will aid your body to finish out the day. Not sugar and caffeine, but protein and complex carbs.

High-quality foods will in turn give your body high nutrition and allow the immune system to fight for you and maintain health even when you’re fatigued or stressed.

Food for a Clean Gut Diet

What do we mean by a clean gut diet? This takes it a step further into more of a cleanse. These foods are more specific to include or not include for someone who wants a short-term gut overhaul. (Note: some of the foods listed below as excluded foods are listed above as positive foods. Remember, this is a more specific type of eating for repairing the gut or giving it a break.)


• Whole vegetables (broccoli, kale, chard, etc.), raw, steamed, sauteed, juiced, or roasted. Include all leafy greens, squash, and tomatoes.

• Exclude: corn, beets, potatoes, and creamed vegetables


• Only fresh and frozen berries, lemons, and limes.

• Exclude all fruits and fruit juices except berries.

Dairy and Eggs

• Eggs, hemp, and nut milks (almond, hazelnut, walnut, etc.) coconut milk and coconut oil, or coconut butter.

• Exclude milk, cheese, cottage cheese, cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream, and non-dairy creamers.

Meat and Fish

• Organic chicken or turkey, fresh or water-packed cold-water fish (trout, salmon, halibut, tuna, etc.) wild game (pheasant, bison, venison, etc.), and small amounts of grass-fed beef

Exclude: Factory-farmed meats, cold cuts, canned meats, and hot dogs

Nuts and Seeds

Most nuts and seeds. Only one handful a day. Sesame and sunflower seeds, pecan, almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, etc.

• Exclude: peanuts and peanut butter

Fats and Oils

Avocado and coconut, extra-virgin olive oil, sesame, almond, sunflower, and coconut oil. Exclude butter, margarine, shortening, salad dressings, mayonnaise, and spreads.


• Filtered, seltzer, and mineral waters. Green, white and herbal teas. Yerba mate, coconut water, and green juices.

• Exclude alcohol, coffee, caffeinated beverages, soda, and fruit juices.


Stevia, xylitol. Exclude refined sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup. Splenda, Equal, Sweet N Low, honey, and agave nectar.


Vinegar, all spices, all herbs, sea salt, black pepper, carob, raw chocolate (dairy and sugar-free) mustard. Exclude regular chocolate, ketchup, relish, soy sauce, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce, and breath mints.

That list might have some of your favorite things listed as “excluded” but fits when thinking of food as medicine. When the gut is out of balance and health problems begin, changing the way you eat goes a long way in healing.

The Gut and Immune Health

There may never be a time you’ll need to eat so specifically, but it’s good to be aware of how the gut affects overall health and immune function. There will no doubt be a client or two complaining about their gut upset during your time as a massage therapist.

So, for others and your own health, use this information to keep your immune system working at the highest level possible. Enjoy the beginning of the New Year with a super-charged immune system.

Angela Lehman

About the Author:

Angela Lehman is a massage therapist of 25 years turned online educator, promoting fitness and nutrition for massage therapists. With her Kinesiology degree specialized in nutrition, she trains therapists in healthy eating, exercise, and body mechanics to prolong their careers. Visit thefitmt.com for a complimentary food guide and shopping list.