Nutrition at the root of a healthy digestive system

If you are like me and have open ears and eyes to health facts and information from experts (with a readiness to leap forward), you may be asking, “Is there anything I can do to strengthen or protect my gastrointestinal tract?”

Whatever the reason may be – to fend off viruses, wake up feeling better with more vigor, simply to build up the immune system, or just ‘because.’

Dr. Jacqueline Wolf, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said, “I actually think the best thing people can do is have good nutrition.”

We were in agreement there is a plethora of information in the media as to “the right eating plan / lifestyle,” including what to eat more of and what to omit immediately. Some of these reports include, “Should you eat red meat? Should you stay away from red meat? Should you be a vegan (plant-based diet)?” she said.

First and foremost, Wolf said, “There are a lot of studies out there.” However, she finds “the Mediterranean diet a good diet,” commenting further that fish is good to incorporate, but one should be mindful of the amount of mercury. (As fish feed in streams and oceans, they take up a toxic form of methyl mercury.)

When it comes to plant-based diets, she said, “A big issue [is] you need to be able to get enough protein, and that is a big issue in plant-based diets.”

However, it does appear two of the biggest things to be very mindful of are to reduce sugar and carbohydrates. 

Food is just one important element of a healthy digestive system. Wolf believes that exercise is the second important element.

“Exercise has also been shown to help metabolism,” she said. It “strengthens your health and your body.” 

Depending on your limitations, a few potential exercises to aid with balance are: heel-to-toe standing or walking, a standing march (20 seconds), short walks with alternate knee lifts with each step, or shifting your weight from left side to right side. 

But wise words of caution: One should ease into exercise slowly to avoid injury, warm up properly, and of course take into consideration any / all limitations when it comes to exercise when living with chronic illness or disease. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise practice. 

It’s common to see both extremes when it comes to exercise and it’s up to us to find what works, what doesn’t, and what is appropriate.

In addition to healthy eating patterns and exercise, there can be a benefit in taking certain vitamins. “Vitamin D has, in some studies, shown to be preventative for colon cancer,” Wolf said. While studies have only been conducted when looking at severe deficiencies, Vitamin D is known to have beneficial properties for bone health.

“People should be sure and get all their nutrition in their foods – calcium and the B vitamins,” too, she said.

I’ve touched on it a bit before, and am so grateful to have Wolf’s insight on probiotics here.

Probiotics can be helpful in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). She said, “What I tell people is use a probiotic; use it for a month; if it doesn’t help, you’re wasting your money – try another one.” Some brands she noted include Align, Visbiome and Pb8.

Probiotics have been known to aid digestion and be a helpful supplement to maintain gut health.

“Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies suggest that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.”*

Other benefits of probiotics may include: enhancing digestive function, improving gut integrity, improving nutritional absorption, reducing bloating/gas, and aiding in decreasing systemic inflammation.

A healthy lifestyle can be likened to a delicate balancing act. In this case it involves carefully choosing foods, disease prevention, management of chronic conditions, and stretching/moving our bodies to feel our best inside and out.

How can you improve your nutrition? 



Dr. Wolf is on the editorial board of Harvard Health Publications and a contributor to the Discovery Channel program “Mystery Diagnosis.”

She is instrumental in Foodicine Health, a non-profit organization focused on public education and advocacy regarding the importance of “Special Diets” that are prescribed for individuals with chronic illnesses or food allergies. Learn more at

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