We don’t really think about our body’s central engine as it quietly hums along while we go about our day.
But if our GI tract starts to sputter? Forget the fast lane. We want to dive under the covers and be left alone.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan, a Georgetown University assistant professor with a private gastroenterology practice in Chevy Chase, remembers a time when her own gut went kerplunk. She suffered from some of the same symptoms that plague her patients—bloating, constipation and reflux. “I didn’t want anyone near me,” she says.
Chutkan, who has been treating digestive health problems ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to heartburn for 15 years, knew she had to make some changes. So about eight years ago she overhauled her diet and lifestyle, both of which had taken a backseat to her hectic schedule, and began to fully embrace the healthy eating and exercise habits she recommends to patients.
Today at 46, the Washington, D.C., resident has her gut back on track. Her GI symptoms are gone and her overall digestive health is in top shape. Her energy is more constant, and she gets sick less often.
Chutkan is optimistic that she’ll remain healthy and clear of diseases such as colon cancer as she ages. “I feel very protected by my lifestyle,” she says.
What she does:
- Chutkan limits her intake of packaged products, eating mostly fruits and vegetables, including beans, kale, sweet potatoes and apples, plus some lean animal protein, such as chicken. She eats an occasional doughnut, but keeps in mind that it’s an unhealthy indulgence, even if it’s gussied up with whole grains. “A doughnut is a doughnut,” Chutkan says.
- She consumes about 35 grams of fiber daily, as well as another six to eight grams of plant-based fiber from a psyllium fiber supplement, such as Metamucil. “Viscous, soluble fiber” found in Metamucil and many fruits and vegetables is “extremely beneficial to the digestive tract,” she says.
- Chutkan makes eating healthy food a top priority, carefully planning three days’ worth of meals and often finding recipes at weeklygreens.com and 101cookbooks.com. Cooking batches of beans, brown rice and split pea soup each Sunday, for example, provides a base for meals throughout the week.
- To help her stay in line, Chutkan uses food journals and websites, including sparkpeople.com, that calculate calories, nutrients and fiber levels in food.
The payoff: Lots of bulk that helps everything wash through, along with a good bacterial balance in her GI tract. Plus: a steady number on the bathroom scale. “Being overweight is a risk factor and contributor to almost every digestive problem,” says Chutkan, who is 5 feet 7 and 135 pounds.
Chutkan drinks at least two liters of water daily. She limits alcohol to special occasions and avoids other dehydrating beverages such as coffee and soda.
The payoff: Prevents dehydration and keeps things moving along.
Gets Off the Couch
Chutkan runs six miles twice a week. She also walks briskly whenever possible, sometimes commuting on foot from her Chevy Chase office to Georgetown.
The payoff: All that cardio, where you’re moving fast enough to feel winded, is great for overall GI health because it revs up the digestive system, according to Chutkan.
- Chutkan sticks to a four-day workweek. “I realized that working 80 hours a week wasn’t the secret to a life of health and happiness,” she says.
- She does “relaxing” heated yoga twice a week at Bethesda’s Down Dog Yoga and gets a weekly massage at Pandian Health in Silver Spring.
- Chutkan focuses on her breathing when she’s tense, a strategy perfected with biofeedback, a behavioral learning technique she uses in her practice.
The payoff: Better health. Stress is a “huge” factor in digestive problems, Chutkan says, and minimizing it is key.
Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who frequently writes about health issues. To suggest future subjects for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.