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Ask the expert: How does your gut shape your health?

Interview with Danna Levy Hoffmann

Edited by Aishwarya Viswamitra

Gut Health is connected to the general well-being of a person as it affects digestion, energy levels, immunity, and even mental health. The microbes in the gut play a huge role in maintaining its health.

Miyara’s Dr. Sanjana Rao sat down with Danna Levy Hoffmann, a certified IIN (Institute of Integrative Nutrition) Health Coach specializing in gut health, who is passionate about helping people everywhere heal their relationship with their food, their health, and their bodies. They discuss the importance of gut health and tips on where to start.

Watch the full interview here:

Sanjana: Please tell us about your health coaching journey, how did it begin?

Danna: I grew up with a family who was overweight. I saw my grandmother pass away from cancer, my mom has cancer now and my dad was obese for a very long time and has diabetes and high blood pressure. For me, it was always somehow clear that there has to be a connection with what we're doing, how we're eating, and how we're living our lives. I experienced it for myself after I gave birth to my second son, and had postpartum depression. I was 20 plus kilos overweight and I was just experiencing everything and I said, ‘I don't know what to do, I'm not sure what's going on’. I tried different diets, which obviously didn't work because diets don't work.

That kind of started me off on this journey to figure out what's going on: why am I losing loved ones to cancer and other illnesses? Why am I feeling out of control of my own body? That led me to start my own journey with a healthy lifestyle. I then started a business called “Miso cute cooking,” a healthy cooking class for kids and their parents. I was cooking with the kids and talking to the parents saying, ‘Maybe replace this with that, or try this and try that’. And so the parents actually asked me to come back to their home or to give them courses for adults. Then I realised how important it is. While I wanted the kids to understand what a carrot looks like before it's cooked and roasted, I realised that the parents are actually lacking a lot of these same basic skills and understanding nowadays.That basically led me to what I do today. I did a certification to specialise in gut health and I've been doing that happily for quite a few years now.

Sanjana: There's a lot of research going on about gut health, and its links to various things. Could you explain why gut health is important for a person?

Danna: It is a very hot topic nowadays. We used to think that the brain was the computer of the body, shooting all the information but we're slowly but surely starting to understand that the gut is actually the one responsible for everything. Our immune system is based in the gut, the brain-gut communication, or the brain-gut axis, as some people might have heard, is a fluent communication between the gut and the brain. But what's funny is that 90% of that is the gut talking to the brain, and only 10% is the brain communicating back to the gut. I found that super fascinating because we then understand that we are what we eat.

The information we are giving our body through food is through our emotions and thoughts. When we have a poor diet or a diet that does not support our health, everything will look differently correct, from our emotional states to our mental state to our actual health. So gut health is just super-duper important. If your little toe hurts in your leg, it most likely has to do with something in the gut. Everything usually starts and ends with the gut. And when we heal the gut, most people see a huge improvement in everything else they were suffering from.

Sanjana: Interestingly, the gut is linked to all sorts of diseases. What contributes to good gut health apart from your diet?

Danna: During pregnancy, we collect gut bacteria to pass onto our baby during vaginal birth, in our vaginal pass. When the baby comes out, as you might remember from birthing classes, the baby lifts its head, and its mouth opens naturally, and they gulp down this gut bacteria. When a baby is born via C-section like I was, the baby has fewer gut bacteria. We cannot avoid getting a C-section sometimes, and that's okay. But if we have that knowledge to say to the doctor, please swab them with my gut bacteria, giving them a better chance.

The same goes for breastfeeding. It contributes to better gut health. I am not saying bottle feeding is a bad thing; feed your baby whichever way you can. But you need to understand that it plays a role in their gut health.

And then, of course, there's stress; stress is a huge one. A lot of people eat healthily and exercise like crazy. But exercise can put even more stress on the body, so the first thing that I talk to my clients about is stress. That's a big one.

Sanjana: Do people usually come to you with health issues or want to lose weight? What is your method with your clients?

Danna: Clients do come to me for different reasons. Those who really understand the power of stress over life will come for stress. But many people do come to me either for weight loss, weight gain, or just general kind of health when they’ve tried everything, and they can only link it to the food they eat because everything else just did not work.

My method is to look at all aspects of life; we're doing a holistic view of everything. We're looking at food, but we also look at sleep, we'll look at stress, we'll look at relationships and careers. We're looking at ‘functional medicine’ or the primary foods. Which are these energies that we're getting from everything around us? And then we'll also look at the secondary food, which is what we eat. Everything that we digest, right, in terms of energy in terms of power, and everything like that.

Sanjana: What kind of small lifestyle changes can people incorporate into their everyday modern lifestyle?

Danna: It's a question everyone asks me because everyone wants that quick fix. There is no such thing. But at the same time, I do find that a lot of people don't put priority over their sleep. People walk around really sleep-deprived. New moms, you know!

I had my boys 15 months apart, so life was rough for a good few years. But I remember wanting to do things while the baby was asleep. I think that's flaw number one of new moms. We look at the house, and it's a mess, or we want to watch something, we want to do things because we're women, and we're doers. And so we're missing a lot of sleep. And then at night, the husband comes back from work, and you want to spend time with them. We're missing the point here because then the next day, we're miserable. We are not focused; we are depressed. Postpartum depression and sleep have huge links.

Also, think about what our bodies usually ask for when tired. We're asking for sugar and carbs, right? Because those are the ones that will give us energy. That's how our brain translates to energy. And When we're tired, we don't say, ‘Oh, we should take a nap’, we say, ‘Give me some chocolate, or give me like a piece of bread, or give me something that will give me energy’. So instead of going to sleep, we're giving ourselves a second wind with that little boost of energy, that's not necessarily a healthier version of the energy that we need, and then that vicious cycle continues.

The older the kids get, the grumpier mom is; it’s just a vicious cycle. The first thing that I usually look at with my clients is to get sufficient sleep, get good quality sleep. Leave out your phone and iPad and TV and stuff like that from the bedroom. Get proper sleep, especially if you're not getting a full night's sleep. So if it is interrupted, you want to make sure that you're getting those little nuggets of sleep or naps during the day as well. And look into stress.

The next thing would be just looking at the food ingredients that you're buying. Most often, we're buying food and looking at these beautiful promises on the box: low fat or no sugar. When you look at the actual ingredients, you won't be able to pronounce most of them. You wouldn't know what they are. They’re chemicals; they’re fats that are unhealthy. So you want to know what you've put in your body as well. And you want to start making the good decisions that will support your health, support your energy levels, support your hormones, and everything like that.

Sanjana: You mentioned that people come to you wanting to lose weight through fad diets. Could you give us your take on these fad diets and what you think of them?

Danna: They do not work. Many people will say, ‘I went on an Atkins diet, and it worked, I lost 30 kilos, I went on the Keto diet, I went on this diet, and I went and that’. The only reason is that those diets will work momentarily. And that's the most important part here. It's that it's not sustainable; it will work because all of those diets will tell you to eat more veggies, to leave out the sugar and the processed foods. So if you already do that, you're already at a better place. Now, when you start a diet and say, ‘okay, I'm going to deprive myself of x, y, and z,’ what's happening is that it is not sustainable. You're not healing your relationship with food; instead, you’re damaging that relationship even more. You're saying, I'm going to be super strict, and I'm going to do it right for a certain amount of time’, and then you hit that number on the scale that you want to hit or you fit into the jeans that you want to fit into, and then you go ‘Cool, let's order pizza’. And then you go back to the same way, and it just doesn't work. It's not sustainable. So my idea of a healthy lifestyle is deliciously sustainable lifestyle changes. What we're doing should be long lasting; it should last our whole lifetime. We want to heal the relationship with food, meaning we want to know why we're emotionally eating. We want to see why we're reaching out for certain things, and we want higher-quality foods. Instead of empty carbs, you want whole grains; you want beautiful sources of carbs. Harmful fats and oils are super high in Omega-6, highly inflammatory and will make you sick. You want to go for the healthier fats. There are a lot of factors. And of course, the factor of your gut and your individuality is also super-duper important. But fad diets, unless you love being deprived and miserable for months on end, I would say it's not the way to go.

Sanjana: I think you’re saying that there has to be this lifestyle change and this change in mindset. You also have to give your clients a lot of emotional support in that sense because people are just brought up in a certain way, and with certain mindsets and particular food, relationships with food.

Danna:100%. I have some background in psychology, which was my passion in a previous life. But yes, it's very much that. Many people are looking for accountability partners. Many people are looking for a person not only to tell them ‘Eat this, don't eat that, but rather explain why they emotionally eat and how we can deal with those aspects of life.

Sanjana: Could you walk us through a problem that a client has come to you with? And how did you go about helping them through that?

Danna: I mean, so many. The one that I love talking about is my dad, because as we know, convincing your own family of anything, practically, is really hard. From where I come from, and I know where you come from, we have that same idea of like the parents know best. It's kind of that idea. What happened was my dad, literally ever since I was maybe three, had high cholesterol and diabetes. About 26 years after he was diagnosed, he wounded his foot, which is super, super dangerous, as we know, with diabetes. He couldn't even feel it; it got really bad. And I just said, ‘Dude, they will cut your foot off’. I mean, come on! And so I kind of started incorporating him in the kitchen. He's a very picky eater; he usually doesn't eat many vegetables, he's been harming himself since he was a child. I never blame anyone, but we can definitely see links to his background.

Long story short, we changed his diet. We definitely incorporated more vegetables; we definitely incorporated more whole grains. We shifted a lot of things and tried to help him with that. And about a month after he came back home from visiting me, he had a blood test. And then he went home and continued for about a month, and then he did a blood test with his doctor. I still have that doctor’s email somewhere. She wrote three lines, ‘Your bad cholesterol is good. Your diabetes is non-existent, keep listening to your daughter’, and that was a doctor that's been treating him for almost 20 years.

For me, I’m proud to say that my dad could do it, a soon to be 60-year-old couch potato used to his ways, with a hard to change mindset. That's something that I will always be super proud of his change and that he was able to do that.

Sanjana: Do you have any parting words for our audience?

Danna: When you think about your car, we will never dare to give our car the wrong oil or the wrong gasoline because we want it to run smoothly and for a long time. A good case scenario is keeping the car for ten years. We want our bodies to function properly for 90 plus years, right? And yet we knowingly or unknowingly give the body the wrong fuel every day. So start looking at our bodies how we look at our cars or any loved machinery in your household. Start looking at it that way because there are no replacement parts for your body. You can't take a body on a lease for three years or five years and then get another one. So we do want to make sure that when we age, we age well and can continue with a high quality of life. I would definitely say start thinking about that. Hopefully, start doing some of the small changes that we discussed today.

Wanna kickstart your life? Sign up for the URBAN CLEANSE program with Danna Levy Hoffmann.

If you are ready to take a critical look at your gut health, we at Miyara Women have partnered with Danna as a health coach.

The 30-day Urban Cleanse is an online group program, which helps those looking to cleanse their bodies, but need it to fit their urban life. Rather than pulling you away from your work, family, and day-to-day life, the Urban Cleanse program helps you integrate different eating and lifestyle habits.

Use code MiyRaWom10 for a discount on the program which starts on March 11th, 2022.

You can follow Danna on her social media: Instagram, Clubhouse.

We have also partnered with BugSpeaks, a company that specialises in understanding the microbiome composition and, if required, recommends a 12-week nutrition plan to help bring balance in the gut. This is good for people who have IBS, bowel, and digestive issues and if you have mental health issues (like depression, stress) or immunity-related problems.

Get a 10% discount on your BugSpeaks test with the code miyarawomen.

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Aishwarya Viswamitra is a science communicator with experience in science writing, podcast hosting and social media marketing. When she's not furiously typing a new article, you can find her curled up in a spot of sunlight.

Twitter: @a_viswamitra

Instagram: @_.twoinabillion._

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