Gut check: Holiday binging over, nutritionist Magali Brecke reminds us how food and wellness intersect
Talking to Magali Brecke, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, and a functional nutritionist, about being more mindful of how our intake can have far more impact than we often consider.
Whenever I can, I try to cook like Magalí Brecke. The recipes in her two “Eat and Be Well” e-books, which she created with photographer Liz Birnbaum, are vibrant and alive, with an emphasis on seasonal produce, healthy fats, high-quality proteins and big handfuls of aromatics.
I’ve cooked them cover to cover, and they’re not only delicious, but deeply nourishing and satisfying. You’d never guess that every recipe was designed around nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods, with no sugar, gluten, soy or other allergens.
Brecke isn’t just a phenomenal cook. She’s a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, and a functional nutritionist. She works with clients to identify the root causes of illnesses, autoimmune disorders and gut dysfunction, and uses food as part of the suite of medicines to mitigate disease and discomfort.
It was while working as a postpartum doula that the idea for Kitchen Witch Bone Broth, which she co-founded with Rhiannon Henry and Missy Woolstenhulme, was born. Brecke cooked for her clients to encourage healing and build their strength, and frequently gave them bone broth, a protein- and collagen-packed superfood that is easily digestible.
Dismayed at the thin, salty, Tetra-packed options in the grocery store at that time, she started making huge batches and selling it herself. In 2015, Kitchen Witch began distributing its high-end bone broth in glass jars at grocery stores throughout the West Coast.
A few years later, the company launched its popular Gut Reset, a five-day cleanse that focuses on hearty, filling soups and bone broth to help calm inflammation, encourage healing of the gut lining and give the body a break from the norm.
In an effort to refocus on physical health after a joyous and indulgent holiday season, I sat down with Brecke via Zoom. She shared her advice on what to eat, how to cook and what to do in order to feel our best as we enter the new year.
Why is it important to take care of your gut?
The human gut is so receptive to nourishment, change and healing. Our gut is this incredibly permeable, juicy, very alive part of our body. We call it the “donut” because from the mouth to the other end it’s open to the outside world. I like to think of it as this place of deep discernment, where we decide what comes in or what goes out, what we need and what we don’t need.
I like to tell that to people because it gives you hope and insight that the way you’re feeling right now doesn’t have to be the way you need to feel or you’re always going to feel. Your body likes to feel good. Your gut likes to assimilate and digest and break down and be efficient. There’s so much that we can do to shift the way that we’re feeling in our body. Eating gives you this opportunity, not just once a day but multiple times a day, to shift how you’re feeling and therefore shift the way your body is existing and being in the world. That can change your whole outlook on life, quite literally.
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A lot of the neurotransmitters in our brain health come from functioning and signaling from the gut. Hormones, neurotransmitters and mental and emotional health — all of that is like an orchestra that can get off kilter. There are many parts that contribute to a clear and functioning way of being.
What are some physical signs that might indicate that special attention is needed?
Some of the most common discomforts that folks here in the Western world experience are things like chronic bloating. That’s the feeling where you have to unbutton your pants after you eat, or you just don’t feel good after eating. Dysfunction or discomfort with bowel movements is a really big one. Pain is another big one. If you’re having pain after eating or you’re getting chronic heartburn, that’s another sign that something is not digesting or assimilating in the way that it should.
Another one that’s common is brain fog, or what we call postprandial somnolence. That’s when, after eating, you get this afternoon slump or feel exhausted. You don’t really have the same sort of mental capacity or mental focus that you do maybe in the morning.
Not everybody attributes brain fog to problems with their gut, but it almost always can be tied. Your gut is another brain in your body. If you eat and all of your blood and your physical resources are directed towards your gut, it’s really hard to be bright, focused and creative with your upper brain.
If overall, you’re feeling low, fatigued and achy, sometimes that can be a sign that you’re not digesting and assimilating as your body should, and you may be malnourished. We’re overfed and undernourished in the Western world. We have a ton of food that’s of poor quality, and so we’re full, but we’re not actually cellularly nourished. That can manifest as low energy, fatigue and lack of motivation.
Over the holidays, when we tend to overindulge in rich foods, sugar and alcohol, the body really takes a hit. You’re not only asking the body to digest lots of fats and protein, but the pancreas is called on to digest all that excess sugar. It’s difficult for your body to break down, sequester and move through.
What can we do to feel better?
Remember that our bodies are hot. Our internal temperature is around 98.6 degrees, and in winter it becomes more of an effort for our body to maintain that temperature. We’re constantly temperature regulating, and so eating cold foods at this time of year can bog you down even more. That’s a philosophy that comes from Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.
Focus on warm foods. It’s why we love broth and soup. Have hot tea or even just hot water with lemon throughout the day rather than reaching for an icy cold drink or a smoothie first thing in the morning. Even drinking your smoothie at room temperature makes a huge difference. Drink your water at room temperature or warm to encourage the release of enzymes and bile. That’s my free, easy, literal “hot tip” that I have for people at this time of year, especially when you’re feeling yucky.
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Which foods should we eat? Any special preparations?
Simple things like a big plate of steamed, seasonal vegetables with lemon and olive oil with a clean protein is pure nourishment and a beautiful meal to calm the digestion.
Humans have a shorter digestive tract that does well with cooked foods. Having soup made with collagen-rich bone broth skips a couple digestive steps for your body and makes it easier to assimilate protein, fiber and other nutrients. That’s what this really is all about — it’s not just what you’re putting in, but how your body is able to work with what you put in.
What about fermented foods?
Fermented foods are wonderful because they are essentially pre-digested and really able to be assimilated into the body. And if you can add a little bit of that to everything you eat, it will be a wonderful way to use food as medicine. My favorite way to do that is sauerkraut. Make sure it’s in glass—it’s sour and acidic, and it can leach from plastic. Always drink all the sauerkraut juice!
I tend to direct folks away from kombucha this time of year. It’s cold and tends to be really sugary. I do think kombuchas are a wonderful alternative to alcohol in a social setting, even hard kombucha, because you’re still getting the probiotics.
If you could recommend just one thing to improve gut health, what would it be?
The morning shot is something I have almost everyone do. The very first thing that you put in your mouth and in your body in the morning can really help you set the stage for digestion that day. Overnight, our liver filters out all of the stuff that we don’t need that ends up in our bloodstream and lymph nodes, and it creates bile. Bile is crucial for digesting fat and protein, but many people who overeat don’t excrete all the bile they should. This is how we end up with gallstones. There’s an epidemic of gallbladder inflammation and gallbladder removal in the Western countries because we don’t move our bile. If you can move your bile first thing in the morning after your liver has done all of its hard work overnight, you’re setting the stage for digestion for the day.
Our gallbladder is stimulated by the taste of bitter or sour things. The morning shot, as I recommended it, is the juice of half to a whole lemon or an ounce of apple cider vinegar, and a little sea salt and four to five ounces of warm water. Drink it first thing in the morning and make sure you really taste it. Bonus points if you add three to five drops of milk thistle tincture, an age-old remedy for liver health, gallbladder health and for digestion. It’ll stimulate the bile and set the stage for digestion that day. Just that can make a huge difference.
Sign-ups for the January Gut Reset end Tuesday. Visit kitchenwitchbroth.com for more info.