When Dr. Vincent Pedre went to medical school, meditation was seen as something only hippies did, nutrition education was virtually nonexistent, and gut health wasn’t really a thing people talked about. Today, gut health is the buzziest topic in the wellness world, and Dr. Pedre is one of the foremost experts on the importance of gut health and the microbiome. He’s also a board-certified functional medicine doctor, certified in yoga and medical acupuncture, and author of the book Happy Gut. We spoke with him about his professional journey and got his insights on how to improve gut health naturally, the connection between stress and gut health and the brain-gut axis, and much more.
Ironically, Dr. Pedre almost didn’t become a doctor because of his deathly fear of needles — and this fear was ultimately what led him to find his focus in the medical field.
After he started medical school, he realized that he liked everything about medicine, but he couldn’t be in a room with a needle without passing out. He went to his parents and told them that being a doctor wasn’t for him, that he was going to drop out of medical school, but they weren’t having it. He left that conversation and returned to med school with a new mission: learning to conquer his fear.
Shortly afterward, he came upon a book called The Relaxation Responseby Herbert Benson, and it changed everything. He learned about how breathing could lower blood pressure and reduce the fight-or-flight response, and started doing all the relaxation exercises the book laid out. He also read Spontaneous Healing by Dr. Andrew Weil, and began regularly practicing yoga and meditation.
Quickly, he became known as the “Zen” guy in medical school. Meditation and yoga got him through the stress of school ,and he knew, as soon as he’d read those transformative books, that they would shape the type of doctor he would become. “I didn’t know where that trajectory would end, but I admired people like Deepak Chopra, who didn’t have a road paved for them but paved their own path through it,” he says. “And along that journey, I discovered functional medicine after I did my residency training.”
He credits those books and his early experience with the mind-body connection with his ability to forge the path that he has. “I opened my mind before it could be closed by the western medical school training,” he says.
Learning the Importance of Gut Health
Dr. Pedre’s focus on gut health emerged after he discovered functional medicine and began looking back on his health as a child. “I always had a nervous stomach, which then became an IBS-like situation,” he says. When he was a teenager, he’d been on two or three rounds of antibiotics a year for over five years. His immune system was completely shot. He would get sinusitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia over and over, and had developed gluten and dairy sensitivities. All the doctors were focused on his weakened immune system, but nobody thought to consider his gut health.
During medical school, he’d already developed an interest in nutrition, experimenting with his diet to see how it impacted his health. For instance, he took dairy out of his diet and noticed that he picked up much fewer viruses. He bought organic produce, cooked for himself, stopped ordering takeout and eating pizza, and the change in his health was dramatic.
For years, motivated by his own desire to “hack” his health and stop getting sick so frequently, Dr. Pedre had been skirting around the idea that what we eat impacts our health in ways that weren’t being talked about. “But it wasn’t until I learned functional medicine that I made sense of my life and what had happened to me as a child and what I thought was my normal at that point,” he says. “What I thought was going to be my normal for the rest of my life was not my normal.”
That’s when he truly discovered the importance of gut health. He became fascinated with the complexity of the microbiome and helping people experiment to find their own path to wellness. Because, as he says, too many people with gut issues have resigned themselves to a life of constant illness or other problems, thinking that it’s just the way their body works. “What they don’t know is that that’s only how your body operates if it’s not working properly, if your gut is leaky, if your microbiome is imbalanced,” Dr. Pedre says.
Today, Dr. Pedre helps people experience the same healing journey he did, by tapping into the importance of gut health to find lasting wellness.
The Importance of Gut Health for Immunity
One of the biggest ways the gut impacts overall health is through the immune system, since 70% of our immune system is in the gut. But still, tons of people who get constant colds or infections don’t make the connection to their microbiome. They think that if they’re not experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, their gut health must be fine. But, as Dr. Pedre explained, the gut is intricately connected to symptoms in the upper respiratory tract and other areas affected by colds and allergies.
“There’s an embryological relationship between the formation of the gut and the formation of the airway,” Dr. Pedre says. He explains that in Chinese medicine and acupuncture, gut health and respiratory health are on the same energetic qi meridian, so they’re always interrelated. This 2,000-year-old principle was based on observation, but Dr. Pedre actually saw it play out in his own clinical work with patients. “When you fix the gut, you can improve what’s happening in the airway,” he says.
Of course, Dr. Pedre points out, sometimes the source of a person’s symptoms are external — an allergen, irritant, or virus. But on the flip side, he says you have to look at the potential internal causes, which brings us back to the importance of gut health. If your body is already on “high alert,” as he calls it, then you’re going to be much more sensitive to what’s in your environment.
Dr. Pedre experienced this personally when he moved from Florida to New York City and developed seasonal allergies for the first time. Rather than turning to antihistamines, he decided to focus on fixing his diet, and the allergies disappeared. “That’s just a testament to what I’ve seen in my patients,” he says, “that the internal environment affects how you react to your external environment. Because if your internal environment is in this kind of constant smoldering inflammation, then your system is on higher alert.”
What puts somebody’s gut on “high alert” may differ from person to person, but the most common food sensitivities that could compromise your immune system are dairy and gluten. Much of Dr. Pedre’s work is helping people dial in their diet so that they can get rid of inflammation, sensitivities, and imbalances in the gut, and restore the immune system to its full functioning capacity.
How to Improve Gut Health Naturally: Dr. Pedre’s 6 Keys
We’ve seen time and again the importance of gut health when it comes to mood, immunity, and preventing inflammation. But how, precisely can you keep your gut healthy? Dr. Pedre gave us his expert insight on how to improve gut health naturally, sharing the 6 key things he recommends to his patients:
Avoid taking unnecessary antibiotics. As a physician, Dr. Pedre knows firsthand that antibiotics can sometimes save lives, but he also knows that they’re severely overprescribed. And when they’re not necessary, they can wipe out good bacteria and do a real number on your gut microbiome.
Stay away from antacids. Not only have OTC acid reflux meds been associated with an increased risk of death (!!), they can also seriously screw up your gut. That’s because they alter your stomach acid, which is your primary means of protection against things coming into your digestive system. Dr. Pedre recommends that instead of taking antacids, people seek out the root cause of their acid reflux and heal their gut through dietary changes.
Limit gluten intake. Gluten is an inflammatory food. Dr. Pedre explains that regardless of whether you have celiac disease, a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or are “normal,” gluten increases your gut permeability. The impact is worse for those with celiac, and gluten sensitivities, but even those without a sensitivity are negatively impacted, and can even develop a gluten sensitivity from the inflammation. So Dr. Pedre recommends avoiding wheat gluten, especially in the United States, where wheat products have a higher gluten content than in other countries.
Cook your produce. If somebody has a disordered gut, Dr. Pedre says, they don’t produce enough enzymes to help them break down food. Because raw food — especially greens and salads — are particularly difficult to break down, they can cause serious issues if somebody’s gut health is off. For this reason, Dr. Pedre often recommends that his patients cook all of their vegetables until their gut is healed, then they can slowely reintroduce raw foods. “You have to think of cooking as the act of digestion outside of the body,” he says.
Practice gratitude. Dr. Pedre recommends that all his patients get out of negative thought patterns by noticing and expressing the good in life instead of just fixating on the bad. He says that visualizing and appreciating good health can help people get out of a chronically ill mentality and reconnect to the part of them that’s healthy.
Reduce stress. Dr. Pedre calls stress “the elephant in the room,” because so many people are in a state of constant stress, but don’t ever really identify or deal with it. But because of the mind-body connection, and more specifically the brain-gut axis, stress does a real number on gut health. “Honestly, from all the work I’ve done, you can have the perfect diet, you can take the perfect supplements, but if you don’t work on the mind then you can’t fully heal the gut,” Pedre says.
Want even more strategies for improving your gut health, plus more insights from Dr. Pedre and other experts? Snag our free guide!
The Brain-Gut Axis and the Connection Between Stress and the Gut
We know that stress can really mess up your gut health. But how, exactly, does that happen? First, you need to understand that your gut and your central nervous system send biochemical signals to one another through what’s called the brain-gut axis. One of the major players in this communication is the vagus nerve, which Dr. Pedre explained in-depth.
He explained that if you experience a traumatic or high-stress event — like a car accident, for instance — within 30 minutes, you’ll have vagus nerve malfunction. This matters for your gut because the pulsation from the vagus nerve helps maintain the integrity of the gut border. Normal, healthy cells along the gut’s lining have tight junctions and are sealed tightly, with no space between cells. That means that the only things that get through are nutrients from food that can be absorbed by the cells.
But when there’s vagus nerve malfunction, the junctions between cells loosen, creating holes between the cells — aka leaky gut. These microscopic holes allow partially digested proteins (from food you ate) to get through, which causes some major issues. The gut doesn’t know how to react to the undigested long-chain amino acids in proteins, and so it looks at them as foreign invaders and attacks. This, in turn, triggers a cascade of inflammation, weakens your immune system, and can cause food sensitivities to develop.
But it doesn’t take a car accident to cause this kind of issue. The brain-gut axis is so powerful, the vagus nerve so sensitive, and our modern lifestyles so stressful, that stress-induced gut issues are increasingly common. Many of us are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, which doesn’t just feel bad mentally, it’s also damaging to our overall health. That’s why reducing stress is one of Dr. Pedre’s six keys to maintaining a healthy gut.
As he explains: “If you can’t get into that parasympathetic state, which is the relaxed, Zen state, then your body is going to be on this high alert and you can’t get into the recovery processes that allow your body and your gut to heal. That is one key component that can never be ignored in gut healing.”
Have you adjusted your diet or lifestyle to improve your gut health? What were the results? Tell us in the comments below!
You can also watch our full interview with Dr. Vincent Pedre to learn how just smelling food impacts your digestion, how to know if you have good gut health, what leaky gut actually looks like and what causes it, what the best kind of milk is for your gut (it’s pretty surprising!), and much more.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Dr. Vincent Pedre, a board-certified internist in NYC and the Medical Director of Pedre Integrative Health. His qualifications and training include an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and an MD from the University of Miami School of Medicine. He completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in 2002. Additionally, he has specialty training in Medical Acupuncture. He is also the author of two books on gut health. You can find out more about Dr. Vincent Pedre and his practice here.