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Gut Health Kathryn Parker

Stress and Gut Health: 5 Tips for a Happier Gut and Calmer Life

The human gut is an amazing entity. It’s home to a vast network of nerves, neural transmitters and thousands of different microflora that keep our bodies up and running. It’s so complex that scientists sometimes call it “the second brain”. It’s no surprise that stress and gut health are closely connected. Your gut can influence your moods just as much as your brain, too. Scientists are still learning how this incredibly complex system works, and there are still many things that we don’t know. We do know, however, that because the brain and gut interplay with each other, changes in one can affect the other.

High levels of stress in your body can inhibit digestion, lower your immune system and even lead to the breakdown of your intestinal lining. This can cause short term problems like diarrhea, heartburn, gas and stomach pains, or lead to more severe problems later on, like leaky gut syndrome or IBS. That’s why it’s essential to keep your stress levels under control if you want to improve your gut health.

Here’s what you need to know about the brain-gut connection, along with our best tips for keeping your stress levels low and your gut bacteria content.

The Brain-Gut Connection: How stress affects the digestive system

We’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding the complex relationship of how the brain and the gut communicate to affect our moods. But here’s what we do know. Our digestive tract is home to thousands of different species of microbes all working together. This complex system works to break down the nutrients in our food, keep our immune system strong and produce hormones that keep our bodies operational. And what you put into your gut can directly affect how you feel.

Serotonin, the happiness hormone, is actually produced in the gut. It’s created by breaking down the essential amino acid tryptophan and is sent to your brain via the vagus nerve. Tryptophan is found in many whole foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy and seeds. It’s one of many ways that a healthy diet can help you stay happy.

But there’s another hormone your body produces that doesn’t always make you feel good: cortisol. When your body experiences stress or discomfort, your brain triggers the adrenal gland to release cortisol, the stress hormone. Excess levels of cortisol have been linked to everything from weight gain and gastrointestinal problems to a suppressed immune system and cardiovascular diseases.

We can’t always control the things that stress us out, but we can take control of how we react to those stresses. Adopting healthy habits can help lower your cortisol levels naturally, helping you heal both your brain and your gut.

5 Tips to Strengthen your Brain-Gut Connection

1. Eat whole foods

The number one thing you can do to keep your gut thriving is to eat a diet filled with whole foods. The highly-processed foods that make up the majority of our western diet lack the necessary nutrients and fiber our gut microbes need to stay healthy.

This can lead to them dying off in mass quantities, which weakens your immune system and leaves you susceptible to disease. Whole, unrefined foods like fruits and vegetables are the perfect fuel for your gut’s vast network of microflora. Their rich quantities of fiber promote proper digestion to keep your gut working properly, and a happy gut usually leads to a happy mind. It’s also important to understand the difference between good and bad sugars.

2. Stop stress-eating

When we’re feeling stressed, the first thing most of us do is reach for our favorite candy or snack food to fill the void. It’s called stress-eating, and it’s a common coping mechanism for the chaos in our modern world. But although that burst of satisfaction feels good in the moment, eating sweets can exacerbate your stress-induced stomach issues in the long-term.

Foods high in refined sugar and unhealthy fats increase inflammation in the body. This sends your stress levels even higher and only worsens the problem you’re trying to cure. While there is something to be said for finding comfort in your favorite foods, stress-eating usually means you aren’t taking the time to properly enjoy your food. There’s a big difference between eating one cookie as a treat versus five because you’re eating your feelings.

The next time you find yourself craving a brownie after a stressful conversation, remember that eating sugar will only stress your belly even further. Save your indulgences for times when you can actually enjoy them instead.

3. Meditate

The brain and the gut are so intricately connected that calming the brain also can calm the gut. Practicing mindfulness meditation can lower levels of cortisol in the body. These lowered stress levels can lead to improved digestion, which keeps your gut in good shape.

Taking the time to clear your mind of life’s worries can also help you be more calm and understanding in your daily life. Mindfulness meditation practices have even been proven to help with depression and anxiety, which can exacerbate other health conditions. Try meditating for just a few minutes a day and see if you feel any improvements to your nervous stomach. Here is more on meditation to get you started.

4. Exercise

Working up a sweat is also an excellent way to deal with stress. In addition to obvious benefits like weight-loss and stronger muscles, exercise triggers the release of serotonin, which can lower stress levels. Even a 20-minute stroll outside can do the trick to get the serotonin flowing. Just be careful to pace yourself, and be sure not to overdo it.

5. Get more sleep

Sleep is the essential time period when our bodies take time to recharge every day. Getting a good night’s rest can improve your cognitive performance and help fight off Alzheimer’s disease. Getting adequate rest is also important for lowering stress levels, and you can improve the quality of your sleep by improving your diet.

Eating foods high in tryptophan helps your gut produce serotonin and also leads to the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Higher levels of melatonin can dramatically improve the quality of your rest, which can work to lower stress in your body. If you want to get a better night’s sleep, try eating more fruits and vegetables during the day.

The Bottom Line

Stress and gut health are closely linked. Eating healthy whole foods is one of the best things you can do to reduce your stress levels and stomach issues. Treats may be enjoyed in moderation, but not to fill an emotional void or coping mechanism for stress.

Originally printed on Aviv Clinics blog. Reprinted with permission.

Kathryn Parker is the Registered Dietitian for Aviv Clinics, located in Central Florida. Her work as a dietitian has helped many over her extensive career including college and Olympic athletes, city employees, one of the largest worldwide entertainment company’s staff members and diabetics in an academic health center. In her effort to make America healthier, Kathryn has instituted wellness programs for large organizations as well as counseling clients one-on-one. Most notably, Kathryn developed the LifeQuest fitness program for the city of Gainesville, wining the city a platinum Well Workplace award from the Wellness Council of America, an honor shared by only nine employers nationwide.


Aronson, D. (2009). Cortisol – Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy. Today’s Dietitian. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml.

Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise—A Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890

Miller. (2021, June 14). Meditation and Brain Health: Benefits Backed by Science. Aviv Clinics USA. https://aviv-clinics.com/blog/brain-health/meditation-and-brain-health-benefits-backed-by-science/.

Parker, K. (2021, June 13). How Does Sugar Affect the Brain? Aviv Clinics USA. https://aviv-clinics.com/blog/brain-health/how-does-sugar-affect-the-brain/.

Parker, K. (2021, May 23). The Gut-Brain Connection. Aviv Clinics USA. https://aviv-clinics.com/blog/nutrition/the-gut-brain-connection/.

Rooks, M. G., & Garrett, W. S. (2016). Gut microbiota, metabolites and host immunity. Nature Reviews Immunology, 16(6), 341–352. https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.42

Turakitwanakan, W., Mekseepralard, C., & Busarakumtragul, P. (2013). Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet thangphaet96 Suppl 1, S90–S95.


The Naturopathic Chef: Summer Corn Chowder with Hatch Chilies

Even when it’s hot outside, a delicious bowl of sweet corn chowder is a perfect complement to your BBQ favorites. This soup can be adapted to so many culinary styles and flavors. I have used a slightly thicker version as a bed for grilled halibut and Peach Salsa. Oh, Yeah! We’re really into summer flavors, now. Kick it up two notches by grilling your corn on the cob, first.


How A Thought Becomes An Action: A Guide To Movement And The Disconnect In Parkinson’s Disease | PART 2

In Part 1, we discussed how a thought becomes an action, and the disconnect in Parkinson’s Disease, as well as how a Fitness Professional do to improve brain and body connection.

For those living with Parkinson’s, the three Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) considered to be most difficult to perform are:

  • Rolling over in bed
  • Getting out of a vehicle
  • Working through a freeze episode while crossing over a threshold between rooms.

I have provided a list of exercises to complement these ADLs as well as a “Practice Option” that combines the exercises listed.


  1. Remember to begin with the most basic of movements until the client can properly and safely execute the exercise.
  2. Care partners of wheelchair-bound clients need to be instructed on how to safely assist loved ones without causing injury to either person. Please refer the client to an Occupational Therapist if needed.

Activity of Daily Living: Rolling over in bed                                         


  • Bridges
  • Push-ups or chest press
  • Tricep extension
  • Rows
  • Glute squeezes (for chair bound)
  • Lateral Step with torso rotation using a tube
  • Side Planks/ Prone Plank
  • Clamshells

Advanced Practice Option: Have the client lay on his or her back. Take the right leg and swing the leg over the left leg and move into the side plank position and hold for 5 counts. From there roll to a prone plane OR bird dog position. Reverse the exercise to practice returning to the supine position.

Assisted Practice Option: If lying down is not an option, have the client sit in a chair.  Have the client hold a tube with both hands in front of them. Trainer provides tension from the side and the client maintains the isometric hold while picking up one leg and moving it out to the side and bringing it back in like a seated jumping jack.

Activity of Daily Living: Getting in/out of vehicle


  • Rows (add a diagonal step/lunge)
  • Squats/Lunges
  • Sit to Stand drill (include single leg version)
  • Bridges
  • Clamshells (or any abduction work)
  • ½ Warrior step / ½ Gong arms
  • “Step over the Fence” ( lift left knee and step laterally over the “fence” followed by the right knee and then reverse the movement)
  • “Jazz Hands” (improves ability to reach)
  • Hip circles
  • Bob-n-weave (or lean left/right if needed)
  • Side planks or oblique bend
  • Tricep/Biceps (add lower body exercise)

Advanced Practice Option: (Stand with chair next to left leg). Place a hurdle next to chair to act as the “floorboard” of the car. Client will stand alongside the “car”.  Client will then lift the left knee and hold for 3-5 counts then step “over the fence”/bob-n-weave” to get into the car. Reverse the motion to practice getting out of the car. Repeat on the other side.

Assisted Practice Option: (Begin in a chair and with a short hurdle or object for them to “step” over). Client is in the chair and reaches right arm out as if opening the car door (jazz hands). Client then comes back to center and picks up the right knee and steps over the hurdle and turns foot to the right (½ warrior/ ½ gong) as the entire body turns to the right. Left foot follows the right foot and steps over the hurdle. Once the feet are facing the right, have the client do a full or partial Sit-to Stand drill. Reverse the motion to practice getting into the car.

Activity of Daily Living: Working through a “freeze” episode 


  • Obstacle courses
  • Stop and start gait drills
    • Walk and turn head right and left
    • Walk slow then fast then slow etc
    • Walk and at cue, stop and turn
  • Visual drills
  • Lateral steps 5x then walk forward
  • Walk to a song with a strong beat
  • Criss-Cross Applesauce

*If client freezes at room threshold, emphasize that they want to look straight ahead and not down.

These three ADLs are just a few of the frustrating tasks people living with Parkinson’s Disease deal with each and every day.  Fitness Professionals can make a real difference in someone’s life if they will take the time to consider how movement works, where it can go wrong, and what to do to help it go right again. Imagine the success your client will experience during a session and throughout the day as they tackle ADLs with minimal effort! I can tell you this, their level of confidence will soar and the future will be something they look forward to.

Work with Parkinson’s Clients and Change Lives!

Working with Parkinson’s clients is an extremely rewarding experience. Check out Colleen’s course, Parkinson’s Disease Fitness Specialist to get started.

Colleen Bridges has worked for nearly 17 years as an NSCA Certified personal trainer, group exercise instructor and fitness consultant and as an independent contractor for Nashville’s first personal training center, STEPS Fitness. Her passion for understanding the body in sickness and in health, and how it moves, as fed her interest in and enhanced her talent for working with senior adults, especially those living with a neurological disorder such as Parkinson’s Disease.

Renee Rouleau is a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Department of Neurology at Vanderbilt Movement Disorder. Her research primarily focuses on the glymphatic system, a proposed waste-clearance system in the central nervous system in different neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

Group of fitness people.

Reverse Marketing to the Medical Community

In traditional marketing to the medical community, personal trainers most often mail flyers or brochures that describe the trainer’s qualifications and what kind of programs they offer. They may even personally drop the promotional material off at the medical office hoping to snag a bit of the medical professional’s time to talk about the program they could offer patients.

Looking first at direct mailings, the average response in 2017 was 4.4% (Pulcinella, 2017), which is actually a bit higher than it has been in previous years. However, mailings can be costly, and you should always consider where your marketing money is best spent.

As for dropping off material and hoping to catch the professional on the fly, not much chance there. Schedules are tight and the likelihood of them having time to chat when you happen in is very low. Even if you try to make an appointment to introduce yourself, you are unlikely to get a meeting. Your best bet may be to get to know the receptionist (this may take multiple drop bys), explain who you are and what kind of results you can offer to patients, and have the receptionist push the idea to the medical professional.

Reverse marketing is a little different. In reverse marketing, you are not going to the medical professional to sell yourself and your services. You are going to medical professional to have them sell you. Picture this, you are a new personal trainer in town. You know the value to your clients when you can refer them to the right professional when they need something that falls out of your scope of practice. You are interviewing doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, registered dietitians, etc. to find the best people for your clients. In essence, you want to send patients to them. That makes finding time to talk with you a whole lot more interesting.

Now, when you do meet with the medical professional, it’s not a trick to talk about yourself. You should, indeed, interview them with the idea of finding someone you can refer your clients to. Come prepared. Bring a list of questions that you want to ask and take notes as you interview them. Questions might include, “How frequently do you recommend physical activity to your patients?” and “Of those that you do make that recommendation, how many do you think follow through with it and become more physically active?” More than likely, they will be curious about you and at some point will ask what exactly you do with your clients and what you offer. But, even if that doesn’t happen at the moment, when you do send them clients they will be thinking of you, and, when they are in a position to refer a patient to a fitness professional, yours will be the name that comes to mind.

So, as you try to get referrals from the medical community, reverse the standard thinking and build your network by finding the best people for your clients through your own interview process. If you send people to them, they will be that much more likely to send some to you.

Join Mark for his free webinar, Medical Fitness: Building a Successful Business

Mark Nutting, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT *D, ACSM HFD, ACSM CEP, is the Owner/Master Trainer at Jiva Fitness in Easton, PA. Mark is the PFP 2016 Trainer of the Year Legacy Award and NSCA’s 2009 Personal Trainer of the Year. He holds 12 certifications in the field, 38 years in personal training and health club management, and has been educating and coaching Personal Trainers for 36 of those 38 years. 


Why Direct Mail Marketing Is Far From Dead, Steven Pulcinella, Forbes, 2017 August


How A Thought Becomes An Action: A Guide To Movement And The Disconnect In Parkinson’s Disease | PART 1

It’s 2am and Robert needs to use the restroom but can’t gather enough strength to roll to a seated position to get out of bed without his wife’s help.

Gus decides to go to the kitchen for a snack but “freezes” when he reaches the doorway. His feet feel like they are stuck in mud.

Mary would like to attend her exercise class but the process of getting in and out of the car leaves her exhausted.

What do all of these people have in common? They have a progressive neurological disease called Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Parkinson’s Disease affects the dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra (Latin for “Black Substance”, due to its darkened pigment in the brain).  The substantia nigra contains the highest concentration of dopamine neurons.  It is a part of the Basal Ganglia, an area that is responsible for motor control, motor learning, and procedural memory such as learning how to tie your shoes.

In PD, the onset of dopaminergic neuronal death in the substantia nigra manifests itself in the form of motor and non-motor symptoms that occur over a long period of time and in a progressive fashion.  Most people are not aware they are presenting symptoms of PD until a loved one brings their attention to a tremor, lack of arm swing, or notices a series of falls.

People living with Parkinson’s Disease want to take larger steps, smile more, swallow food without fear of choking, dress and bathe themselves, drive and participate in social activities.

However, for some, when they have a thought such as “I want to walk to the kitchen for a snack”, getting the thought to become an action, is almost impossible due to the lack of dopamine neurons in the Substantia Nigra. But wait a minute! HOW does a thought even become an action and WHAT can a Fitness Professional do to improve brain and body connection?

How a thought becomes an action

The brain is constantly multitasking as it takes in stimuli from your surroundings, interprets what’s going on around you and causes you to take action.  When your mind creates a conscious thought, such as “I want to get a snack”, a chain reaction takes place in the brain involving several areas. This starts in the frontal areas of your brain after processing the stimuli leading to the thought. For example, if you have your eyes set on the kitchen to get a snack, your prefrontal cortex initiates plans to make the movement, sending signals to your premotor cortex to organize those plans, and then sends those signals to the motor cortex to carry out the movement.

Once the movement has been planned and the best course of action has been “decided” by these neurons, the movement can commence. This creates the surge of neuronal firing from the motor cortex through the spinal cord to motor neurons that communicate with muscles and finally manifests the movement.

The above seems straightforward. The tricky part is regulating all of those different areas. Once the gross movement is executed, sensory information ( i.e. touch, temperature, or force) travels back up to the brain through sensory neurons in the spinal cord. The sensory cortex receives and carries the message to other parts of the brain that fine-tune the movement. This is one of the functions of the basal ganglia and other areas in the midbrain.

Because you’ve most likely done these types of movements before, those patterns are all stored in the basal ganglia so it doesn’t take up valuable space in the motor cortex. This area talks back and forth to the frontal areas to figure out what specific pattern should be used to achieve the best result. There are a hundred different ways to get out of a chair and go to the kitchen, but the basal ganglia works together to choose the most efficient option out of all of them and keeps the movements from getting out of control so you’re not high knee-ing to the kitchen when a simple walk will do (unless you want to high-knee to the kitchen). Once everything is adjusted and looks correct, new sensory information goes to the sensory cortex and back to those frontal areas to then signal that the movement has been fully executed.

Now, although that looked like a lot of steps just to complete one movement, this all happens within a fraction of a second, and is constantly going as you move to correct and adjust. The process is fluid, but works as a chain. If one link is broken, the rest of the process is going to fall apart. So how is the link broken in a disease like Parkinson’s?

Because the basal ganglia gets a lot of communication from the substantia nigra, if there is a loss of any sort of dopamine neurons, the relay of information gets discombobulated and, in the case of Parkinson’s, causes the motor system to stop the movement mid-way as there is not enough information from the neurons firing. Instead of creating the controlled movements and fine motor adjustments like you would see in a regular motor response, you have freeze-ups where the frontal areas are telling the midbrain to do one thing, and the basal ganglia just can’t do what it’s being told to do. Thus, the chain of movement is broken and the body cannot execute the action properly. To most, it looks like people with PD can’t seem to execute an action because of cognitive reasons. However, from their perspective, they want to be able to execute it and are consciously telling themselves to do it, but part of their brain isn’t “listening” and it causes the brain and body to be disconnected, resulting in incomplete movements and motor symptoms such as resting tremor, freezing of gait, and rigidity. This is why when PD patients take their medications, which help the brain to produce dopamine, they have “on” periods where these areas are able to have clearer communication with each other, their movements are better and their symptoms are better managed.

This is critical information for Fitness Professionals working with people living with Parkinson’s Disease. Once the information is understood, Fitness Professionals can focus on the second question which is “What can a Fitness Professional do to improve the brain-body connection for those living with Parkinson’s Disease?”

First, remind them that Exercise is Medicine! They need to take a dose each and every day! And the good news is that exercise provides outcomes such as:

  • Improved neuro-protection for at-risk dopamine neurons
  • Neuro-repair for areas of the brain affected by Parkinson’s Disease, and
  • Adaptation by retraining areas of the brain to pick up where the damaged parts can no longer execute commands.

Second, determine the activities of daily living (ADLs) that are most difficult for them. Identifying the ADLs and providing an exercise program that includes the seven functional movement patterns (push, pull, carry, hinge, lunge, squat and rotation) to improve their ability may save their lives. Repetition will be the key to create a spirit of confidence!

In Part 2, I discuss the three ADLs considered by most people living with Parkinson’s Disease to be most difficult, and exercises to complement them.

Colleen Bridges has worked for nearly 17 years as an NSCA Certified personal trainer, group exercise instructor and fitness consultant and as an independent contractor for Nashville’s first personal training center, STEPS Fitness. Her passion for understanding the body in sickness and in health, and how it moves, as fed her interest in and enhanced her talent for working with senior adults, especially those living with a neurological disorder such as Parkinson’s Disease.

Renee Rouleau is a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Department of Neurology at Vanderbilt Movement Disorder. Her research primarily focuses on the glymphatic system, a proposed waste-clearance system in the central nervous system in different neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).


Ecosystem of Technology

Technology is critical and ever-present. Before the shutdown, technology was a part of gym owners’ strategy, but Covid pushed us to use technology more than we ever have in the past.  As we reset and get ready to thrive in 2022, now provides a good opportunity to review your tech stack. What do you have, what do you need, what do you want?  What is the return on investment? 

I believe in a “high tech and high touch” model for health clubs. Our members come to us sometimes 2-5 times per week, if not every day, so we sometimes resist new technology adoption because we are not just changing a system or process for our internal staff, but also for the 100s or 1000s of individuals that interface with our brand regularly. This is the only industry I can think of, other than Starbucks, Peets Coffee, or other affinity-based coffee shops that patrons frequent daily or 2+ times a week. Maybe in some cases, neighborhood bars…

We are not in a transactional business arena but a service-based relationship arena. Even my coffee example is still transactional – get your coffee and off you go. Neighborhood bars may be the exception for those that go multiple times a week. However, consumers still don’t go to the same hotel, restaurant, movie theatre, cruise, or airline 2-5 times a week. It simply doesn’t happen. This leads to an important aspect of data management and quality control that is unique to our industry. Seeing that we are a destination that members interact with more frequently than most other businesses, it introduces an opportunity for more breakdowns in the member journey. Ensuring that this data is consistent across all systems is one way to help mitigate errors and enhance the member experience. 

Like most decisions and processes you implement, you always start with evaluating where the member journey begins. In 2021, the member journey begins online. If your website, social pages, and review sites (google, yelp, etc.) are where members are beginning their journey, then it only makes sense to have a tech stack that’s conducive to having them complete their journey online. Questions that you should be asking yourself are:

  • What does your member journey look like from finding you online to purchasing a membership? 
  • Can the consumer buy online?  
  • Can the consumer enroll in a trial membership online? 
  • What other barriers exist between your prospective member and purchasing a membership and how can you eliminate them? 

A common barrier that I hear from clubs is having several systems that fail to “talk” to each other. For instance, if your website doesn’t speak to your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, and your CRM doesn’t speak to your Club Management System (CMS) then you are inadvertently creating 3 data silos that you must either sync via API or update manually. 

Ideally, once a member joins online, the data they provided is entered into your CMS real-time. This ensures that they have a seamless member journey. From the moment they sign up, they should be entered into a “Welcome” cadence in the CRM system to provide complimentary workouts to get them started on their new fitness journey. This is just one member journey example that is enabled by having the right combination of technology, or your member journey “ecosystem”. 

When it comes to your return on investment, we need to consider lowering our total cost of ownership. This is achieved by consolidating technology vendors and choosing the right (best in class) technologies that “talk” to each other optimally to achieve a seamless member journey. 

Customer Relationship Management – Member Management (Billing & Collections) – Member Experience – Fitness Engagement – Organizational Data/Dashboard – All are critical to successful operations.  

I’m a big fan of ABC Fitness Solutions, GymSales, Trainerize, Fitness BI, and MXMetrics to handle these critical areas for success. 

Reprinted with permission from Bill McBride.

Bill is the President & Chief Executive Officer of Active Wellness, Active Sports Clubs & BMC3 Consulting. He is a health club industry veteran with over 25 years of experience leading and managing all aspects of commercial health clubs, medical fitness centers, residential, community, multi-tenant and corporate fitness sites.