We talked with Dr. Mark Hyman — founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, and head of strategy and innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine — about the benefits of a balanced, plant-rich diet, and why gut health is often at the root of many medical issues.
Dr. Mark Hyman
Founder and Director, The Ultra Wellness Center and Head of Strategy and Innovation, Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine
What are the advantages of a plant-based diet? Why should someone experiencing digestive issues consider a plant-based diet?
First, I want to differentiate between a plant-based diet, which generally means vegan (eating no animal products whatsoever), and a plant-rich diet that anyone (and everyone!) should be eating no matter what dietary approach you take.
A plant-based diet can be Twinkies and a Coke. What’s important to remember is to eat a whole-food, plant-rich diet. I recommend 75 percent of every meal be colorful, non-starchy veggies. The World Health Organization recommends 5 servings a day, but I think it should be 15 servings or 7 to 8 cups of veggies and low-glycemic fruit (like berries, kiwi, and apples) a day. Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and winter squash do have health benefits to offer, but if you are pre-diabetic or diabetic (one in two Americans) beware of its impacts on blood sugar. Stick to a half-cup serving.
Those with digestive issues, other health issues, or anyone who cares about supporting their health at all should eat a plant-rich diet— especially one packed with lots of vegetables. With digestive issues specifically, we gain tons of benefits from the fiber found in plants, which feeds our good gut bacteria, calms inflammation, supports nutrient absorption, strengthens our immune system, and helps us eliminate toxins, among many other important jobs — it impacts everything. When we look at studies of the world’s longest-lived populations, we see a common theme of whole, natural plant foods, and other studies show that even if people are eating some animal products, their health is equal to those who aren’t as long as they’re eating lots of vegetables and are generally health-conscious. That’s because plants contain powerful information in the form of nutrients and compounds (orange and yellow foods contain carotenoids, purple and blue foods have anthocyanins, and sulforaphanes are in green cruciferous veggies).
The more variety and color in your diet, the healthier it is, because that means more medicine for your cells, like antioxidants that fight early aging.
Antioxidants combined with collagen can help reduce inflammation and manage stomach ulcers. What foods contain natural antioxidants? Is this something you would recommend incorporating into your diet?
When you eat a colorful, plant-rich diet you’ll automatically be consuming a variety and abundance of antioxidants. That’s why I always say eat the rainbow, try to get as many colors as you can on your plate to reap the benefits of the different types of antioxidants. The deeper the color of a plant, the more antioxidants it contains, so look for the brightest blueberries, darkest beets, and most vibrant greens when you’re shopping.
Organic produce also has more nutrients to offer than conventionally grown, and the same goes for local produce because it’s fresher. As far as collagen goes, I think it’s a great thing to include in your diet, especially for digestive wellness, as it reduces inflammation, helps heal tissue damage, and also supports connective tissue throughout the entire body (like skin and ligaments). Collagen has also been found to support the gut bacteria I mentioned earlier, so it’s got a lot to offer when it comes to gut health.
The number of links between chronic digestive issues and an imbalanced microbiome continues to grow. Why is nutrient absorption so critical to preventing and managing chronic digestive issues? Is there anything we can do to continue to improve nutrient absorption in the gut?
Our gut is the gateway for nutrients (or pathogens) to enter the body. We need the lining of the digestive tract to be strong and healthy so it can absorb the nutrients from our food while also keeping out bad bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Chronic digestive issues indicate inflammation, leaky gut, and poor absorption of nutrients, leaving the rest of the body depleted and struggling because it’s not properly fueled.
So many other symptoms can result. It’s like putting gas in your car when there’s a hole in the tank; it’s not getting where it needs to go and the car doesn’t have the power it needs. That’s why with chronic digestive issues, we need to prioritize reducing inflammation and boosting absorption, and this will look different for each person.
Some people might have an infection or overgrowth of bad bacteria or parasites, others might have food sensitivities or be under a lot of external stress that is causing internal harm. We can absolutely improve nutrient absorption when we correct the cause of the problem.
Things like polyphenols (once again found in colorful plant foods) help to support a healthy microbiome and fight inflammation. Probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut are great for our good bacteria as well. Gut healing supplements like L-glutamine and collagen, and bone broth can also help the gut heal.
I have had my own gut issues in the past, particularly when I was recovering from toxic mold exposure. I used a special shake to heal my gut that has all of these things in one tasty package, along with other gut-supportive nutrients:
- ImmunoG PRP- NuMedica (or SBI Protect by OrthoMolecular if very dairy sensitive), 1 scoop
- Doctor-formulated organic fiber- Garden of Life (or Paleo Fiber by Designs for Health), 1 scoop
- Pomegranate Concentrate by Lakewood Organic, 1 Tbsp
- Cranberry Concentrate by Lakewood Organic, 1 Tbsp
- Note: You can use powders of the concentrates if this is easier-1 teaspoon each
- Matcha green tea powder, 1 tsp
- L-glutamine powder 5+ grams, 2 scoops
- ProbioMax 350 DF-Xymogen, 1 stick packet
- Note: Do not blend this but stir slowly on its own after everything else is blended
- 8 ounces of water
In the work you do with The UltraWellness Center, functional Medicine is the method you incorporate into the care of those patients. What is functional medicine and why is this an important sector of medicine? Why do we need functional medicine?
Functional medicine is the future of healthcare. It looks at the body with a systems-based approach, understanding how all our different parts work together, and addresses the root causes, not only symptoms. It focuses on restoring optimal function in every system.
We address gut function for almost all patients because the gut is often the root cause of many chronic diseases. We address nutrition, lifestyle choices, sleep, mood, exercise, relationships and more, focusing on the science of creating health.
We practice Functional Medicine using the latest advances in science, diagnosis, and treatment to address the root causes of chronic disease — including weight issues, diabetes, autoimmune disease, digestive problems, fatigue, Lyme disease, mood or memory issues, and more — and help our patients restore their health and vitality.
I’ve seen it help thousands of patients reclaim their health and sustain it. In fact, the Journal of American Medical Association—JAMA Network Open just published the first-ever retrospective cohort study of the functional medicine model from the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, showing improved patient outcomes, both short- and long-term, by using functional medicine principles when compared to patients who did not use them. If we want to truly understand why an illness is happening and fix the imbalance, we need to get to the root of the problem. Functional medicine provides the framework to do that.