I remember feeling bad about my gut health starting in high school. The pains I had after eating felt out of control and I began to feel like I was missing out on life due to these so-called “female pains”. After trying doctor after doctor with no luck or validation, I turned to holistic medicine as a last resort to solve my mysterious stomach aches.
Sara Peternell is no stranger to struggles with gut health. Peternell is board certified in holistic nutrition and has been working in the nutrition industry for over 20 years. “I work with all kinds of people who are just interested in learning about better nutritional health and how to personalize and individualize it for them.”
After finding no personal success with Western medicine and battling two genetic autoimmune diseases, Peternell began exploring his own gut health through holistic practices. “‘It’s all in your head,’ I mean, I’ve heard it many times,” Peternell said of her experiences with Western doctors, “it’s really important for women, especially young women, if they’re experiencing a health problem, to go against the medical establishment.” She explained that there is no one way to experience a health journey, even if that was the narrative that had been instilled in her by traditional health professionals. With the help of her personal education journey and the advice of many mentors in the field of holistic health, Petenell learned that “there was more than one way to do it” and began her mission to heal herself and others.
The growing gut health industry has taken off in the last five years. While we can attribute this to social media, we must also give credit to healthcare workers like Peternell, who have created a space for nutrition in healthcare. “Nutrition has been a bit high up,” Peternell said, “but I think a common misconception about nutrition is that nutrition really can’t cure.” Peternell has encountered many clients and health professionals who are still not fully convinced of the healing powers of food. “In fact, I believe, based on my training, based on my years of experience, based on the thousands of clients I’ve worked with, that nutrition is the primary healing modality and that everything else around it is support for nutrition,” he said. he said of this misconception, “a car can’t run without gas, it has to have a fuel source”, and our bodies are the same way. For Peternell, food is magical, but magic is deeply personal and specific to each person. “There is so much magic in plant foods and also in animals, and that magic is what we will never be able to identify. That’s because food for me is different than food for you,” she says. Finding what food works magically for you comes down to what feels good and nutritious. This identification is not a one-size-fits-all tactic, what might feel amazing and exhilarating to you might cause a disgusting reaction in me.
While Sara doesn’t think you can capture the magic of food in capsules or supplements, she does understand that “often we need to supplement even a very healthy diet.” She cautioned against self-complementing, saying that she shouldn’t start drinking whatever latest concoction she found in Doctor Oz or Shape magazine, “that’s the wrong way to approach it for a couple of reasons.” She raised concerns about these self-adopted supplements not being individualized and therefore risking creating more imbalances in the body. Also, there is a wide range of quality in which these supplements are produced. Talking to someone like Sara allows people to ensure that they are fueling their bodies properly and with quality products. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and you don’t have to take supplements forever,” Sara said. She explained the various supplements that she may need for the changing phases of life. Someone who was once a young athlete who needed B12 might focus more on fertility. These interests and circumstances require a different approach to supplements. His final thoughts on supplements were that “you can’t supplement a bad diet, and you can’t just take supplements and make them work for you if you have deeper underlying issues that haven’t been addressed, gut health being one of those issues.” She emphasized the importance of following a certain order and process that is crucial to cleansing your diet and your gut.
For Sara, there are no “good” or “bad” foods. “We should look at food as fuel and then look at how our body responds to that fuel as information about whether or not it’s a good fuel for us,” she says of this common classification. She advises looking at her food objectively, scientifically, and with welcoming curiosity to eliminate the idea that food is inherently “good” or “bad.” Food choices are deeply individual and should be treated as experiences. Sara even talked about the merits of food that can even be objectively considered “bad.” She mentioned the mental health and wellness benefits of eating favorite childhood foods or desserts that connect him with his loved ones. “There’s really no black and white when it comes to good or bad food… we should be using food as fuel and information on how to move forward.”
“I think I wish I had known that food really matters,” Sara said when asked to reflect on the health advice she would have given herself in college, “you’re not going to put shitty gas in your car if you do. you need is premium quality.” He also stressed that “hydration is important” and that you will only benefit from replenishing your body with plenty of water and electrolytes, which help your body absorb water every day. Sara said she wanted to know how to “trust her body, listen to her body, and not doubt her body.”After working with countless doctors and medical professionals who made her feel foolish for her complaints, she is now confident that taking control of her health is a right “Every woman has the right to that process without being made to feel dumb or high maintenance” and that women should feel empowered to demand “a deep, multi-faceted scientific approach coupled with some prayer, some diary or some guide on how to deal with her health.”
As college students, focusing on our health feels like giving up so much of what makes this phase of life so much fun. I want to be healthy and feel good, but I also want to eat pizza at 3am with my best friends on our way home from the bars. “Keep in mind that living joyfully is a big part of being healthy,” Peternell said of this dilemma. She advises that we avoid punishing ourselves for a night out and affirm to ourselves that “I am going to make decisions that I accept and adopt 100% and I am not going to feel bad about it. This is literally just a part of my life and I’m not going to change anything after the fact unless I really need to… Admit it! When we own our choices, the consequences are much less severe.”
Working with Sara has changed my life in many ways. Not only have they empowered me to take control of my health in a meaningful way, they have encouraged me to dig deeper, own my choices, and create a life I’m proud of with health and all the many meanings of that. word, as the grounding force. If you want to know more about Sara’s practice, visit their website, follow her on instagramY watch her free educational videos on health and self care.