A healthy digestive system is essential to the function of every organ in your body. Treating your body holistically means acknowledging that every organ system affects the other and without improving one, we can’t hope to see improvement in another. In the last decade or so, research has only just begun to catch up with what Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said over two thousand years ago: that “all disease begins in the gut.” Studies are now showing that what goes on in the gut affects what’s going on in the rest of the body. This is because the gut is responsible for numerous functions in the body including:
- It is responsible for the digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients found in our food which we can’t live without
- It is where 70% of our immune system is located
- It is responsible for transferring wastes into the bowels from the blood stream
- It helps to eliminate toxins from our body
- It plays a huge role in our nervous system function as a lot of our neurotransmitters are produced in the gut
- Poor gut health can lead to inflammation which is at the core of a host of chronic diseases
Symptoms of poor gut health include constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, flatulence, urgency to go to the toilet, reflux, brain fog and fatigue. Sometimes however, you may not even know your gut isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. If left untreated, it can lead to inflammation and disease. Conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, obesity, anxiety and depression, skin disorders, endometriosis, Crohn’s, Ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, asthma and even heart disease are all known to be largely influenced by what goes on in our gut. Ultimately, having a healthy gut is the key to optimal health and vitality and that is why it is so important to take care of your gut and optimise your ability to digest your food.
Let’s look at some top tips you can do starting today to help optimise your gut health:
Tip #1: Eat a rainbow-coloured diet
Include as many different colours of vegetables and fruit in your diet as much as possible. This will help to ensure you are getting all your various nutrients. A poor diet can lead to deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids and other nutrients essential for energy production, thyroid function and pretty much every other function in our body.
Tip #2: Go organic and avoid processed foods
Buy organic where possible as it is more nutrient dense and significantly reduces our exposure to harmful chemicals. Choose lean protein sources such as tofu, legumes, unsalted raw nuts and seeds and fish and decrease refined carbohydrates. Avoid as much as possible all stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, sugar and smoking which can adversely affect your digestive system. Avoiding processed foods, refined sugar, trans fats and fried foods as often as possible will also help to improve your digestive health by reducing inflammation.
Tip #3: Address any food allergies and intolerances
If you are feeling constantly bloated or suffering from constipation or diarrhoea, chances are you are intolerance to some foods. Other symptoms may include headaches, sinus issues, coughing, fatigue, stiff and achy joints and eczema. If you don’t address these food intolerances, it can result in inflammation and serious damage to your gut. Determining what foods you are intolerant to can often be challenging as reactions can be delayed. A naturopath can help you determine exactly what you’re reacting to and can take you through a treatment plan to heal the damage done to your gut.
Tip #4: Replenish with good bacteria
Did you know that your body contains ten times more bacterial cells than human cells? Healthy bacteria regulate immune function, assist in digestion and detoxification, improve mood, reduce inflammation and help balance hormones. This is why balancing the bacteria in your gut is one of the most important ways to improve your gut health. You can do this by consuming fermented products such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, tempeh and yoghurt. Probiotic supplements can also be very beneficial for a more targeted approach especially if you’ve been exposed to antibiotics. A functional stool test may also be required to identify the presence of pathogenic microbes, bacteria or parasites. Make sure you’re also consuming prebiotic foods as they are the fuel for the probiotics. The best known sources of prebiotics include Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, dandelion greens, asparagus, banana, pears and leek.
Tip #5: Fibre, fibre fibre!
Fibre is as important for your gut health as the sun is for vitamin D. Eating plenty of fibre provides the tools the microbes in your gut require to create short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs have been scientifically proven to promote weight loss, repair leaky gut, strengthen the microbiome, optimise the immune system, reduce food sensitivities, lower cholesterol, reverse type 2 diabetes, improve brain function and even prevent cancer. Fibre also not only stimulates the intestines, preventing constipation and provides the bulk of our stools, it is also essential for our brain health.The only way to naturally get fiber is from plant foods. Cereal grains are high in fiber, particularly insoluble fiber. Therefore, all the whole cereal products, like whole-wheat bread, whole breakfast cereals, whole pasta, brown rice, barley and rye are rich sources. Fruits are vegetables are particularly rich in the soluble fibers although they have a high water content so their fiber is less concentrated. Beans, lentils and nuts are high in fiber and are quite concentrated foods.
Tip #6: Drink ample filtered water
Keeping well hydrated is essential to health as our total body water comprises approximately 45-75% of our weight. Aim for about 8 glasses or 2L of water daily although some people may need to drink more. Make sure the water is filtered as chlorine, fluoride and other heavy metals and contaminants in tap water can harm our microbiome and damage our gut lining not to mention affect our nervous system function. Herbal teas, juices or smoothies are all great ways to increase your water intake. Another way to get more fluid is consuming high-water content foods like watermelon or cucumber or making a soup with your favourite vegetables.
Tip #7: Eat mindfully
Try to eat sitting down in a relaxed environment, chewing your food until it is completely pureed. Also try to avoid consuming large amounts of liquid 20 minutes before and after your meals, as this will dilute your digestive secretions and render them less effective. These strategies will assist in optimizing your digestive function, maximizing nutrient absorption from each meal and reducing unwanted gastric symptoms. You could also try taking a glass of water with a squeeze of lemon juice or 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar about 20 min before your meals as this will help to stimulate the secretion of digestive juices ready for absorption.
Tip #8: Manage your stress
Stress in small doses is okay, however when it is prolonged, that is when it negatively impacts our health. Stress can impact our digestion by increasing acidity and changing our gut motility. If our bodies’ continue to produce cortisol for a long time, it can result in adrenal fatigue, hormonal disruption, immune impairment and overall inflammation.
Knowing how to manage stress is essential for our gut health. Some ideas to get you started include:
- Journal your thoughts and write down three things every day that you are grateful for
- Make regular times for fun and relaxation
- Exercise regularly
- Ground yourself in nature to help decrease too much positive charge that can build up in our bodies over time leading to both physical and mental problems
- Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR)- combines mindfulness, meditation and yoga with a particular focus on reducing stress
- Connect with others around you and don’t be hesitant to ask for help if you need it
Tip #9: Exercise daily
Exercising daily is not only essential for your overall health, but also your gut function. Regular exercise reduces stress which we’ve already seen is essential for healthy digestion. It also promotes peristalsis of the intestines, or in other words, the movement of food through your digestive system. Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, six days per week and exercise outside as much as you can as sunlight is extremely important for the body’s metabolism and hormone balance as well as for vitamin D which is essential for a healthy gut and healthy immune system.
Tip #10: Increase your digestive enzymes
Digestive enzymes are proteins that your body produces to speed up the breakdown of food into their building blocks. Digestive enzymes also protect your gut by breaking down inflammatory compounds such as lectins which are a major contributing factor to leaky gut. Digestive enzyme supplementation can help out when your enzymes are low or to target a specific deficiency but there are some very simple diet and lifestyle changes that you can make to stimulate your body’s own production of digestive enzymes:
- Thoroughly chewing your food helps with the physical breakdown of food. It also stimulates messages from your brain to your stomach to start producing stomach acid and pepsin which in turn stimulates your pancreas to start producing digestive enzymes.
- Try to avoid consuming large amounts of liquid twenty minutes before and after your meals as this will dilute your digestive secretions and render them less effective.
- Eating a balance of raw and cooked food is also helpful. Some raw foods which are rich in digestive enzymes include papaya, pineapple, kiwi, avocado, banana and fermented foods.
- Finally, eating the leaves of bitter herbs that promote digestion including dandelion leaves, rocket and peppermint as this will help to stimulate digestive enzyme secretion.