Digestive Health is the Core of Wellness
When your digestion is out of whack, your whole body can suffer. This is because digestion is linked to the immune system, mental wellbeing and even heart health. But can we control the health of our digestive system?
The old saying that you are what you eat still holds true today. Our bodies use the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to build new cells for muscle tissue, heart tissue and skin. Nutrients are the building blocks used by every part of your body to replace damaged or worn out cells. This is called cell turnover and takes place everywhere including your organs and the lining of your digestive tract. If your diet is subpar, so too are the building blocks that are used in cell turnover.
Your Gut Microbiome
The gut is another term for the digestive system and includes the microbiome. The microbiome is the environment that hosts a wide array of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that exist mainly in the intestinal tract. Sometimes referred to by scientists as another organ, the gut microbiome is part of the gut-brain axis and must remain balanced to work properly.
The gut-brain axis is a new area of interest for scientists and doctors alike because it shows how intricately connected our digestive health is with our physical and mental health. The key to health is that good or healthy microbes keep the harmful ones in check. And while research is ongoing, one thing for sure is that to keep this area healthy, diet, probiotics and prebiotics are at the core of digestive health.
How to Improve Digestive Health
Many factors affect digestion including diet, exercise, medications and even our mental state. Overall a healthy lifestyle improves digestive health and is well within our control. But sometimes it seems like the bad pathogens are winning in spite of our best efforts. The following are some tips that can help keep your digestive health intact.
Focus on Fiber
Fiber is a complex carbohydrate found mainly in fresh, whole fruits, vegetables and grains while some people get an added boost with a fiber supplement. There are different types of fiber that serve different purposes, and each is important for healthy digestion.
Soluble fiber is found mainly in nuts, seeds, oats, lentils and some fruits and vegetables. It dissolves in the digestive tract and by doing so, help soften and remove waste. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve and adds bulk to stool, allowing it to pass through the digestive tract more efficiently. Consuming a variety of these healthy foods ensures you get both types of fiber.
Pay Attention to Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics are special types of plant fibers that feed and stimulate growth of healthy organisms in the gut microbiome, while probiotics contain live organisms that contribute to the healthy microbe population. Prebiotic foods include most fruits and vegetables and probiotics are found in specific foods like yogurt as well as fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut. Maintaining a consistent intake of both will contribute to and maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria while preventing an overgrowth harmful pathogens that disrupt health.
Avoid High Fat Diets
Diets that are high in unhealthy fats can contribute to not only poor digestion, but other health issues as well. Unhealthy fats are those found in most animal fats as well as most junk and highly processed foods. They are easy to identify, since they are found in foods that are commonly unhealthy like pizza, burgers and hot dogs.
Healthy fats like those found in salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds will contribute to health. They are known to support healthy skin, a well-functioning brain and weight control. But don’t overdo it on these either, because too much of any fat can slow or inhibit digestion.
Small and Frequent Meals
Smaller, frequent meals consisting of wholesome foods are easy on the digestion as they do not overtax the system. Researchers at Duke Health found that smaller meals are more optimal for digestion, as it allows better energy expenditure and blood sugar levels. (1) If your digestion needs help, try consuming six small meals a day, each with a protein or starch and vegetables. Eat fruit alone for quick digestion and assimilation. Many who follow this type of eating report surges in energy levels as well as better digestion and metabolism.
If you are experiencing impaired digestion, it will be difficult for your body to digest and use the nutrients from your diet. If this is the case, liquid food supplements are easier for the body to assimilate, allowing you to take advantage of the full nutrient profile. For some people, increasing nutrients like vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients provide the building blocks for a stronger digestive system, which can lead to optimal health.
Move Your Body
Exercise increases blood flow, and helps your digestive system remain active. This is because when blood flow is stimulated, it includes the blood flow throughout the digestive tract. This means more digestive fluids and more movement without the sluggishness that a sedentary lifestyle can bring. And the best part is that research shows that exercise improves gastric emptying for those who suffer from nausea or bloating after eating. (2)
Stress creates physical reactions in the body that may interfere with digestion. For example, the stress reaction can cause a decrease of blood flow and oxygen to the stomach, which may create an imbalance in the gut microbiome. In addition, chronic stress promotes digestive problems and has similar effects of diets that are high in unhealthy fats. (3) Incorporating stress management practices into your daily routine such as meditation or journaling can go a long way in helping your body manage stress better.
Improve your body and mind with practices that support healthy digestion. Remember that health begins in the kitchen, and an overall healthy lifestyle is the best way to maintain good health, so you can enjoy life more fully.
1 Sheena Faherty December 16, & Faherty, S. (2014, December 16). Small, Frequent Meals are Better for Your Metabolism. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from https://www.dukehealth.org/blog/small-frequent-meals-are-better-your-metabolism
2 Evans, G., Watson, P., Shirreffs, S., & Maughan, R. (2015). The Effect of Exercise Intensity on Subsequent Gastric Emptying Rate in Humans. IJSNEM International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.
3 Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiol Stress. 2017;7:124-136. Published 2017 Mar 19. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001