These days everyone is talking about probiotics in health circles and the media. They are seen as the most important supplement for your overall health and the global market for them is growing year on year and set to grow to 43 billion Euros by 2020. However some reports also contest that they are not the boost to health, supporting the immune system, losing weight and reducing bloating that many health experts would have us believe. That as it may, each week what’s good for us or bad for us, can seem to change. When it comes to the area of gut health the centre of our bodies and the area we should most focus on there is a lot more to the health supporting tips and strategies we can come up with beyond purely probiotics. In many cases these tips may have more global benefit to our health.
Does Your Digestion Complain?
Your digestive system can provide with us with daily reminders it needs help and therefore isn’t as healthy as it ought to be. If you can relate to any of the following then a greater focus on specifically the health of your gut may be where your should more time than weight loss, calories consumed, or the latest fad diet or supplement.
Bloated after meals?
Experience heartburn/reflux, gas, loose stools or constipation on a fairly regular basis?
Notice undigested food in your stools?
Struggle to achieve a daily bowel movement with or without straining and if you have one it is less than what you could call well-formed?
The health of our gut is intrinsically linked to our mental and emotional state through digestive connections with our nervous system and brains. Our gut also impacts and is impacted on by our hormonal, detoxification and immune system. Up to 60% of the immune system resides within the digestive system.
What Does The Gut Do
The job of our guts is extensive and a whole lot more involved than just chucking any old food down your throat as long as its within your daily calorie allowance and hoping for the best.
The digestive system as well as breaking down, metabolising, absorbing and assimilating your food and drink consumption is involved in;
- your sense of hunger, fullness and satiety,
- food cravings,
- lower abdominal distension (“muffin top” and pooch/paunch belly),
- food sensitivities,
- digestive infections (eg. H.Pylori, C.Diff, E.Coli etc)
- optimising mood,
- digestive symptoms such as reflux, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea,
- health and function of the immune system,
- metabolise vitamins.
Tips For Better Gut Health
When it comes to how best to improve gut health a balance has to be struck between taking away and stopping the bad practices or eating and drinking the things that make it worse as well what you can add and directly do to make it all better.
The digestive system is made of the stomach, small and large intestine. It has to break food down, absorb it to allow it to go off to where its needed round the body, has to make chemicals for the body from what we eat eg vitamins and then eliminate what we don’t need no more.
The stomach uses acid and enzymes to clean the food to go into the centre of our bodies and to come in direct contact with our immune systems. The small intestines continues breakdown of foods but is the main site of absorption whereas the large intestine finalises the breakdown for elimination.
Lifestyle and Sleep
In short your hormones are released during the day to keep you switched on with the energy to do your daily tasks then calms down later in the day to start the rest and repair process for the next day. Reducing hormone output and increasing their breakdown leaves energy for the lower energy demands of the immune, detoxification and digestive systems. During sleep this repair process is maximised. If you go to your bed and even if that means lying in your bed on your iPad using the blue light of the screen to keep you awake much after 1030pm, and definitely not later than midnight, then you first of all reduce the time spent in physical repair. Any damage to your gut lining from eating less than healthy food will be less. Disrupted sleep either in going to sleep late or waking up during the night then goes on to reduce the amount and quality of psychological repair you get each night. So its quite understandable how you can wake up with your muscles still aching and with some of the brain fog you had from the previous day.
Poor sleep can lead to higher than necessary levels of your stress hormones first thing in the morning. If you imagine being in a stressful situation and feeling butterflies in your stomach then your lifestyle and sleep habits can directly stress the gut. So each day you can be damaging the gut without realising it especially if you only focus on food and maybe probiotics for your gut health.
Drinking a glass of water prior to your meal can stimulate the release of HCl to kill the bacteria on your food and activate the enzyme, pepsin to begin protein breakdown in the stomach. You want your stomach strongly acidic and your small intestine alkaline for good digestive function. The role of proper hydration and gut health was known as far back as 1914 from experiments done on animals and also humans, many techniques to maximise digestion are well established even though our modern lifestyles might serve to undermine us.
There is little evidence a glass of water and lemon does anything specific for digestion but regardless of any specific science most health experts would advocate the act of drinking water and stimulating ones digestion.
Testing for food sensitivity
Simple blood tests or just eliminating a suspected problem food for 3 days can help reduce stress on the gut. Some foods through the overstimulation to the nervous system of the gut can lead to a shutting down of your bowel movements.
Food sensitivities again due to the amount of nervous system input to the digestive organs can result in a loss of tone in the abdominal wall and muscles resulting in an aesthetic appearance that drives many people to exercising even more or starving themselves in an attempt to tone up the lower abdominals. Avoiding intolerant or sensitive foods in some cases can be a more direct solution as oppose to practising a new exercise technique. Good tone in the deep abdominal muscles have an important role to play in helping to maintain regular bowel movements.
Testing for bugs, infection and inflammation
A stool either run through your doctor or online from a healthcare professional can identify different parasites, bacteria, fungus, viruses and even worms that shouldn’t be there or in such large numbers. Some of the better stool tests also provide information on levels of inflammation caused by these little critters, can indicate issues with gluten, lack of digestive enzymes, inability to break down fats fully, as well as the amounts of the good guys, probiotics.
For some people having a healthy gut requires digging deeper than pure dietary changes or increasing daily activity.
Increasing garlic or ginger are examples of foods that can help eradicate problem bugs. With proper testing you can then identify if you need advice from your doctor or if these foods or herbs in higher doses are required.
Taking the time to prioritise your diet so that you actually your food and not just sit at your desk and type or talk on the phone massively helps. As soon as the food touches the inside of your mouth digestion starts as the saliva begins to break down the sugars and help signal to the rest of the gut food is on its way. The more chewed up it all is before it heads south the less of job the rest of your gut has to do. I was always taught as much as maybe I go over the top to “drink your sandwich and eat your soup”! I admit I take forever to eat but my digestion is much happier than it used to be when I was younger and basically would hoover down my food.
Bitter tasting foods
Foods with a bitter taste (cauliflower, artichokes, broccoli, spices; ginger, cardamom, pepper) or adding Swedish Bitters by the teaspoonful, get the digestive juices flowing, more saliva production, gastric juices and bile all aid the break down of food. If you can more efficiently digest your food you are getting a greater bang for your buck with each meal. Your body needs nutrition not calories. So when it doesn’t get what it needs it craves more magnesium so you eat more chocolate or more
Supplements for support and repair
Prebiotics are the food for the probiotics. However not everyone copes well with prebiotics very much like probiotics. There is no one size fits all diet and the same is true in your approach to providing your body with extra support in terms of supplements. Your gut is so important to your overall and so complex its not as simple as just try X for Y result.
Supplements such as arabinogalactan or resistant potato starch are forms of prebiotics that can work but again like probiotics even though the numbers of bacteria in us is greater than the numbers of cells that make up us, always start slow with the lowest dose and go from there. Give your gut a chance to cope. Just like when starting a new diet and radically changing your food and even more so with a sensitive gut slow and steady wins the race.
Examples of prebiotic foods include;
- Jerusalem Artichoke,
I am a big fan of probiotics and spore based probiotics are gaining popularity due the number of strains and viability of actually getting to where you need them in the digestive tract. However there are many foods you can add to your daily diet known as fermented foods that do a similar job and some would argue are a more natural option. However not wanting to over complicate matters some of us just have the wrong amount of bugs in our guts and in the wrong places that even probiotic loaded foods, fermented foods actually make matters worse. Again start slowly maybe even a teaspoon a day and experiment with kefir, kimchi, kombucha tea and sauerkraut.
Fibre can also help suck up some of the gunk or toxins found on your food and drink or released by the gut and support the bodies efforts in removal from the body. Psyllium husks, inulin and chicory root are supplement based options as is real foods such as peas, pears, broccoli, carrots, melon, nuts, seeds.
A tablespoon of ground flaxseeds two or three times a day can work wonders.
You can enzymes to digest more fully fats, proteins and carbohydrates helping increase the efficiency of the small intestine and gain more of the nutrition from the food you eat. More nutrition means less calories.
Vegetables eaten raw as well meats not burned to a frazzle all help with adding enzymes to the bodies on stores.
Protein can go putrid, fats rancid and carbohydrates ferment if we don’t fully break them down and eliminate them. A strong stomach has good levels of acid. It is become more widely recognised that low stomach acid is more of an issue for digestion than too much acid. Shutting down your natural production will not help you maximise protein digestion. If you find your meals just sit in your stomach upping the acidity with apple cider vinegar by the teaspoon diluted in water or one or two hydrochloric acid capsules in the middle of your meal might be very helpful in actually improving digestion and eliminating reflux. In the presence of digestive infections and damage to the digestive lining or mucosal barrier it would be best to avoid adding any source of acid but in many cases it can be significant step forward to noticing gains in muscle as well as better trips to the toilet.
Gut friendly supplements
Supplements such as slippery elm, aloe vera juice, marshmallow root, peppermint, and liquorice root are also known to help calm a stressed out digestive system. There are several products these days that are available that contain all these nutrients together.
Foods to avoid
FODMAPS, fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols, are foods known as short chain carbohydrates that are not well absorbed in the small intestine and cause a host of gut symptoms. These FODMAP foods have been implicated as causing the symptoms found in conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Foods to consider avoiding, and the list is extensive, for example include;
- Kidney beans,
- Split peas,
- Cous cous
Cooked versus raw
Foods high in insoluble fibre can irritate an irritated stomach even more so it might be best to avoid for example:
- Greens (spinach, lettuce, kale, collards, watercress, etc.)
- Whole peas, snap peas,
- Green beans
- Kernel corn
- Onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, garlic
- Cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts
However cooking some soluble fibre based foods may help take the pressure of your digestion by consuming partially digested foods and the soluble fibre helps with bacteria levels, softens the stool and helps keep you regular. Foods such as the following should be included daily;
- Sweet potato
- Oat, bran, barley,
- Brussel sprouts
- Dates, peaches, prunes
Sympathetic versus parasympathetic
Remember your parents used to tell you, you weren’t allowed to run back out to play after your dinner for 15 minutes to let your food go down? Well mine certainly did. As annoying as that was the sense in it comes from allowing a window of less activity to support the emptying of your stomach whereas if you get stuck back in to a serious game of football your blood supply is diverted away from digestion to the working heart, lungs and muscles.
Or another way to think of would be imagine eating whilst be chased by a tiger, that’s stressful and relies on what is known as your sympathetic or fight or flight nervous system not your parasymthetic nervous system responsible for control of breathing, relaxation and recovery as well as your digestion.
You can help stimulate the vagal nerve, the man in branch of the parasympathetic nervous by gargling water for 30s or tongue brushing. Turning your electric toothbrush upside down and holding it on the back of your tongue stimulates the gag reflex which in turn powers up the vagal nerve.
Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing can reduce activation of the sympathetic nervous system increasing the parasympathetic side and improving digestion. Back to running away from that tiger you will likely find it difficult to relax your abdominal wall as you breathe in during that but you ought to be able to do that when eating. So being able to do this type of breathing where your stomach wall moves in and out in sequence with your breath allows you to switch on the nerves to help digestion and helps keep you out of a stressed state whilst eating. In a more relaxed state you are more likely to want to eat as well as digest your food better.
Regular daily exercise will have a role to play in gut health as well as overall health. Overdoing your running and you may have experienced “runners trots”. However if you look deeper into the physical side of gut health you will discover the role your posture as it relates to a distended abdominal wall but also how the insides of your body are aligned also have a role in gut health. Visiting an oestopath or chiropractor can help you establish if you have an issue with what’s known as a closed Ileo caecal valve. This is the gateway from your stomach to your small intestine and simple, special techniques can assist your body keeping that open when it needs and continuing the proper process of digesting a meal. When its stuck open can lead to constipation but when open can cause diarrhoea. The gut is a wonderful place it provides many clues to help you maximise its potential that extend far beyond probiotic supplements and therefore there is much you can do yourself to learn about how it works, get help, make changes, reduce symptoms and enjoy better gut health.