Your gut is a phenomenal organ. Not only does it process and absorb the food you eat, turning it into energy, but it also is responsible for helping you produce certain vitamins, it is actively involved in keeping you safe from infections, as well as playing a role in your moods. The gut and how it influences our health is the subject of quite a bit of scientific interest at the moment, with emerging evidence linking the health of our digestive system with some of our most common chronic health conditions, including weight gain, depression, diabetes, autism, low immunity/experiencing frequent infections, and autoimmunity.
Unfortunately, digestive upsets are one of the most common reasons people seek appointments with their doctor, and they are certainly something I see on an all-too-frequent basis in the clinic. Giving your gut some extra TLC is one of the best things you can do to improve your health now, and maintain it into the future.
Let’s look at some easy ideas to help you achieve a healthy and happy tummy:
- Drink up!. Very rarely do I see a client who is actually hydrated! Not only does taking in enough water throughout the day help speed up the transit of food and waste products through your digestive system but lining the inner surface of your intestines is a thick coating of mucus. This mucus has the job of working as a ‘barrier’ to help keep out any undesirables such as bad bacteria that could potentially cause an infection or irritation to the gut lining. Mucus is made up mostly of water, so it certainly makes sense to consider that you need to be drinking enough to produce protective mucus properly. And of course, drinking enough water is going to help your body in other ways, such as achieving softer, clearer skin and flushing out water-soluble toxins effectively.
- Maintain a healthy gut flora (‘microbiome'). In addition to the protective mucus layer, your gut is also home to an astonishing number of bacteria, and these little guys account for between 1-2kg of your bodyweight. Each person has their own unique combination of bacteria – some are good, some can be bad, and there are plenty of types that we don’t even yet know what they do! A healthy population of gut bacteria plays a role in maintaining a strong and resilient digestive system lining, and they produce some vitamins (such as Vitamin K, which helps your blood to clot properly). Beneficial gut bacteria also help you absorb nutrients from food and eliminate wastes that your body doesn’t need. If you have been unwell with a stomach bug, have recently been taking antibiotics, been under a lot of stress, or eating too many junk foods, these can all upset the balance of good and bad bacteria, leaving you with a less-than-happy digestive system. This is why it is a great idea to take a good-quality, targeted probiotic supplement, and eat fermented foods such as Greek yoghurt on a regular basis, as these all help to re-populate your system with beneficial bacteria.
- Eat some prebiotic foods. Prebiotics are ‘food’ for the good bacteria. They help to make sure that your good bacteria have something to feast on so that they can grow and multiply and perform their wonderful work of keeping you healthy. Prebiotic foods are quite easy to include in your day-to-day food intake: oats, barley, garlic, onions, leeks, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), beetroot, dairy foods and Jerusalem artichokes are all great sources of prebiotics.
- Give yourself an enzyme boost. When your intestinal mucus layer is healthy, and you are taking care of your good bacteria population, then ideally your digestive system should be able to produce the enzymes it needs to help break down your food. If you aren’t producing enzymes effectively, then you may find that you suffer from indigestion, bloating after meals, or notice undigested food in your stools (other than corn kernels – nobody can break those things down!). If you do find you have a bit of difficulty digesting your food, try eating some foods that contain natural enzymes, such as fresh pawpaw and pineapple. These help you digest food better, by supplementing your body’s own natural digestive enzyme production.
- Pay attention to foods that don’t agree with you. Food intolerances can make life miserable, and I would have to say that the most common issue with food that I see in the clinic is gluten intolerance. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and oats, and (despite what the media would like you to believe), gluten-sensitivity DOES exist. Many people find they just feel a whole lot better when they stay away from gluten. There is a component of wheat gluten called ‘gliadin’ that we just can’t break down, and some people find that it just overloads their digestive system. If you experience digestive upsets after eating foods that contain gluten, it can be an idea to trial a period of gluten-free eating, while also working on re-establishing a good healthy foundation using the tips mentioned above.