If you want to be healthy, you not only need to eat a balanced, varied diet, but you also need to have a digestive system that is functioning optimally. This means absorbing as many nutrients as possible whilst protecting us from substances that may be harmful. Our bodies then have to repeat this 24 hours per day, seven days per week! There are some simple habits (and foods) we can utilise to give our guts a helping hand.
1. Consume Probiotic Rich Foods: Probiotics are live bacterial cultures that colonise our gut. Some are linked with good health (Lactobacillis and Bifida bacteria), whilst others are linked with poor health (Helicobacter pylorii is associated with the formation of ulcers and E. coli, Serratia marcescens and Candida tropicalis are found in high concentrations in people with Crohn’s disease). Foods such as yoghurt, kombucha, kefir (water and milk varieties), and fermented veggies such as kimchi and sauerkraut contain beneficial bacteria and yeasts. Typical western diets, high in saturated fat can create more hostile gut environments, where the inflammation promoting bacteria flourish which can lead to an array of inflammation related health issues. So give your gut a helping hand by eating foods rich in probiotics.
2. Consume Prebiotic Rich Foods: Prebiotics are typically non-digestible fibre compounds that pass through the gastrointestinal tract where they are broken down and consumed by beneficial gut bacteria. Think of them as food for your healthy gut bugs. Foods high in prebiotics include; dry chicory root, dry jerusalem artichoke, dry garlic, dry onion, raw asparagus, raw banana and mushrooms. Mushrooms are a good source of prebiotics as they contain different polysaccharides such as chitin, hemicellulose, α- and β-glucans, mannans, xylans and galactans. Cooking can reduce the prebiotic content, so many of these foods are best consumed raw or dried or both. A diet rich in prebiotics will give the healthy gut bugs the fibre they need to flourish.
3. Digestive enzymes: Digestive enzymes break down molecules like proteins, fat and carbs into even smaller molecules that are more easily absorbed. The three main types are; proteases (break down proteins into peptides and amino acids), lipases (break down fat into three fatty acids plus a glycerol molecule) and amylases (break down carbs like starch into simple sugars). If the body doesn’t make enough digestive enzymes, then food molecules won’t be digested properly and nutrients pass through, not utilised. Food rich in digestive enzymes include; pineapple, papaya, miso, and mushrooms.
4. Eat slowly: slowing down the rate at which you eat has three main benefits. Firstly by eating slowly and chewing more, you are breaking down food into smaller particles, breaking down cell walls releasing nutrients and aiding the digestion process. Secondly it gives your body time to release the appropriate hormones that regulate your appetite (such as leptin). Finally eating slowly can lower stress hormones, increase feel good hormones and reduce overall stress levels which will ultimately aid digestion.
5. Meditate: The less stressed we are the better our bodies will digest food. Did you know there are more neurons in our gut than there are in our spinal cord, hence the term ‘gut feeling.’ These neurons control the digestion process, and in a period of stress, the body diverts energy away from the gut in preparation for the ‘fight or flight’ response. After all if you’re about to face off with a saber toothed tiger, absorbing that banana is the least of your worries! The problem is that in our modern world, these stresses tend to be present for longer periods, creating a stressed gastrointestinal environment. In this stressed state your esophagus may go into spasms, increasing the acid in your stomach, which results in indigestion. You may feel nauseous and experience IBS symptoms (diarrhea or constipation, gas, bloating, cramps). Gut bacteria may become unbalanced, inflammation may be present and in more serious cases, ulcers can develop. Reducing stress should be a top priority and meditation has been shown to be a very effective way of managing stress. Whether it is seated, lying or moving meditation there is a style for all personality types. Like exercise it takes some time to develop the skills but the benefits are most definitely worth it.
Try to include these foods and habits into your life to improve digestion and ultimately your health.
Amelia Phillips is a nutritionist, exercise scientist and online health coach who has helped thousands live a healthier life through optimised nutrition and targeted supplementation.