As a naturopath my first instinct is to treat the gut.
This is where our immune system lives, our serotonin is produced, and our nutrients are absorbed. So, in a nutshell, (part one of) my guide to good digestive health.
** please note that this is general advice only and I recommend you to see a naturopath or other registered practitioner with any functional digestive disorders. x
1. Mindful eating.
You may have heard about the two parts that make up our nervous system- the sympathetic which is needed for our fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic which is also known as ‘rest and digest.’
We need to be in a relaxed state, or without sympathetic dominance to be able to digest our food optimally. Eating mindfully means that we are relaxed enough for our parasympathetic nervous system to do it’s enormous job of digesting food and absorbing it’s nutrients.
2. Eat fermented foods – but don’t overdo it!
Fermented foods are those that have been through a process called lactofermentation. Once foods go through this process, the end result is full of B vitamins, omega-3’s, and various strains of probiotics.
When we eat too much sugar, processed foods and alcohol, the good and bad bacteria can become imbalanced. Consuming things like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchee and other fermented vegetables will introduce live beneficial bacteria to the digestive system to help rebalance this.
Although these foods change the state of our digestive system in a positive way, some people do have reactions such as bloating or flatulence when introducing these foods- so introduce them slowly and be mindful of how they make you feel.
Fibre has many jobs to aid in digestion and bowel function. Insoluble fibre is able to pass through the digestive system with minimal changes. This is beneficial because it can bind to waste to be excreted from the body, eliminating toxins and ensuring a good bowel motility.
Eating fibre from natural sources such as wholegrains, vegetables and fruits means you’re going to get the vitamins, minerals and other wholefood benefits- so opt for this rather than the processed fibre sources.
4. Identify food intolerances and food sensitivities.
Food allergies and intolerances are different types of reactions, but both are important to treat mindfully by excluding the reactive foods completely from the diet. Intolerances are more common, and often include lactose, gluten and fructose.
If we continue to consume foods that cause a reaction in our body this can cause inflammation, gradually heighten the response to it, as well as potentially cause permanent damage to your digestive system. This can lead to intestinal permeability, or leaky gut,which may inhibit the ability to digest and absorb nutrients.
Approximately 20% of people have reported reactions to certain foods, although this seems to be on the rise – possibly due to a reduction in food quality, increase in preservatives, additives and insecticides, and food processing practices.
5. Ensure adequate hydration
Aiming for 2.5L (approx 84 ounces) of water per day can improve the health of your digestive system by improving bowel motility and preventing constipation. Dehydration can slow the transit time of your bowel movements, as well as prevent adequate flushing of toxins. The amount of water intake changes depending on exercise patterns, size of the person and the weather. As a general rule I recommending to aim for 2.5L/day to ensure good gut health.
6. Look after your mental health
It’s been found that there is an association between stress and digestive upset such as IBS. This comes back to point #1- if your body is in sympathetic dominance you don’t have the energy to adequately digest your food and absorb it’s nutrients. Psychological and digestive health go hand in hand – your serotonin (your ‘feel-good’ hormone’) actually lives in your digestive system. So it’s fair to say that an unhappy digestive system may be partly responsible for an unhappy mood.
7. Consume herbal medicine that has actions on the digestive system
Many plants contain active components that have the most incredible effects on our health. Some of the most easily accessible herbs are of the most beneficial; peppermint and fennel reduce gas and bloating, whereas liquorice root helps to soothe the lining of the digestive tract and reduce any inflammation. Chamomile is a favourite for IBS patients who’s symptoms worsen with stress – as it helps to both nourish the nervous and digestive systems, encouraging them to work in harmony together.
8. Take probiotics after a course of antibiotics
This is because unfortunately antibiotics aren’t selective with what they’ve been set out to kill off once they enter your digestive system. Antibiotic means they wipe out bacteria, even the beneficial bacteria. This good bacteria is a very important part of your microbiota – which is your own little community of microorganisms that help to balance your digestive, nervous, endocrine and immune systems.