Updated: Sep 9, 2021
The gut is a complicated organ system. It can be affected by your environment, what you eat, what you drink, how well you sleep and how stressed you are. In an average adult, the small and large intestines can reach to about 25 feet in length! So it only makes sense that a lot of action takes place in your guts.
Your intestines help to break down, digest and absorb the nutrients that you take in through your foods, beverages and even supplements. The gut has an intricate system of enzymes and microbes that help to ensure proper absorption of nutrients and the conversion to their active forms so that your body can use them as healthy building blocks. And lastly, the intestines help to get rid of waste products that could be harmful and that your body doesn't need.
To ensure these digestive processes run as best as they can, it is important to put in the highest quality foods possible. This will provide many healthy nutrients and building blocks for your body but also provide your gut microflora with foods to keep them happy and healthy in their continued work for you.
Here's a few simple steps:
1) Drink More Water
Drinking water has many health benefits, including improving gut health. In general, water acts as a natural lubricant inside your body. Therefore, in digestion, water helps to to provide needed moisture to move the chyme (partially digested food) from the stomach to your small intestine. While proper hydration helps support the digestion process, it also helps to facilitate the excretion process. In the colon, aka large intestine, water reabsorption occurs. If you are in a state of underhydration, the process will result in denser and harder stool. This is often a major cause of constipation or slow transit of stool. So to be sure you are well hydrated, you should at very least ensure that you are drinking 8-10 cups of water, which is about the equivalent to 64-80 oz or 2-2.5 liters.
2) Eat More Pre-Biotic Foods
Prebiotic foods include beans, lentils, oats, onions, artichokes, asparagus, apples, and bananas. But what are prebiotics? So, let's back up for a moment. Prebiotics are a type of carbohydrate - like fiber - that help to feed the microflora in your guts. Fibers from foods like oats, fruits, and legumes that we cannot digest, help to feed your gut microflora. These little organisms actually can break down these indigestible fibers and and turn them into the short chain fatty acid butyrate. The cells in your colon can use this butyrate as a source of fuel to continue functioning efficiently. In short, foods rich in prebiotics help to keep your gut microflora healthy and to create enough fuel for your colon to function at its best.
3) Eat More Pro-Biotic Foods
Probiotic foods actually contain live culture - aka bacteria - that are supportive of your gut health and help to replenish healthy gut microflora. The fermentation process cultivates these live bacteria and when consumed in your foods, helps to deliver them directly to where they can do their good work for you. These foods include Apple Cider Vinegar, Kombucha, Kefir yogurt, kimchi, fermented foods. You could also resort to taking probiotic capsules as a supplement, but I always think eating the "food version" is more fun and enjoyable.
These probiotics are so important because as we have learned more and more over the last decade - and continue to learn - about the gut is that it functions beyond simply digesting, absorbing nutrients and excreting waste. The gut is involved in immune function, hormone balance, neurochemical synthesis and inflammatory control. And as we learn more about the gut and the influence of gut microflora, we may discover even more benefits of maintaining a healthy digestive system.
4) Eat More Fruits & Veggies
Besides vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables are powerful food sources of a variety of anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Taking a multi-vitamin is great and all, but you really do (and should) get more for your buck when you invest in fresh produce. Eating fresh foods deliver these nutrients and healthy compounds in a way that is best recognizable to your body so that you can absorb as much of the good stuff as possible - that is called bioavailability. And yet again - fruits and vegetables are also a great source of fibers that help to feed and promote healthy gut microflora to keep you and your yummy happy & healthy.
5) Get Quality Sleep
Sleep, I think, is one of the health habits that we most underrate and neglect. Sleep is your body's and mind's way of resetting and restoring. You may be able to function with some sleep deprivation for some time, but eventually you will hit a wall. And when you hit that wall, it certainly hurts (not necessarily physically). Sleep is your body's way to restore hormones, detox the brain, calm inflammation, break down stress and restore a calm equilibrium. But unfortunately for many of us - myself included- sleep is often not as restorative as we like and it shows. Lack of sleep can show up as feeling fatigue, having headaches, poor concentration, poor memory, inability to focus, feeling irritable, anxious, depressed, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, bloating, feeling stressed and worn out and on and on.
But since we are talking about gut health, a lack of sleep keeps your stress hormones at high alert, leaving you to feel stressed and agitated. This hormonal state also interferes with your digestion and absorption as well as your hunger and satiety signals. Just know that lack of sleep and stress mess with your guts - I'm sure you've at one point or another felt that nervous poo feeling? That's what stress does to your guts. It creates a hostile environment for your delicate gut flora making it harder to effectively digest and absorb all the nutrients you need from the foods you eat.
6) Avoid Refined Sugar or Artificial Sweeteners
This is a big one. Food manufacturers have gotten really clever and sneak these artificial and low calorie sweeteners into a lot of foods. They are cheap, they are extremely sweet and they have zero or little calories. Manufacturers know that consumers have gotten more calorie conscious and know to look out for added sugars, but hey - if it's artificial and adds no calories then it should be fine, right?! Uh, not exactly. For one - if there's one message I keep trying to convey it's that eat REAL foods as much as possible. But also, artificial sweeteners are just that - artificial! Your body doesn't really know how to handle them or break them down properly. As a result, consuming a lot of foods or beverages with artificial sweeteners, creates an imbalance in the levels of your gut bacteria and often depletes a healthy variety. This can lead to indigestions, bloating, diarrhea and a generally unwell feeling. Also keep in mind - these artificial sweeteners play a trick on your brain. Because of their sweet taste, your brain thinks sugar is coming in and therefore releases insulin and leptin. There's several reasons why this response is not good for you, but that will be for another blog post. :)
To sum everything up. Try to eat real foods as much as possible, stay well hydrated and control or balance your stress with good quality sleep. We are still learning of more and more research about the effects of the gut microbiome, but we know that a healthy gut microbiome can affect our mental health, our brain health, reduce effects of aging, support our immune system and even affect the way we gain or lose weight. Our bodies carry out so many complicated functions on a daily basis - but the doctor's orders (or nutritionist in this care) are always the same: Sleep well, eat well, move daily and hydrate.
Any easy way to add in some of these pre biotic foods and more fruits and veggies is with smoothies, give this berry smoothie on the go a try!