Better digestive health is so crucial to overall health; it is the result of many factors leading to good balance. Having good digestive health significantly aids a well functioning body, a sharp mind, healthy weight and altogether good health. We all want to be healthy, so what can we do to ensure good digestive health?
Before we get in to how to support better digestive health, what does good digestive health really mean? Good digestive health will mean that when you consume food, it moves through your digestive tract, easily and without any discomfort; it is regular, well formed bowel movements and at its heart, is a healthy microbiome which leads to efficient energy production as well as balanced hormone production for some of the most important hormones to balance mental wellbeing.
Digestive imbalance can lead to symptoms ranging from bloating, digestive cramps, change in bowel habits, food intolerances, bleeding, loss of appetite, weight loss and even psychological effects.
There are a number of things we can all be mindful of to ensure ours and our families digestive health.
High fibre is so important for digestive health; it feeds good gut bacteria, assists with weight management, assists in the maintenance of a healthy cholesterol level, lowers blood glucose levels and crucially helps keep our bowel healthy and regulate bowel movements.
The best way to consume fibre is in fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Whilst fruit contains fibre, being mindful of its sugar content and aiming to get the majority of your fibre from green leafy vegetables, as well as those high in resistant starch, such as sweet potato, legumes and whole grains will lead to better digestive and health. Where supplementation is required, psyllium husk capsules can be a great addition to your diet and interestingly can assist both constipation and diarrhoea.
For those with gut bacteria imbalance, food sensitivities, FODMAP intolerance or other sensitivities, they can feel bloated as fibre and the sugars in high FODMAP foods ferment as they are digested, leading to discomfort. Dietary modifications can assist here, but it is important to seek diagnosis from a qualified practitioner to identify the true cause of this rather than self diagnosing and limiting healthy foods.
Pre and pro biotics have been getting a lot of attention of late and for good reason. With the advancement of technology, we have been able to delve deeper in to the human body in areas that until recently were poorly understood; and whilst technology is very advanced, we still have much to learn when it comes to the human microbiome, or our gut bacteria. Gut bacteria is at the body’s core; breaking down food and converting it in to energy. Without healthy gut bacteria, we simply cannot take energy from our food. It stands to reason then that we need to ensure the health of our gut bacteria; this is done through prebiotic foods such as raw asparagus, raw or cooked onion, raw garlic, dandelion greens and Jerusalem artichokes.
Probiotic foods are those that contain good bacteria and aid the growth of more good gut bacteria. Fermented foods have been consumed for hundreds of years, from kefir, yoghurt, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and although not new, recently growing in popularity is kombucha. Consuming foods rich in good bacteria can assist digestion and also ease digestive discomfort for those with imbalance.
We have all heard it before; the human body is over 70% water, it makes sense then to keep up our water intake. Getting at least eight glasses of water serves so many functions in the body, and in this context helps keep the bowel regular. Water is required from the time we put food in our mouth and chew, then digestion and through to stool formation. When we are dehydrated, our digestion slows down which in turn affects our overall health.
We need water consistently throughout the day; and whilst many of us would like to consider our coffee one of the eight, sadly it is not. We are not saying don’t have your morning coffee, in fact, the small coffee grounds in your coffee are an excellent source of food for your gut bacteria, it does not however help to hydrate the body. Herbal teas, water infused with fruit such as a slice of lemon or some berries is an excellent way to make water more interesting, if you find plain, filtered water too bland.
Beyond building a good physique and maintaining a healthy mind, exercise is also crucial in good digestive health. Regular movement is key to assisting the digestive tract in its functions. Whilst a regular exercise regime, such as walking, running, the gym, yoga, Pilates or other formal types of exercise, are excellent, incidental exercise also counts when it comes to digestive health. Opting for the stairs instead of the lift, or parking a little further and walking to your destination, going for a walk in your lunch break are not only brilliant for stress management which we will discuss shortly, but also aid digestion in a very positive way.
Many people believe they cover all the practices for good digestive health, but stress management is often overlooked or not given the attention it requires. The reality is, in our world today, we are all subject to consistent stress. This can have negative impacts on our mental and physical health and in turn our digestive health. Have you ever suffered from loss of appetite or increased appetite at times of stress? This is just one way in which stress can impact the digestive system. The ‘Flight or Fight’ response supresses appetite and redirects blood flow away from the digestive tract, if the real or perceived stress is not reduced, the impact on digestive function can be considerable. A daily stress management practice can serve not only our digestive health, but our overall wellbeing, including those around us, in such significant ways.
Stress management is very individual; for some it may be doing a daily meditation, it may be colouring a mindfulness colouring book, listening to music, it may be a daily exercise regime (although, please be mindful that although high intensity exercise such as running, HIIT, CrossFit are excellent for both physical and mental health and a brilliant stress management tool for many, they do also come with a level of stress – and exercise induced stress can still be harmful) or any other technique you implement to give the mind some much needed ‘time out’. It doesn’t need to be onerous, it may just be ten or fifteen minutes on the way to and from work or taking a walk in the local park and focusing on the environment, rather than your to-do list or a screen. A time out for the mind is individual and you need to find what works for you, but regularity is the key here.
High fat diets slow the digestive system, strain the liver and can cause cholesterol. Especially the type of fat found in fast food, such as fried and packaged foods. Good fats on the other hand are essential in our diets; oily fish, olive oil, fruit and vegetable fats in moderation such as avocado or coconut.
Sugar is another that has managed to creep in to our diets, even sometimes unnoticed in sauces, packaged food, yoghurt and even foods claiming to be healthy or low in fat. Sugar is very tasty but is can cause overgrowth of bad bacteria as well as spiking blood sugar and causing a whole host of other health issues. Fruit is an ideal way to consume sugars as nature provides sweetness alongside fibre, which makes us feel fuller quicker, reducing the likelihood of overindulgence. If you do like to sweeten your food, look to natural sweeteners over highly processed sugar like cane sugar. Better sweeteners are ones like honey, maple syrups or unprocessed sugars such as coconut sugar. Again, moderation is required as we don’t require much sugar in our diet.
A healthy digestive system is an integral part of our overall health. It affects us physically and mentally. Incorporating these tips can help improve digestion, resulting in optimal cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels, weight and a general sense of wellness.
The digestive system is complex and symptoms can be triggered by many varied causes. It is important to work with a qualified health practitioner if you are experiencing any issues. It is common today to remove foods from the diet where unpleasant symptoms are occurring and whilst this can alleviate symptoms for a period, it is not addressing the underlying cause. This is where a highly trained specialist, a Gastroenterologist seeks to address the root cause, treating and guiding you to long term digestive health and overall wellbeing.
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