As a Nutritionist, the most important advice I give to my clients is related to gut health. Why? The Gastrointestinal Tract (GIT) is often referred to as the second brain. It has the ability to affect our mood, control our immunity, alter pain sensations, modulate hormones and most importantly digest and absorb the nutrients we need to thrive.
The problem is the majority of the population seem to have at least one digestive complaint. If our guts aren’t working properly how can we expect the rest of our body to work effectively? And it all starts with the gut environment.
It all starts with the way you eat your food. Our nervous system runs in two gears, the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) or the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). The SNS is responsible for releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin which dilate your blood vessels and divert your energy to brain function and skeletal muscle so you can run away from the tiger (in caveman terms). Other systems, like the GIT, are not a priority so the function of these organs decrease. The PNS is what you want functioning for effective digestion. It is responsible for blood flow to the GIT and the release of neurotransmitters that help you relax and sleep. If you are in the habit of eating breakfast in the car, hurrying your lunch at work in between meetings, or talking on the phone during dinner, you are stimulating your SNS which will shut down digestion. Symptoms of this include reflux/indigestion, bloating, nausea and diarrhoea. If you are experiencing these symptoms there is a good chance you are not digesting and absorbing nutrients effectively.
What you need to do: When your ready to eat, sit down, turn off your phone and take 10 deep breaths. This activates your PNS to enhance digestion. Eat slowly and enjoy your meal.
Yep, your Mum was right! Chewing your food is super important for digestion. As you chew, enzymes in your saliva are released which start to breakdown the carbsohydrates in your meal. This starts a chain reaction, releasing hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes into the stomach and small intestine to further break down your food and optimise nutrient absorption. If you eat too quickly or swallow your food without chewing it enough, your body has to work harder to break it down and it may take longer to digest. Symptoms of this include feeling full for hours after the meal, bloating under your ribs, reflux and burping.
What you need to do: Chew, chew, chew! Make a conscious effort to do this every meal. Experts recommend chewing a mouthful at least 20 times before swallowing (which is a lot!), so give it a go! Even chew your liquids like protein shakes and soups for the great digestive benefits.
Do you suffer from heartburn? Reflux? Indigestion? If so, your not alone. When it comes to these daily symptoms many people reach for the antacids thinking that the cause is too much stomach acid. This is rarely the case though. Low stomach acid is usually the culprit and there are many causes, with stress and age being at the top of the list. We need adequate hydrochloric acid (Hcl) to break down food in the stomach, particularly proteins. If the body is in a stress response the production of Hcl is reduced and the food will sit in the stomach for longer. This can cause fermentation. As the food ferments, air pockets rise into the oesophagus giving you those dreaded heartburn and reflux symptoms. Hcl is also protective against pathogens like Helicobactor Pylori which can play major havoc with your digestive system. Efficient Hcl production sets the tone for the whole pH in the GIT. If the stomach isn’t acidic enough, the small and large intestine will become pH imbalanced and that can effect the growth of beneficial bacteria, sometimes even causing SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth).
What do you need to do: Decreasing stress can make a significant difference on Hcl production. Zinc deficiency can result in low Hcl so supplementing short term may be of benefit. When it comes to symptomatic treatment of low Hcl my favourites are lemon juice in warm water on rising, apple cider vinegar before each meal and a betaine supplement if the symptoms are particularly bad.
The bacteria lining your digestive system are collectively called your Microbiome. Research is piling up about these little guys in regards to health. Immunity, mental health, weight loss, eczema and autism (plus much more) have been connected with certain strains and ratios of bacteria in the gut. The environment of your gut and the foods you consume are the biggest influences on the microbiome. If you consume a diet high in processed and refined foods you create an environment for the strains of bacteria that are detrimental to your health and the opposite is said for a healthy diet. The mucosal membranes of the gut can also become damaged by foods (eg gluten), antibiotics, or chemicals (eg pesticides, pharmaceuticals) which also have a detrimental effect on healthy gut bacteria.
What do you need to do: Fibre is a prebiotic and is super important for a healthy microbiome. Eating an array of vegetables and resistant starches will feed these bacteria and keeps everything in balance. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, yoghurt, kombucha and miso provide you with good bacteria and contain prebiotics. Probiotic supplements may be beneficial after antibiotic use or if there is an imbalance of good to bad bacteria. Just make sure you choose the right strain for your condition. Saccharomyces Boulardii, or SB, is a yeast you can use to create the optimum environment for beneficial bacteria to grow. It also helps heal the mucosal lining if there is any damage.
When food goes in, it must also come out! How often you move your bowels can tell a lot about your health. Constipation is something many people have suffered with at least once in their lives. You are considered constipated if you find it hard to pass a stool, do not feel fully evacuated after passing a stool, your stool looks dry or like pebbles, you don’t pass a stool every day. Aside from it being uncomfortable, there are other negative effects constipation brings. The body eliminates toxins through the bowel so if you are constipated you are at risk of reabsorbing those toxins which is not what you want. It can also cause inflammation of the large intestine and predispose you to polyps, diverticulitis and even bowel cancer.
What do you need to do: Hydration is important! Consume at least 2 liters of water per day. Fibre intake will help bulk your stool and make it easier to pass. Ideally get fibre from your diet but you can also find fibre powders like psyllium husk and LSA which are great. Exercise has been found to decrease the incidence of constipation, among the various other health benefits. Food sensitivities can cause constipation, in particular, dairy and gluten. If you have tried other treatments without success an elimination diet may be the next step. Lastly, stress and a sluggish digestive system can result in constipation. This brings me back to the beginning. If your GIT is not working effectively at the top, it can cause problems the whole way down, so sometimes working with a top down approach to constipation is the best treatment.
At the end of the day, when creating the perfect gut environment, its pretty simple. Stress less, sit down and chew, support your stomach acid production, eat an array of healthy foods including vegetables, fermented foods and fibre, drink lots of water and exercise. The fundamentals of health. Who knew it could be so simple!
Take care of yourself X