Gut health has been all the rage this year, and for a good reason. According to Hippocrates, “all disease begins in the gut.” Research has revealed that an unhealthy gut can lead to a wide range of problems, from diabetes to depression to cancer. Yikes.
People jump straight to cutting out food groups when they experience digestive distress. But before you flee from gluten or dairy, consider all the other factors that could be influencing your gut health. Let’s discuss how lowering stress, eating mindfully, and incorporating specific foods can resolve digestive problems before creating tons of dietary restrictions.
Besides, why would you want to eliminate any foods with the holidays just around the corner? #GimmeAllTheTurkeyStuffing.
It’s time to get to the root cause of your gut issues. We’re about to get a bit science-y here, so bare with me!
THE IMPACT OF STRESS ON GUT HEALTH
Before giving a public speech or going on a scary rollercoaster, do you ever feel like your stomach is in knots?
This feeling is a result of your gut-brain axis, which refers to the bidirectional connection between your central nervous system and enteric nervous system (often called “the second brain”). The two-way relationship between your gut and brain means that increased stress will lead to decreased GI function, and vice versa.
PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
The Autonomic Nervous System regulates digestion, and it consists of two divisions: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is responsible for your “fight-or-flight” response (cue red flashing lights and screeching sirens), which puts your body in battle-preparation mode. This system is activated when you are bracing for a plane crash or running from a tiger…but it is also initiated by small stressors, like sitting in traffic, dreading a workout, or procrastinating. Either way, the SNS diverts energy from certain body functions, including digestion.
The PNS, on the other hand, is responsible for your “rest-and-digest” mode. This mode allows your body to do exactly what it sounds like — restore, rejuvenate, and digest.
The thing is, only one branch of the Autonomic Nervous System can be active at a time. I can tell you rather confidently that your “fight-or-flight” mode is probably on waaaay more than the alternative. If this is the case, your digestion may be suffering.
So, how do you activate your PNS to optimize gut health?
INCORPORATE STRESS-REDUCING PRACTICES DAILY
Stress is inevitable. We can’t run or hide from it, but we can manage it.
Turning to some simple stress-relieving practices will allow you to cope in healthy ways when you feel overwhelmed. Some of my favorite mechanisms include going on walks, taking hot yoga classes, reading my Bible, and spending time with friends and family.
Deep breathing is a great strategy to boost your mental health. Taking a few belly breaths whenever you feel anxious will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Try to focus on making each exhale a few counts longer than each inhale, and pause for one count at the top of the inhales and at the bottom of the exhales. Using this breathing technique before meals will calm you down and ease digestion.
HOW TO EAT FOR OPTIMAL DIGESTION
We’ll get to the what later. For now, let’s discuss how we can eat to optimize digestion.
SPACE OUT LARGER MEALS
Somehow, our society has come to glorify the idea of consuming smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. While “grazing” may work well for some people, spacing out your meals and increasing your portion sizes could help alleviate digestive distress.
When the intestines are fasted for 90 minutes or longer, a wave called the migrating motor complex kicks in. Think of this wave as a broom that “sweeps” any leftover undigested material through the GI tract. If you tend to nibble throughout the day, there is a good chance you do not let 90 minutes pass before eating again. Giving your gut longer breaks will allow it to completely digest food.
Your portion sizes also play a role in digestive function. Snacking on a handful of almonds here and a piece of fruit there does not always signal to your body the process of moving things down. Don’t glaze over your hunger by nibbling until you feel neutral; eat solid meals that will fill you up completely. Larger meals will get things moving along and satiate you for longer periods of time.
I am the slowest eater around. It takes me twice the amount of time to finish meals than it takes most people…apologies to my friends who have to wait for me in restaurants!
Gobbling up food without properly breaking it down will lead to incomplete digestion. Digestion begins in your mouth, and you do not want to let large particles of food end up in your stomach. Focus on thoroughly chewing to make the rest of the digestive process much easier on your body. Chewing mindfully requires practice, but eventually, it will become habitual (as it did for me).
Like I said earlier, people often think that eliminating food groups will solve their digestive problems. What they don’t realize is that cutting things out decreases the bacterial diversity in their guts, making their stomachs even more sensitive.
With that being said, there are definitely cases when a food is truly harmful to a person, and there might not be many ways around it. However, I believe that restricting foods should be the last resort. Rather than taking things away, let’s see what we can add to our diets to heal and seal the gut.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that balance your gut and allow it to thrive. They reduce the harmful bacteria in the intestines, thus preventing inflammation and infection in the GI tract. While taking a daily probiotic supplement can be very beneficial, here are some foods that are naturally rich in probiotics:
- sourdough bread
- aged, soft cheese
More people have started sippin’ on kombucha for extra probiotics, but the importance of prebiotics is often overlooked. The good bacteria existing in your gut must be fed with prebiotics, which are a type of non-digestible dietary fiber. Foods rich in prebiotics include:
- under-ripe bananas
- Jerusalem artichokes
- dandelion root
Healthy fats will coat and soothe your gut lining, leading to smoother digestion. Incorporate more of these fats into your diet:
- egg yolk
- wild-caught fish
- soaked and sprouted nuts (try out this triple threat nut butter and these almond coconut protein balls)
- olives and olive oil
- coconut oil
- grass-fed butter
- dark chocolate
The collagen and gelatin found in bone broth seals the gut lining, reduces intestinal inflammation, and fights food sensitivities. While making your own bone broth is ideal…ain’t nobody got time for that (and kudos to you if you do!). I love Bonafide Provisions Bone Broth, which can be found in the freezer section of health food stores. All you have to do is heat it up in a pot for a few minutes. Easy peasy!
APPLE CIDER VINEGAR
Raw, organic apple cider vinegar undergoes a double fermentation process that aids in the production of healthy gut bacteria. It increases stomach acid which helps break down food if you experience indigestion. Try taking a teaspoon of ACV diluted in water when you wake up in the morning or before going to bed.
REMEMBER, YOU’RE NOT PERFECT.
You won’t always have time to make avocado toast with a fried egg and a forkful of sauerkraut for breakfast…not to mention chewing each bite 30+ times. Some days require scarfing down an Eggo on the way to school or work. The worst thing you can do is beat yourself up over it.
Thinking about how “bad” the gluten in that Eggo is can lead to more GI distress than the gluten itself (this is known as the nocebo effect— basically the placebo effect in reverse).
The point here: don’t stress about being perfect. You’re only doing your gut more harm. And have patience! The stomach aches and bloating won’t disappear overnight. Reversing damage to the gut takes time.
I hope you found this post helpful! What steps will you take to heal your gut?