Poor gut health is not only linked to gastrointestinal problems, but may play a role in the management of serious diseases like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. Many diseases that may seem totally unrelated to the gut – such as eczema - may actually be caused or worsened by gut problems. The gut contains 70% of the body’s immune system, and the gut microbiota plays a major role in immune health.
Your digestive system is at the centre of your wellbeing and is involved in so many vital processes. It is responsible for converting food into simple nutrients and delivering them to the body via the bloodstream.
Your digestive system plays a big role in regulating hormones and excreting toxins, so keeping a healthy balance of good bugs in your intestine is critical to good gut health!
Check out below for 8 easy steps you make from today to achieve better gut health.
1. Limit processed foods and eat more fibre
Processed and fried foods slow down the digestive process, and should be kept to a minimum. A low fibre, high-sugar, processed diet encourages the wrong type of bacteria and yeast to grow in our gut, and damages the delicate ecosystem in your intestines.
Instead, eat whole minimally processed foods. Fibre types can be roughly grouped into three families – insoluble, soluble and resistant starch. The latter two play particularly important roles as prebiotics – meaning they fuel the growth of good bugs in your gut. It is these that often fall seriously short in our diets, especially resistant starch.
Fibre rich food to include in your diet, are: fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils), nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
2. Take probiotics every day
While the research on probiotics is still in its relative infancy, they do seem to have benefit, but only if you take them every day. Taking them only now and again holds little value. Probiotics may be especially valuable during and after taking antibiotics and for boosting immune function during winter as they have been shown to reduce the number and severity of respiratory infections.
Taking a probiotic supplement is the best means of getting a measured dose and identifiable species of bacteria. But you can also take them naturally by consuming fermented foods. Natural yoghurt, sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables and spices) and kefir (a Russian inspired fermented dairy drink). There are also now some probiotic drinks on the market.
Generally, the benefit should be noticeable within 2-4 weeks, when the probiotic strains have colonised the gastrointestinal tract.
3. Stay hydrated
Staying hydrated is one of the best things you can do for your digestion and your overall health. Drinking insufficient water slows down your digestive system significantly and results in harder stools that are more difficult to pass.
How do you know you’re drinking enough? Your urine should remain a light straw colour all day long. If you don’t enjoy drinking water, try adding slices of fruit or cucumber, or a sprig of mint to your water for a flavour boost.
Do be aware that adding lemon does make the water slightly acidic and can erode your teeth – try not to be sipping lemon water all day. Herbal teas are also another option to vary your water intake.
4. Get off the couch
Did you know that being sedentary is a major cause of constipation? Exercise helps your digestive system by increasing blood flow to all your organs, and stimulates the muscles in your GI tract. Contributing to your digestive health is just another reason to make exercise a regular part of your day.
Try walking, aerobic or strength-building activities for at least 30 minutes every day. At the same time try to limit how much time you spend sitting and break up your day with short bursts of movement.
5. Chew slowly
How you eat can be just as important as the contents of your meal. Slow down and chew your food properly. Digestion starts in the mouth and the chewing process starts to break down your food, mixing it with the enzymes in your saliva.
Slowing down is crucial for portion control. When you start to eat your body signals your brain that food is coming in, and as you continue to eat, signals tell the brain when you have eaten enough. It takes about 20 minutes from the start of a meal for the brain to register these signals. If you bolt through your meal you are in danger of over-eating before your brain has had a chance to tell you you’ve had enough.
Be mindful of how you feel during meals - eat until you are satisfied but not stuffed. Think of a scale of 1-10 where 10 is stuffed. Try to stop eating at number 8 – or what the Japanese call “Hara hachi bu” translated as ‘eat until 80% full.’
6. Limit alcohol
Alcohol can irritate your digestive system and drinking too much promotes inflammation. Even moderate drinking increases your risk of bowel and other cancers. If you are having problems with your gut you are best to avoid it.
If you choose to enjoy alcohol, be sure you do so in moderation. The Australian guidelines recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day for healthy men and women.
7. Manage stress
We all feel as though there are not enough hours in our days. We’ve become accustomed to a hectic pace of life, full schedules, city traffic, travel and deadlines. We are not built for such chronic stress!
Prolonged stress can wreak havoc on your body, and impact on your digestive system. The ‘fight or flight’ response results in decreased blood flow to your digestive muscles and reduced secretion of digestive enzymes. Stress can also result in gastrointestinal inflammation, constipation or diarrhoea.
Taking care of your emotional wellbeing is vital to keeping your stress levels in check. Build time for relaxation into your day, include exercise to release endorphins, and try meditation to practice deep breathing and calm your mind. Distraction is not relaxation, so put down the electronic devices!
8. Regular sleep
Sleep is really the missing link in good health and is only now being recognised for its importance. If you’re sleeping badly you are more likely to eat poorly, perhaps relying on sugary foods to pick up your energy levels through the day, and you are more likely to skip your exercise because you are tired. Most of us need 7-8 hours a night. While you might think you can function perfectly well on less, the research suggests otherwise. You are most unlikely to be functioning at your best.