I’m pretty sure you’ve experienced digestive problems at some point in your life. In fact, I see many clients who frequently complain of stomach pain, flatulence and constipation, feelings of fullness and bloating, reflux, heartburn… you name it! Poor lifestyle choices such as:
- An unhealthy diet (with too much salt, fat and processed foods)
- Lack of exercise
- Chronic medication
- Too little sleep
…are just some of the main culprits behind digestive or gut problems. But the good news is, there’s a lot you can do to take better care of your gut and feel better all-round.
But first, I want to discuss a little more about why the gut is so important for overall health and well-being and why I focus on it so much when I meet with clients for consultations.
Why is the digestive system so important?
The gut (digestive system) is made of a complex network of organs which work together to ensure that we absorb the right vitamins, minerals and nutrients from food. The digestive system also helps to eliminate waste and toxins from the body and regulate key hormones such as serotonin – which is our mood regulating hormone. Our health and well-being, therefore, depend on maintaining the critical balance between good and harmful intestinal bacteria in the digestive system.
According to Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Centre in New York, this system also acts as a type of switchboard or communication centre to and from the brain, and functions as one of the body’s frontlines in the fight against disease.
The link between the gut and immune system
The health of the gut and immune system are intricately linked. An unhealthy gut significantly increases the risk of many diseases, such as:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Bacterial overgrowth
- Colds and flu
- Chronic fatigue
Common signs of an unhealthy gut include:
- Constant flatulence
- Constant bloating
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Sugar and carbohydrate cravings
- Skin problems
- Chronic joint pain
- Frequent illness
- Depression or other mood imbalances
While genetics and your age do play a role in how well your gut functions, there are also 6 key things you can do to improve your gut health and promote better digestion:
1. Watch what and how you eat
A diet high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and food additives isn’t going to do your digestive system any favours. It’s important to eat a nutrient-rich diet to promote healthier digestion. A high-fibre diet is also key to a healthy gut.
Soluble fibre assists with water absorption and makes sure everything is moving along in your digestive tract. Lots of fibre promotes regular bowel movements and better gut health, overall.
Great sources of fibre include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
- Wheat bran
- Fruits with skins
Healthy fats also promote good digestion. They not only make you feel satisfied after a meal, but are also needed to reduce gut inflammation and help your body absorb foods better. Beneficial omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, nuts and fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
If you want to improve your digestion, it’s also helpful to know that foods digest at different rates. If you have digestive issues, one of the worst things to include in your diet is red meat. This is because it’s the slowest food to digest, so it sits in the gut, fermenting for up to 8 hours.
Because meat takes so long to move through the digestive tract, any foods eaten afterwards are unable to bypass it, leading to bloating, flatulence and cramps. Therefore, it’s a good idea to eat your fruits and vegetables first, because they don’t take too long to digest.
2. Practice mindful eating
A healthy gut is not only dependent on what you eat, but also on how you eat. Mindful eating has been proven to promote better digestion and weight loss. When you eat, try to pay full attention to all aspects of your meal, as well as the process of eating it. It’s easy to feel bloated and uncomfortable if you eat too much too quickly, so try to kick this habit.
It’s also important to chew your food properly as this is the first phase of digestion, and the only part that you consciously do. Mastication and salivary amylase help food to be broken down in your mouth before it reaches your stomach. Chewing thoroughly can, therefore, do your digestive system a huge favour and can also prevent indigestion and heartburn.
To practice mindful eating:
- Eat slowly and chew thoroughly
- Eliminate distractions like your phone or the TV during mealtimes
- Pay attention to your food’s taste, appearance, texture and smell
- Learn to recognise physical hunger and fullness by listening to your body
3. Stay active
Regular exercise, and the gravity involved with it, helps food travel through the digestive system. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise helps to increase gut transit time as well as improve symptoms of constipation.
When it comes to the best exercise for digestion, rebounding wins hands down. Why? The act of bouncing on a mini trampoline enhances digestion and elimination by reducing bloating and clearing toxins in your body.
It also curbs emotional eating, which has been proven to inhibit optimal gut health, by regulating your mood. Rebounding on a regular basis is an excellent “treatment” for people who suffer from gastrointestinal discomfort.
Rebounding also assists with the peristaltic movement of digestion. This is because it’s the only exercise where everything in your body, including your organs expands and contracts with every bounce, with zero impact.
4. Reduce stress
Stress has the potential to wreak havoc on your digestive system. The brain is intricately connected to the gut, so what affects your brain emotionally can also impact your digestion. When your body’s fight-or-flight response is activated, it doesn’t prioritise digestion, and actually diverts blood and energy away from your gut.
Try these stress management techniques to improve your digestion and overall mental state:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- Deep belly breathing
- Practicing mindfulness and gratitude
5. Stay hydrated
Because so much of our stool consists of water, low fluid intake is a common cause of constipation. Your daily intake of water should equate to a minimum of one glass of water per 10 kg of your body weight.
If you exercise strenuously or live in a hot climate, it’s especially important to avoid dehydration to maintain healthy digestion.
You can also try to meet your recommended daily fluid-intake by “eating” your water. There are many foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, which are high in water and fibre and, thus, excellent for digestion. I like to drink a big glass of veggie juice each day, which contains lots of fibre and also lots of water.
Fruits and vegetables with high water content include:
Herbal tea can also add to your daily water quota because it doesn’t have the qualities of regular tea or coffee, which have a dehydrating effect due to their caffeine content.
6. Ditch bad habits
Bad habits, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and late-night eating aren’t ideal for your digestion or overall health. Smoking nearly doubles your risk of developing acid reflux and has been associated with stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal cancer and ulcerative colitis.
Alcohol also increases your stomach’s acid production, which can also lead to acid reflux, stomach ulcers and heartburn. Excessive consumption of alcohol has also been associated with bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. Reduced alcohol consumption may also help your digestion because it can reduce your risk to inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut and harmful gut bacteria.
Eating late at night not only contributes to insomnia but can also lead to heartburn and indigestion. Your body needs time to digest your food before you go to sleep. Lying down too soon after eating inhibits the gravity that helps your food move in the right direction for digestion.
This is also why when you lie down, the contents of your stomach may rise and cause heartburn. If possible, avoid eating 3 to 4 hours before going to bed.