Gut health has become a widely popular topic in the field of health and nutrition the past decade, and honestly, it's about time. Your gut houses 70% of your body's immune cells, produces 95% of its serotonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, mood, sleep, etc), and acts as its own brain. Like, what? That means it's probably super important that we take extra good care of our gut every single day. We've been told for years that fiber is the way to keep our gut healthy - and that's extremely true - but there are so many other key components to keeping your gut healthy and everything running smoothly. Anyone here enjoy feeling moody, bloated, constipated, or gassy? Yeah, me neither. So the next time you're feeling grumpy and grumbly, try incorporating these steps into your daily routine to omit the next bout of gut dismay!
1. Eat your probiotics and prebiotics
Some of you reading this may already be taking a daily probiotic - and that's fantastic! But it is so important to incorporate whole foods into each meal that contain both probiotics, which are the good bacteria that make up your microbiome, and prebiotics, the food that feeds that good bacteria. It's all about diversity. By eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and high quality cultured dairy (I'm not talking shredded taco cheese), you automatically help your gut receive tons of wonderfully beneficial bacteria that can improve your immune system, mood, energy levels, and even combat tons of common diseases. Some examples of foods loaded with probiotics include kombucha (I'm drinking GT's Kombucha as we speak), organic and grass-fed plain yogurt, kefir, tempeh (fermented soy), miso, kimchi, raw apple cider vinegar, saurkraut, and even pickles! (Please, not the kind with gross preservatives and coloring added).
Because probiotics are technically living microorganisms, they need food just like any other living thing. That's where prebiotics come in. In a nutshell, prebiotics are a type of undigestible plant fiber, so you can bet that when you're eating high fiber fruits and veggies, you're most likely getting lots of these good guys! They pass undigested through your intestine and are then consumed as fuel by the good bacteria in your body. This is why getting both, not just probiotics, is so essential. Where can you find the densest sources of prebiotics? Raw and cooked onion, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, slightly underripe bananas, scallions, sprouted whole grains, soy beans, carrots, and asparagus are a few that many people already have in the fridge and pantry.
The types of microbes that make up your gut influence your health in so many ways, including how your body absorbs vitamins and minerals, the speed of your metabolism, rates of inflammation in the body, and even the acne on your skin. Do your best to incorporate these foods into your meals every day to help your gut bacteria flourish!
2. Get. Moving.
Ever wonder why after your lunch break you feel like you have a solid lump in your stomach while sitting at your desk? It's simple. When you're hunched over, sedentary, and are only moving your fingers to type on the computer, there's not much blood flowing towards your gut for optimal digestion of your meal - this is because your abdomen is legitimately suppressed while in a seated position, and that physical compression of your intestines has a real affect on how your food moves through the body. When your digestion suffers, it can leave you feeling bloated with a distended stomach for the rest of the day, which can then leave you feeling sluggish, tired, and wanting to avoid any form of exercise.
Do your best to make little movements throughout the day, whether it's getting off your butt to walk to the water fountain or coffee station, taking the stairs as opposed to the elevator, or a quick 10-15 minute walk during your lunch break. Regardless of whether you work at a desk from 9-5 each day, make sure to incorporate some extra movements throughout the day. Even if it's just standing up for a few minutes to stretch your limbs and jump up and down a little bit, that will increase the blood flow through your body and get things moving accordingly.
Exercise has been proven to alter the bacteria in your gut (in a good way!)
3. Chew with intention
There's plenty days in the week where I'm quickly shoveling breakfast in my mouth while running out the door. My bites are huge, not well chewed, and I'm swallowing just as much air as I am food. What I typically end up with is an upset stomach that's bloated and crampy. Why? Because I legitimately didn't chew well enough. This can happen anytime you're distracted while eating a meal, whether you're on your phone, watching tv, or even eating out with friends. Digestion begins immediately in the mouth with your saliva which contains digestive enzymes - such as amylase and lipase - to help initiate the process of breaking down food molecules. The longer you chew, the more time these enzymes have to break down your food, thus lifting the stress off of your small and large intestine if large pieces of food were to travel through them.
When you begin to chew, it signals your body to continue the digestive process by telling the stomach to produce stomach acid and the pancreas to release its contents into the small intestine. The digestive enzymes and stomach acid only work on the outside of food fragments, therefore if we have large food particles passing through the intestine having not been appropriately broken down, the enzymes and acid will only be able to do so much. You probably know that proteins are made up of amino acids, and carbohydrates are converted to glucose for energy. If we don't sufficiently begin the breakdown of these important macronutrients starting in our mouths, then we ultimately create a barrier to the digestion and storage of those nutrients. And don't we want to soak up every bit of those cancer fighting, antioxidant housing, hydrating fruits and veggies?
Take your time with your meals. And if you're in a rush, try and wait until you're in a more mindful, relaxed state to begin your meal or eat a snack. As you chew, tune into the process of liquefying your food before swallowing. I promise your belly will thank you.
4. Do your best to de-stress
Ever eat a meal or snack while feeling angry, stressed, and worked up? Notice how your stomach isn't exactly pumped about it? When your body has increased levels of cortisol, the hormone released during times of stress, it enables fight or flight mode. During this mode your body optimizes blood flow to the heart and body muscles to provide the energy to react and make quick decisions. Thus, very little blood flow and energy is directed towards your digestion, making the motility of food through your digestive system almost non-existent. When you feel yourself getting flustered and stressed out, put eating a big meal on the back burner. Eating while stressed not only leads to digestive disruptions, but also poor food choices. Fatty and sugary foods give us an instant source of pleasure and comfort, which is why we tend to seek these foods when sad, angry, or stressed out. Take a step back to consider your options the next time you find your emotions are out of whack. Instead of reaching for a big comforting meal, take a few minutes to reflect on what could have possibly triggered your stressful reaction.
We all know that stress can impact our bodies negatively. It can lead to some sleepless nights, bouts of acne, and major crankiness. But did you know that stress can actually alter the diversity and population of bacteria in your gut as well? Both acute and chronic stress can cause changes to the gut by increasing susceptibility to leaky gut, IBS, as well as diarrhea and constipation. Almost all of our serotonin is created in the gut, therefore it's no surprise that studies have shown that gut health is linked to certain cases of depression. Taking steps to de-stress is definitely easier said than done, however it's important to be aware of the effects it can have on our bodies, especially in the long term.
5. Hands off the artificial sweetener
It's not unknown that artificial sugars are actually worse for you than real sugar. I used to be someone that had to have a Diet Coke every single day... I was addicted! I didn't care that it had crap that could clear pipe drains in it, I just liked that it tasted good, contained caffeine, and had zero calories. People assume that because sweeteners such as Splenda have no real sugar, they must be harmless. In reality, that is definitely NOT the case.
Splenda, the most commonly used artificial sweetener, is made up of sucralose. Sucralose is a derivative of sugar that passes through your system mostly undigested, therefore it is considered noncaloric. While the detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners have been discussed for years and still remain somewhat controversial, there are current studies that show the negative effects of sucralose on the microbiome. In this study, researchers observed the gut microbiota of mice that were fed sucralose treated water. What they discovered was that not only did sucralose alter the bacteria in the mice compared to the control, but that pro-inflammatory metabolites were increased, and anti-inflammatory metabolites were decreased. This was all over a 6 month period... where as many people have been consuming packets on packets of Splenda for years. What does that mean? Well when your gut experiences chronic inflammation, it can lead to a variety of diseases in the long run such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, and obesity to name a few. Sounds like a not so fun future spent in the doctor's office to me.
This is just one example of how artificial sweetener can mess with your gut (and many other parts of the body if we're being real). Does that mean we should be dousing our foods with regular sugar? Definitely not. But I highly suggest that if you drink coffee every day with artificial sweetener, look to weening off of it little by little. Your taste buds have to adjust to the fact that you've been feeding it a "sugar" that is 6 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose). On the sweetness scale, sucrose rates at 100 while sucralose rates at 600. No wonder people are addicted!!
The moral of the story is, show your gut some love. Your health is directly related to your gut: your immunity, mood, metabolism, etc. These steps will benefit you even if you don't currently experience noticeable digestive problems - trust me (and the science to back it up). Your future self will thank you. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think it's better to see clearly now, rather than later