Natural Gut Health and Your Digestive System
Do you find that you unbutton your pants when you sit down? Or - more often than not - opt for those super-comfy elastic waist jobbies because you feel bloated, or experience constant gas? Do you feel anxious if a bathroom isn’t close by because of your irritable bowel? Do you worry about feeling sick after eating something and struggle to identify what, exactly, you’re sensitive to - which makes you question everything?
I get it.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and have had various food sensitivities, immune reactions, and inflammatory symptoms. It’s exhausting dealing with uncomfortable digestive issues, and it can be a frustrating struggle to find the root causes.
What Causes Digestive Discomfort?
Having any kind of inflammatory condition or immune system dysfunction can feel confusing and overwhelming. But remember - you’re not alone! Digestive conditions are on the rise, and it’s becoming increasingly common for people to experience everything from food sensitivities or inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) to Celiac disease and related autoimmune conditions. In fact, in 2017 close to 1.5 million Canadians noted that they had a bowel disorder!1 There are many factors involved in poor digestion, but the most common are food quality, chemicals and food additives, environmental pollution, stress, and medications.2 Even if you don’t have digestive discomforts like gas, bloating, or irregular bowel movements, there are milder warning signs that digestion is impaired. If these are ignored, over time the muscle tissue in the gastrointestinal tract becomes inflamed and diseases can develop.
8 Symptoms of Digestive Disorder
This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are some of the more common indicators that your digestive system may be off-balance:
Gas and bloating
Heartburn, acid reflux
Hair loss, brittle nails, dry skin
Skin rashes or acne
Sore muscles and joints
Disrupted sleep/wake cycle
Seasonal and food allergies
Gut Health and Immune Health
Seventy to eighty percent of the immune system is within our digestive system, proof that immune system health begins with a healthy gut. A healthy gut isn’t just about having normal and frequent bowel movements - it’s also about healthy nutrient absorption. When the small bowel becomes inflamed, intestinal permeability occurs. This affects the mucosal layer in the digestive tract, which breaks down and loses its protective barrier. Toxins, chemicals, undigested food, and bacteria are then able to enter the bloodstream via the intestinal lining, creating inflammation, and alerting the immune system to initiate an attack. If the intestinal lining continues to break down and overstimulate the immune system, a variety of inflammatory reactions can occur.
Fortunately, an inflamed digestive tract can be resolved by reducing inflammation, replenishing good bacteria, controlling stress, and consuming high quality food.
Healthy Digestion: Feeding the Immune System
It’s no secret that our current conventional food production systems are problematic. Mass agricultural production is overworking the soil, depleting its vital nutrients, and relying on pesticides to ensure a harvest, the residue of which researchers are even finding in babies before they’re born. Further, our dependence on processed and packaged food to compensate for our busy lives comes at a cost: we’re eating chemicals and toxins, and being deprived of essential nutrients. As a result our immune systems become stressed, food sensitivities develop, infections and low immunity occur, and we feel uncomfortable and totally exhausted.
Taking the time to read food labels to find common ingredients that aggravate weak digestion, such as refined sugars and artificial flavours and colours is a simple way to make sure you’re avoiding the instigators, and getting the good stuff that’s closer to its natural form. If it sounds “scientificky”, don’t eat it! When adding foods to help support digestion, focus on mostly plant-based, good quality foods high in fibre to feed the good bacteria in the gut and help reduce digestion inflammation.
Bone broth, avocados, hummus, nuts and seeds, and coconut oil.
Chicken, turkey, salmon, trout, haddock, and eggs.
Fresh and fibre-rich foods
Raw fruits and vegetables and if tolerated, legumes and lentils, and nuts and seeds.
Ginger, garlic, coconut oil, and turmeric.
Tip: Soak raw lentils or legumes before cooking to break down the protective enzymes, making them easier to digest.
Probiotics and Supplements
Probiotics modulate harmful organisms in the gastrointestinal tract by providing antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. They help with the absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron, while reducing indigestion, gas, bloating, and irregular bowel movements.
But before you grab the nearest probiotic supplement, it’s important to know that not every probiotic supplement is created equally! Some have added starches and emulsifiers, sugars, and unnecessary filler that add more stress to digestion, defeating the purpose of beneficial bacteria. Always read labels before choosing a supplement, and talk to your healthcare provider first to help find the best strain for your particular situation.
Probiotic food sources can also be a great way to get more good bacteria goodness in your diet. Raw and unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, unsweetened coconut yogurt, and fermented tempeh or miso are tasty and simple additions. You don’t need much—even one tablespoon per meal can help support digestion.
Tip: Add probiotic food sources to meals high in protein or fat, as these require more digestion.
5 Ways to Maintain Gut-Life Balance
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day busyness of life and put our health second. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key to supporting our digestive health. Working long hours and not getting enough sleep or exercise can negatively impact our bodies and further aggravate already irritated systems.
When we experience any kind of stress, digestion is delayed because the body is busy focusing on reducing the stress load and doesn’t make digestion a priority. This in turn stresses our digestion, which disrupts normal functions, resulting in symptoms like gas, bloating, fatigue, poor memory, muscle and joint pain, low bone density, skin conditions, hormone imbalances, brittle nails, hair loss, vision and dental problems…the list goes on! Practicing active stress management and creating ways to reduce or eliminate stressors where possible will help give your body the space it needs to function.
Identify possible food sensitivities and learn how food makes you feel by keeping a “food and mood” journal. Once you find out what may correlate with your symptoms, stop feeding the fire and cut out the source.
Aim for small, frequent meals. Practice mindful eating and chew food thoroughly. Avoid drinking fluids with large meals and try not to eat late at night, when the body needs to rest more than digest!
Getting enough quality sleep encourages the body’s rest and digest function, allowing opportunity for repair.
Reduce the use of NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and aspirin, and antacids as they may irritate the stomach and intestines.
The body can only function normally for so long without developing inflammatory symptoms when stress and inflammation is constant. There is a solution to all imbalances and it starts with you. Pay attention to what may be contributing to your symptoms. Our bodies are incredible communicators, we just need to learn their language. Making changes can seem overwhelming and impossible to stick with, but when we focus on what we have to look forward to by practicing new eating and lifestyle habits—less pain and discomfort—it can help motivate us on our path to recovery.
Want to learn more? Check out more EcoParent, including Healthy Skin Comes From the Gut, How Gut Health and Behavioural Disorders are Connected, and Tips for a Happy and Healthy Immune System.
For references visit EcoParent.ca/TWF/SUM20.