Digestive health says a lot about your overall health. If you’re always feeling sluggish or have low energy, if you’re having trouble losing weight or getting in shape your stools can give you some valuable insight.
“Heal the gut and you heal yourself.” – Gerard E. Mullin, MD
How do you know if you’re absorbing the nutrients from the food that you’re eating? Look to your stools.
Your gut’s purpose is to allow the nutrients from the food we eat and water we drink to be absorbed. It also keeps the toxins and antigens out. If your system isn’t functioning properly you will see it in our energy levels or lack thereof, hunger and cravings, brain fog. Whether you can lose weight or can’t gain weight can be factors too.
Your gut health matters and when you have a healthy gut you can start having a healthy body.
In this article, we’re going to talk about how you can improve your gut health. I’ll go over foods that you should make sure you are incorporating into your daily menu for optimal digestion.
Check out the Bristol stool scale from Precision Nutrition…
Too much on either end of the spectrum and you aren’t going to be absorbing your food as much as you need for optimal health. If your digestive system is off and you aren’t absorbing the nutrients you are going to be tired and sluggish, lacking in energy. You’ll also be deficient in the nutrients that your body needs to function.
Precision Nutrition has a great article that goes into detail. You can read more here.
Gut Health is really important when it comes to your moods, energy, performance, sleep, etc… Take some time to think about this: are you sleeping well? Do you find you are slow and sluggish throughout the day? Are you dealing with feelings of depression? If so, you may want to take a closer look at ways to improve your gut health.
I still remember when I first started making healthier eating choices. I started cutting out processed foods like cookies, sauce mixes and packaged side dishes like pasta or rice. I replaced them with more vegetables, whole grains, and minimally processed meats. I thought that was all I needed to do and I was going to lose the weight and finally be healthy… or so I thought.
I began getting bloated and gassy – in the morning. I had a flat stomach, and by the afternoon I looked like I was 7 months pregnant. My digestion was either so slow or way too fast for comfort. My doctor said I needed more fiber in my diet and thought, ‘What!?’ I eat vegetables and fruits all day long. That’s fiber isn’t it? It was then I realized there was a lot more to learn and a lot of things to be mindful of.
Food can heal you, but only if you are eating the right ones and like everything else, you need to be consistent.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
For optimal digestive health you need to have enough soluble and insoluble fiber. You need digestive enzymes, prebiotics, and probiotics. Ideally, You are getting those things from the foods we eat. You can use supplements but remember they are meant ‘supplement’ your diet. They should not be the first course of action. (Supplements should be a short term aid as you correct the underlying issue. Or as you adjust your daily routine to get your requirements through food).
Soluble and Insoluble fiber
Soluble fibre is a polysaccharide that is soluble in water and found in plants such as psyllium and pectin. This type of fibre undergoes metabolic processing within the body to enhance bowel health. (You know all those commercials for fibre supplements that always mention psyllium fibre to help keep you regular and, as a result, keep your body functioning properly? Now you know why!)
Foods include – oats and oat bran, nuts, barley, flax, dried beans and peas; fruits such as oranges, bananas and apples and tomatoes, and vegetables like carrots and artichokes.
Insoluble fibre is a polysaccharide that is also found in plants but isn’t soluble in water (such as wheat bran and nuts). This type of fibre increases the bulk of our stools and enhances the transit time for waste to exit the body, making it easier and quicker for our bodies to discard the waste it doesn’t need. Insoluble fibre is mainly found in structures that make up the rigid cell walls of certain plants.
Foods include – the skins of fruits and root vegetables, whole-grains, seeds and nuts, green beans, beets, and dark green, leafy vegetables.
How Much Do I Need?
Men between the ages of 19-50 should get about 38 grams of fibre per day; this amount lowers slightly to 30 grams for men 50 or older. Women between 19-50 should consume at least 25 grams, and women over the age of 50 should get 21 grams. A great target is 15g of fiber per 1000 calories of food eaten in a day and that will be more specific to your specific needs.
Naturally occurring digestive enzymes help break down our food into a simpler form so our body is better able to absorb them. Our body produces enzymes in the pancreas, mouth, and stomach with the majority coming from our pancreas, which floods the small intestine when the food arrives.
There are 3 main types of digestive enzymes…
- Proteases: Break down protein into small peptides and amino acids
- Amylases: Break down carbs like starch into simple sugars
- Lipases: Break down fat into three fatty acids plus a glycerol molecule
Once nutrients are broken into small enough molecules, they are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine into the blood and then delivered throughout the body.
Proteases Food Sources
Amylases food sources
Lipase is produced in the pancreas, mouth, and stomach. Most people produce enough pancreatic lipase, but people with cystic fibrosis, Crohn disease, and celiac disease may not have enough lipase to get the nutrition they need from food.
Along with lipase, the pancreas secretes insulin and glucagon, two hormones the body needs to break down sugar in the bloodstream. Other pancreatic enzymes include amylase, which breaks down a certain starch into its sugar building blocks, and protease, which breaks down protein into single amino acids.
Prebiotic agents act like fertilizers for colonic microbiota and enhance the growth of beneficial organisms. Fructo-oligosaccharides are prebiotic agents that are fermented by a number of colonic bacteria to modulate the growth of the beneficial bacteria, called bifidobacteria. Without a supply of prebiotics, the levels of bifidobacteria—which take a couple of days to reach optimal levels—will drop quickly. The use of a probiotic with prebiotics increases the ability of the body to absorb the nutrients and any supplements you may be taking.
- Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)
- Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
- Polyols like lactulose and lactitol
Foods you can get those are
- Honey and agave
Most often, probiotics are created by fermentation. Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid, acetic acid and preservatives that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.
Aim for one-two servings of probiotic-rich foods each day if you’re healthy. If you think you need a little more, see how your body reacts with two to three servings per day. But make sure you give your body time to adjust. When you first start taking them you may feel worse before you feel better as the bacteria releases toxins.
Probiotics are friendly bacteria
Common fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, Kiefer, Tempe, kombucha, yogurt, and miso.
Not all fermented foods are created equal
Fermented foods give your body beneficial probiotics. They use natural processes and contain probiotics. Live cultures exist in yogurt and a yogurt-like drink called kefir. You’ll also find them in Korean pickled vegetables called kimchi. Plus, you can get them from sauerkraut, and in some pickles. Pickles you can buy at the supermarket are sometimes pickled using vinegar. This is instead of the natural fermentation process using live organisms. This means they don’t contain probiotics.
To ensure the fermented foods you choose do contain probiotics, look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label. When you open the jar look for telltale bubbles in the liquid, which signal that live organisms are inside the jar, says Dr. Ludwig.
Your gut health is key to your overall health. Over 70% of your immune system is based in your gut – so you can imagine why it’s so important to maintain it. So, take a little extra care for the types of foods you eat and learn to be mindful of stool indicators. This way, you can quickly learn how to ensure you have optimal gut health, so you can live your best life.
Enjoying a variety of fruits and vegetables for the prebiotics and enzymes, along with fermented foods and beverages for the probiotics, and you are getting lots of fiber, phytonutrients, and vitamins… All things your body needs to function optimally.
Eat a variety throughout the day as part of your breakfast, in smoothies, compliment your meal as a garnish or topping and you can improve gut health.
Food can heal so much but we need to change how we look at it. Is the packaged food really that much more convienent that it’s worth the consequences of what it does to our bodies? Aim for more fresh choices and less packaged ones and find yourself feeling better.