The gastrointestinal system is often referred to by health professionals as the second brain, and for good reason. It directly affects our mood, sleep patterns, hormones, immune system, nervous system, and keeps the body in homeostasis. Digestion is responsible for breaking down food into nutrients, which our body uses for energy, growth and cell repair.
There are numerous ways we can help to keep our digestive function working optimally, which in turn will keep us happy, healthy and illness free.
“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates
It’s all in the mind
Our brain and gastrointestinal system are more in sync than you may realise. For instance, the very thought of food can cause our mouth to water and our stomach to secrete digestive juices. So of course, it makes sense that a stressed mind can also affect the gut in unfavourable ways.
When the body is in a stressed state, blood flow and oxygen to the stomach are reduced, which can inhibit one of the most important stages of digestion. Stress can also cause cramping, inflammation and imbalances within gut bacteria. Longterm, this dysfunction in the intestinal barrier can lead to more serious issues like food intolerances, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. Including stress management techniques into your weekly routine is essential for great gut health, such as exercise, meditation and deep, restful sleep.
You are what you eat
Food is one of the most influential factors when it comes to gut health. We have our own wonderful little ecosystem living inside our digestive tract full of trillions of bacteria, that is very good at keeping itself in balance. However, what we choose to eat can either nourish and support, or disrupt this balance. Certain foods, ingredients and preservatives can cause inflammation within the lining of our gut, which can lead to bloating, poor digestion, inadequate nutrient assimilation and gastric distress. As our bodies are all so beautifully different, unfortunately there is no definitive list of foods to avoid that will be right for everyone.
As a general guide, opt for food that is in its purest form, the less processed the better if possible. Diets high in sugar, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, preservatives, trans fats and dairy (for some), can all contribute to gastric distress. Like all things in life, it’s all about balance.
Amongst the numerous other benefits of including bone broth in your diet, it is a powerhouse at healing the gut. It has been documented that bone broth was consumed by our ancestors as far back as 2500 years ago, so it makes sense to bring forth this precious ancient wisdom into our modern lives and reap the benefits. Bone broth contains the building blocks that our gut needs to reduce inflammation, heal and seal our digestive tract lining.
Nurture your ecosystem
Nourishing the bacteria in your gut is essential to having great gut health. By including fermented foods in your diet, this will help to balance and populate your gut flora, keeping your digestive functions in check. Fermented products like kefir, kombucha, yogurt and sauerkraut will all keep your tummy happy. If you’re having trouble regularly including fermented foods in your diet, a high quality multi-strain probiotic from your local health food store or pharmacy will be sufficient. Now that you have populated your gut with great bacteria, you will need to ensure that you’re eating foods to “feed” them, also known as a prebiotic. Prebiotics are present in all fibre-rich foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Herbal tea can have fantastic benefits for the gastrointestinal system, soothing ulcers and inflammation, reducing bloating, assisting with constipation and reflux.
Be sure to reach for a tea that is organic and free of artificial sweeteners or added flavours.
Our herbal heroes for the digestive system are peppermint, spearmint, ginger, fennel, dandelion and marshmallow root.
Hydration is key
Staying adequately hydrated seems so simple, but in fact it can have a considerable impact on the digestive system. Water promotes regular bowel movements and helps to keep everything moving through regularly. Being dehydrated and not drinking enough water can cause your body to pull water from the stool matter to compensate for fluid loss, leaving your tummy feeling quite uncomfortable and bloated as the firmer stool passes through. Your body also needs water to produce stomach acid, which can lead to poor digestion if not adequate.
Eat slowly and mindfully
Most people don’t realise that digestion actually begins in the mouth. Your saliva is full of digestive enzymes, which begin the process of breaking down food. Eating quickly causes you to chew less, putting more pressure on your gut to pick up the slack. We want to extract and absorb as much nutrition from our food as possible, so chewing your food thoroughly is giving you a head start. Eat slowly and savour your meals, your tummy will thank you for it.
Try intermittent fasting
We now know that WHAT we eat can significantly impact our gut health, but did you know that WHEN we eat can have an affect too? Digesting food is no easy task, and it surprisingly takes up a considerable amount of energy. If you’re eating around the clock, your digestive system is constantly being worked and doesn’t get adequate time to repair and rest. Studies have continually shown that time restricted eating on a regular basis can have great effects on gut health and inflammation markers. If you can manage, an 8-10 hour window of eating per day is ideal, giving your body 14+ hours to rest and restore. Intermittent fasting is not for everyone, so it is always best to consult your chosen health professional to see if this is right for you.
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