Due to the role that the digestive system plays in absorbing and making nutrients, as well as preventing the absorption of toxins, the effects of a poorly functioning gut are widespread. As such, correcting poor digestive function holds the key to addressing a huge range of common health complaints. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stated that ‘all disease starts in the gut’. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost sight of this wisdom. I believe you are not only what you eat…but also most importantly, what you absorb.
Have you ever felt that you have a great diet, but don’t feel quite on top of your health? Perhaps you have obvious symptoms of poor digestion – indigestion, reflux, constipation, diarrhoea, wind, abdominal bloating. Or less obvious signs and symptoms like headaches, poor energy levels, frequent colds or infection, an autoimmune disease, dark circles under your eyes, anaemia, allergies, skin problems, hormonal imbalance, joint pain or poor mood and concentration. Maybe you are intolerant to certain foods? These are all indicative that your digestion system may need support.
Whilst consuming a nourishing diet greatly contributes to good digestion, health, and well-being, your ability to make the most of the nutrients available is solely dependent upon the proper functioning of your gut. As a Naturopath, I inevitably found myself starting with digestion when treating many health issues. This is because ensuring proper digestive function is the foundation for not only restoring, but maintaining good health and well-being. I like to use the analogy of building a house. If you start building walls without setting good, strong foundations, the house may stay upright and appear to be in good shape for a while, but it will eventually collapse. When treating a person holistically, assisting the gut is often the first step to lasting health.
OK, I’m taking my Naturopathic cap off at this point. If you suspect that your digestive system is under performing (or retired altogether), then I urge you to seek the help of a good Naturopath. There are many aspects of digestion and stimulating it to do its job, and do it well, is an acquired skill!
However, there are many simple and highly effective things you can do to nurture and maintain good digestive function.
To begin with, you need to become aware of the many everyday stressors to proper digestion. These include –
• Antacids – are devastating to digestive function. Whilst they are able to temporarily ease symptoms, they do nothing to treat the cause of the problem. In fact, most antacids include a disclaimer on their packaging to limit the duration of their use, and with good reason. You see in order to absorb essential vitamins, minerals and proteins needed for good health, an acidic environment is necessary. There is much research linking antacid use and the development of nutritional deficiency, various illnesses, and allergies. They are not harmless medications and their use at best should be strictly limited.
• Antibiotics – need to be used only when absolutely required and always need to be followed by a good quality probiotic (yoghurt just isn’t enough to completely restore the gut flora). All probiotics are not created equal, so only buy the best quality supplement (and remember to always keep it refrigerated). Also, be very cautious of exposure to antibiotics in our food chain (of which we are at the top)…another good reason to investigate the meats you are ingesting. For more information on antibiotic use in our meat production see here.
• Ingesting essential oils – unless doing so under the care of a Naturopath or Aromatherapist, ingesting oils (even via mouthwash) is currently one of the most common causes of gut issues (and related illness) according to colleagues in clinical practice. I have heard of cases of severe debilitation and hospitalisation as a result so please beware.
• Chemical exposure – our gut is exposed to a cocktail of chemicals each and every day (in our diet and environment), which is all the more reason to ensure it is able to adequately deal with them.
• Stress – ‘butterflies in our tummies’ demonstrates perfectly the impact stress has on our digestion. With more nerve endings than the brain, the gut is extremely reactive to stress. It also plays an important role in the functioning of the brain. So if you are suffering from mood disorders, do not ignore your gut.
• Overeating – jut think of how you feel if you over eat? Not great, need I say more? Overeating is no good.
• Others – Processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, many medications (especially pain medications and worming tablets) and poor dietary variety are all gastric irritants.
Solutions, well thankfully there are many…
• Chew your food well…how simple can this get? Digestion begins with proper mastication (chewing that is)! Take your time and chew your food well to really ease the load on your stomach which receives the contents of every mouthful. Always sit down to eat, and try putting your cutlery down between mouthfuls and chew, chew, chew.
• Avoid liquids with or around meal time. You need all of your digestive acids and enzymes at full strength and not watered down when you eat. If they are diluted, they cannot efficiently perform the important task of breaking down food.
• Apple cider vinegar (about 3ml) in a couple of ml’s of water prior to meals helps to support acid production and good gut flora. I also love vinegar in dressings and as part of tomato based sauces.
• Bone broths are amazingly nourishing and provide many nutrients that are very healing and repairing to the gut.
• Variety – have lots of variety in your diet and avoid irritant foods.
• Eat S.L.O.W (seasonal, local, organic and whole) foods to make the most of every mouthful and reduce the chemical load on your gut. Fruit and especially vegetables are by far the most nutrient-dense forms of fibre, which provides the best environment for your gut flora to flourish.
• Soak grains and nuts where possible. They are much easier to digest and more nutrients are available when they are soaked. Activating or sprouting nuts and grain is preferable.
• Moderate your wheat intake. As a child, did you ever make glue from flour and water? Flour is very adhesive and can be very irritating to the gut. For more about grains and how to incorporate a variety of grains in your diet see here.
• Slippery elm powder is a very safe, healing and protective herb that can be included in the diet of anyone with any form of gastric irritation. It also benefits the growth and maintenance of good gut flora.
• Herbs like ginger, cinnamon and turmeric are very anti-inflammatory and healing to the gut. Consume them in foods or as a tea. Peppermint, fennel, lemon balm and chamomile tea also support digestion.
• Coconut oil is a rich source of medium chain fatty acids and extremely healing and anti-inflammatory to the gut.
• Natural yogurt (not flavoured or vanilla) or kefir yogurt helps to maintain (but not replenish) beneficial gut flora. For more on yogurt and clever ways to eat it, click here. For more on lacto-fermentation and how important it is for your health, click here.
• Probiotics – beneficial bacteria ingested either in fermented foods or in supplements – have been shown to calm the immune system and reduce inflammation; shorten the duration and severity of colds in children; relieve diarrhoea and irritable bowel syndrome; reduce allergic responses; stimulate the immune response; possibly reduce the risk of certain cancers; and improve the health and function of the gut’. Read more here. Note – only ever buy good quality probiotics (always found in a refrigerator, not on a supermarket shelf). It is best to consult your health care professional to determine the best strains for you.
• Relax, exercise gently, sleep well and be kind to yourself.
Don’t take it for granted that your digestive system is able to function unsupported. Nourish your gut daily and stand by tomorrow for a recipe for the most ‘super’ food of all. Your body will LOVE you for it.
If you suffer from food intolerance then you may like to read this post, click here.
For two ABC catalyst reports on the promising science behind the importance of gut health, click here.