There is a plethora of increasing evidence around the link between gut health and general health, and how poor gut health is an increasing problem across developed countries. A diet high in processed food and refined sugar, along with the stressful lives we live in the 21st century, are some of the factors that play a role negatively affecting our internal environment, the digestive system. Eating real, not processed food, low in refined sugar, helps maintain a healthy functioning digestive tract. The key elements of this being a balanced internal eco-system, good gut motility, efficient digestion of food and a strong immune system.
One role of the digestive system is digestion – to break down and convert the food we eat into substances that can be taken up and used by the cells, tissues and organs of the body. This involves food going through a series of transformations, and each part of the digestive system plays its own discreet role. If one part of the system isn’t functioning properly, this can affect function downstream or even upstream.
Read on for 6 nutritional tips for maintaining optimum function of the digestive system:
Tip 1: Eat a diet rich in zinc to support hydrochloric acid production in the stomach
Hydrochloric Acid (HCL) is produced by the cells lining the wall of the stomach. As a holding chamber for food, the stomach is a relatively acidic environment. The acidity of the environment is critical to the effectiveness of the first stage of protein digestion. Whilst indigestion is a common digestive symptom, often treated by reducing HCL production, symptoms of acid reflux are in fact often due to the ‘low’ production of HCL causing the ‘indigestion’. If we don’t get this first bit of digestion right, it can create significant bloating, gas, fermentation and inflammatory issues downstream.
HCL also plays a role in sterilising food, preventing pathogens entering the digestive system from food, so essential in protecting our health.
The nutrient zinc, supports HCL production and is one we often don’t get enough of if eating a diet low in real food.
Foods rich in zinc include: Eggs, Nuts, Seeds, Red Meat, Shellfish, Legumes, Dairy, Dark Chocolate.
Tip 2: Eat plenty of the amino acid ‘glutamine’ to support healthy cell renewal of the digestive wall
The lining of the intestine, is a vital protective barrier within our digestive tract. Many factors can affect the health and integrity of the this ‘gut wall’ – the most common being inflammation. Eating a diet high in processed food and sugar is like bombarding the digestive system with lots of foreign bodies. The body sees these as a potential threat, so it will create an inflammatory response to protect itself. Unfortunately the negative effect of this, especially if the bombardment is relentless, is that integrity of the gut wall becomes compromised – something known as ‘leaky gut’.
The best solution is to remove the cause and cut back on sugar, processed food, gluten and for some this might include dairy. In addition to this, eat plenty of glutamine rich foods. 30% of total glutamine is utilised by the intestine. Glutamine is needed by most of the body in relation to cell repair and renewal, but the intestine appears to be quite competitive and demanding in its need. As the cells of the intestinal wall replace every 4-5 days, and are at particular risk of inflammation, ingested glutamine plays a role in supporting healthy cell renewal.
Foods rich in glutamine: Any animal protein, fish and eggs, tofu, nuts, beans.
Tip 3: Eat a diet rich in pre-biotic and pro-biotic foods
The lower digestive tract is much more than an organ of elimination, it is also home to a diverse colony of beneficial bacteria. The balance of this colony, or ecosystem, is another key player in digestive health.
When the colony of bacteria within our digestive system is balanced, our gut and the beneficial bacteria live in harmony. But when balance tips, our gut can become a breeding ground for more harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
Prebiotic foods and probiotic foods, feed the beneficial bacteria, encouraging them to flourish. The good news is the bad bacteria cannot feed off these foods, so by eating prebiotic foods, we really are supporting a strong symbiotic community.
Asparagus is particularly a favourite of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli two of our most important bacteria.
Pre-biotic rich foods: Asparagus, Jerusalem Artichokes, Garlic, Onions, Leeks, Apples, Oats, Flaxseeds, Seaweed, Pure inner leaf Aloe Vera juice.
Tip 4: Eat plenty of vegetables to obtain adequate soluble and insoluble fibre
Believe it or not, we can get all the fibre we need from vegetables – they are a source of both insoluble AND soluble fibre.
Dietary fibre keeps things moving through the digestive tract, reducing the risk of bloating and constipation. It also helps supports a
healthy balance of microbiome, as well as supporting our bodies detoxification system. A healthy gut is one where bowel movements occur frequently and regularly.
Fibre rich foods: Most vegetables and fruits, chia seeds, flaxseeds, dates, beans, lentils and legumes.
Tip 5: Eat a diet rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids
As previously mentioned, many digestive issues and symptoms are due to inflammation and irritation of the digestive tract.
Omega 3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits so are recommended in any healthy diet to support many systems, including the digestive tract.
Omega 3 fatty acids are metabolically in-active though. To become active they need converting through several processes to create the active form – series 3 prostoglandins.
Oily fish, are the richest source of Omega 3 fatty acids available to us, as these are easily converted to the metabolically active form. There are some plant forms of Omega 3’s, however they are not very easily or efficiently converted, therefore don’t have the same powerful effect.
Plant Omega 3’s include: Chia, flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, brussel sprouts.
Other anti-inflammatory foods to include: ginger, turmeric, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pineapple so are a great regular addition to our diet.
Tip 6: Add ‘bitters’ and ‘carminatives’ to support healthy digestive function
Chicory, Watercress & Rocket fall into a group of foods called ‘bitters’. Bitters help stimulate digestive secretion. All the way along the digestive system, different compounds are released in different places, each playing a key role in food digestion. The break down of food, in the right way in the right place is important to the harmonious environment of the digestive tract.
Fennel is known to be a carminative, a herb or food source known for its digestive calming benefits such as relieving gas and bloating as well as relaxing the smooth muscle to prevent cramping and spasm. Eating raw foods, can make the digestive system work a little harder and is also a great way of feeding our beneficial bacteria. For some people, raw food may cause increase gas production and bloating though, so adding a food with calmative properties to a raw food meal, can go some way to negate the negative side effects of what ultimately is a very beneficial way of eating.
Other carminative foods include: Cardamon, Caraway Seeds and Mint
Like many aspects of health, digestive health improves the more we eat simple ‘real food’.
Processed, pre-packaged, ready meals, and high carb snacks simply doesn’t provide a nutritious nor harmonious environment for our digestive system to flourish.
And without an optimally functioning digestive system, our overall health is affected.
Look out for part 2 where we will be sharing 6 lifestyle tips to support a healthy digestive system.