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Poor digestion affects 60-70 million people daily, whether due to serious digestive disorders, stress, dietary choices, health issues, or a mixture of all of the above. Digestive issues can be hard to diagnose because many of the same symptoms occur in different gastrointestinal disorders. Some people may deal with IBS, Crohn’s, a food intolerance, hormone disruptions, chronic stress, may not get enough exercise, or maybe eating an unhealthy diet. Ongoing health issues, supplements, or even prescription drugs can also cause digestive upset. It is also common for many women to experience digestive upset during their menstrual cycle when hormones fluctuate, which directly affects digestion as a result.
Why Our Digestive Health is So Important
Though diagnosing a serious digestive disorder or dealing with the cause of minor general digestive problems can be tough, we should strive to maintain a healthy gut however possible. The digestive tract is referred to as our “second brain” due to the way approximately 70-80 percent of our nerves run through the digestive system. This is largely why stress-related issues can upset a person’s stomach, or lead to stress-related IBS. We should also consider how the good bacteria in our digestive system affects our immunity and brain health as well.
Serotonin (one of the body’s feel-good hormones) is produced in our digestive tracts, but only if our digestive tracts are well-taken care of. This is one reason when our digestive system isn’t working at top-notch, our mood usually suffers. It’s also one reason people who suffer depression usually have accompanying digestive issues or poor appetites. Probiotics are being studied for their ability to raise serotonin, largely because of the way they improve a person’s digestive health and in turn, improve mood/brain health as a result. A healthy amount of good bacteria in our bodies also helps us maintain a strong immune system. Why? Because our immune systems are also mostly found within the gastrointestinal tract. This makes optimizing beneficial bacteria in the digestive system (referred to as our microbiome) incredibly important. But probiotics are not the only part of the puzzle, even though they do play a major role.
A 5 Step Protocol for a Healthier Gut
The following five steps will help you eliminate causes, learn to eat beneficial foods for your digestion, and practice lifestyle tips that help build and maintain a healthy gut when practiced on a consistent basis over a period of time. Remember that this protocol may not be an overnight fix, but is the healthiest way to take care of your digestive system for the long haul instead of just treating it with over-the-counter drugs that only cover up the symptoms.
1. Remove the Possible Offenders
First, before you can start to rebuild and maintain a healthy gut, you have to remove what could potentially be causing the trouble (or contributing to a digestive disorder). Some common foods that many people have problems digesting are gluten, eggs, yeast (such as bread, alcohol, or brewer’s yeast), dairy, genetically modified soy or soy isolates, corn, peanuts or even grains. Does this mean you need to give up peanut butter and corn on the cob? No. It simply means you should consider some of the more common offenders first to see if your symptoms are food-related. This can help you narrow down what is causing the irritation and inflammation if a food allergy or intolerance is the root cause. It’s also important to remember that processed foods and sugar both deplete your good bacteria. Removing them are a good measure for all forms of health, especially for digestion and your mood.
2. Replace With Healthy Foods
After you remove potential inflammatory foods, processed foods, and refined sugar, you should be sure to fill your kitchen up with foods that heal and sustain you without making your stomach hurt in the meantime. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, easy to digest grains if you tolerate them (gluten-free oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth, teff), and healthy fats from avocados, chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin seeds, almonds, raw coconut, and walnuts (or raw nut butter). These foods will reduce inflammation, support your hormones that affect digestion, and are relatively easy to digest for most people. If you need a sweetener for your meals, the lowest sugar or more natural sources are liquid or pure stevia (no sugar), yacon syrup, coconut nectar, or maple syrup. It’s best to use minimal sweeteners aside from fruit, but these are some better options than some other options with fewer nutrients, more sugar, or artificial ingredients. Herbs and spices, certain teas and essential oils can also all help tremendously.
3. Innoculate Good Bacteria
Most people think they need dairy to build a healthy digestive system because many dairy products like yogurt and kefir contain probiotics. While those are good sources, they aren’t the only option. Since dairy can cause digestive upset, it’s better to choose some plant-based sources. Options include coconut yogurt (choose one without added sugar or make your own), miso (choose a brand not made with yeast or sugar), sauerkraut or kimchi (fermented veggies), and vegan probiotic supplements. Food and supplement forms of probiotics should lessen bloating, gas, irregularity, digestive-related stress, and indigestion during meals. Consume these daily or multiple times a day with your meals. Many plant-based foods are also good sources of prebiotics, which will feed good bacteria to improve your digestive system even further.
4. Get Enough Rest
Believe it or not, sleep has a major impact on your digestive system. Your digestive organs are replenished and restored as you sleep. They also “clean house” and detoxify your body to get rid of wastes from the day before as you rest. If you don’t get enough sleep and have gurgling, gas, bloating, poor digestion during meals, or just feel “off”, it could be because you’re not getting enough rest. Sleep is also important to maintain healthy hormones that affect digestion. Try getting 7-8 hours, or even 9 hours if you can swing it.
5. Practice Calming Exercises and Manage Stress
Exercise can help “massage” the digestive organs to get things moving along better, and it also helps improve your lymphatic system that can affect your body’s natural detoxifying abilities. Practice calming exercises when possible, such as walking, yoga, and try to manage stress as much as possible. Also, be sure you don’t eat when you’re stressed, which can affect digestion and decrease enzyme production. Your body likes to do one thing at a time, not scarf down your food as you try to meet a deadline or (worse) drive down the road. Set aside 15 minutes to eat, or better yet 30, and you’ll see a major improvement in how your digestion as a result.
Other Important Considerations:
You may also want to consider if your body is producing enough stomach acid. Most people are surprised to find they actually don’t have enough HCL (hydrochloric acid) that helps with the digestive process. You can eat foods that increase HCL or take a supplement, which you can learn more about here.
If you have a digestive disorder such as leaky gut syndrome, reducing inflammation and healing the gut lining should be top priority. A plant-based diet is naturally alkaline to help assist with this, along with consuming probiotics and eating foods that agree with your body. Other things that may help include supplementing with the amino acid L Glutamine (as a powder or supplement) that has been shown to alleviate digestive distress, and consuming plant-based sources of Omega 3 fatty acids (walnuts, hemp, chia, flax).
Take care of your digestion so it can help you feel your best, and so you can get the most nutrition from the foods you eat. If you’ve found something that has helped you build and maintain a healthy gut, leave us a comment and let us know!
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Lead Image Source: Jules/Flickr