You may or may not be aware, but good health starts in the gut! It is a wee bit more complex than that, due to the intricate connection between the gut and the brain/ nervous system, but essentially if we do not have a healthy digestive system, it is really tough to have healthy hair, skin, nails, joints, immunity, energy, vitality, cardiovascular health, etc.
We have all heard “You are what you eat…”, which is true and I would add to that “… and absorb.” In short, what we put into our bodies matters, as does what our bodies are able to do with these foods: how well we can pull nutrients from the foods through the small intestine and release waste products through the bowel. So, what are the elements involved in the digestive process and what can we do to support ourselves?
Components of digestion:
- Gut: mouth, throat, stomach, intestines: small and large (colon), rectum, anus
- Accessory organs: liver, gallbladder, pancreas, appendix, omentum
- Nervous system: brain, vagus nerve, enteric plexus, migrating motor complex
- Microbiome: micro – tiny; biome – living… the tiny living creatures in our gut (bacteria, yeast/ fungi, viruses)
There is a growing volume of scientific evidence of the importance of the gut microbiome (the collection of micro-organisms and symbiotic bacteria that support our overall gut health), as the proper “critter balance” in our gut is essential for:
- Nutrient absorption
- Making enzymes, vitamins and amino acids
- Producing short chain fatty acids (butyrate, propionate, acetate) that keep gut lining healthy and enhance gut immunity
The beneficial organisms are depleted by stress, diet high in processed foods/ refined carbs/ flour/ sugar/ low in fiber-rich plants, non-organic foods (pesticides, antibiotics), birth method (c-section), infant feeding, pharmaceuticals (namely antibiotics and antacids, but also others like meds for anxiety and depression), over-eating, lack of exercise, alcohol use and abuse (antiseptic). This sets up a domino effect: low enzyme levels/ low acids no killing of pathogenic bacteria/ yeast pathogens set up residence good guys killed off putrefaction of foods vs/ healthy fermentation toxins produced “leakiness” of gut irritation of gut lining activation of immune system overload of liver creation of toxic bile recirculation of toxins imbalance of hormones = constipation, diarrhea or other digestive disturbances (bloating, gas, abdominal pain, IBS, etc.)
Strategies for regaining healthy digestive function:
4 Rs: remove (get rid of the “bad guys”: problematic foods, bacteria, viruses, yeast, parasites, etc.), replace(put back in: enzymes), re-inoculate (get the good bacteria and beneficial yeast back in), repair (the gut lining using bone broth, amino acid powders, especially l-glutamine, fish oils)
- Remove: Take natural anti-microbials if suspected “dysbiosis” (oil of oregano, garlic, pau d’arco, etc.)
- Remove: Avoid flours (all flours, not just gluten) and sugar, reduce/ eliminate dairy and all other problem foods for you;
- Remove: Ensure regular bowel movements – for constipation look at magnesium, hydration, probiotics/ for diarrhea look at psyllium, charcoal, bentonite;
- Replace: Chew food well;
- Replace: Take enzymes/ apple cider vinegar;
- Replace: Activate vagus nerve: stress reduction/ gargle/ sing/ relax/ pray/ move/ meditate
- Replace & Re-inoculate: Eat fermented foods
- Re-inoculate: Take probiotics
- Repair: Practice fasting (12 hours minimum)
- Repair: Leave 4-5 hours between meals
- Repair: Castor oil packs
Functional Foods for a Healthy Gut
Over the last few years there has been an increased interest in foods that do more than just provide basic nutrition. These foods are often referred to as functional foods; a term, first introduced in Japan in the 1980’s. Functional foods have sometimes been defined as “any food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.”
Many, although not all, functional foods are whole foods which provide a rich source of fiber to the diet. As well as providing other health benefits, these foods can in turn support good gut health.
A few of many examples of Functional Foods
- Fiber-rich foods (psyllium, chia, ground flax) – 1-2 Tbsp 2xd;
- “Bitters” (artichoke, arugula, dandelion (tea), lemons, grapefruit) as these get things squirting;
- O Shown to reduce cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease, oats are also a good source of manganese;
- Rich in lycopene, betacarotene, and vitamin C, studies indicate that tomatoes may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. They have also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and to support bone health (note: some people may be sensitive to tomatoes if they need to avoid nightshades);
- These may help reduce the risk of urinary tract infections while providing a rich source of antioxidants;
- Studies show that a diet high in cruciferous vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer;
- Lacto-fermented foods. Those foods which have been made by allowing natural bacteria and yeast to feed on the sugars and starches in foods. This process creates enzymes, increases nutritional content, and adds beneficial probiotics to the foods.
Types of Fermented Foods
Found in many cultures around the world, fermented foods are a healthy way to support overall gut health. Examples of different types of lacto-fermented foods include:
- Traditionally fermented sauerkraut
- A spicy fermented cabbage dish from Korea.
- Soybeans that have been naturally fermented, found in a number of Asian cultures.
- A fermented tea, origins unknown but it appears in many cultures.
- Made from fermented milk, this is similar to yogurt but thinner and with more probiotic activity originating in the Caucasus mountains.
Adding these probiotic organisms to the digestive tract can improve digestive capacity. This is because they can improve the production of hydrochloric acid. Conversely when there is an excess of stomach acid, adding fermented foods can support and protect the intestinal lining.
Adding lacto-fermented foods also supports the release of digestive enzymes throughout the digestive system (stomach, pancreas, and gallbladder), these enzymes help to improve digestion, digestibility, and nutrient absorption from food.
Although lacto-ferments, are easy to make at home, they do require monitoring, temperature control, and an understanding of the fermentation process. Purchasing these, either at a grocery store or online, may be a simpler option, especially for those just getting starting with adding these types of foods to their diet.
Challenge: Add at least one new functional food to your daily diet
https://www.backtoyouroots.com/ – locally made fermented foods available for purchase.
http://www.kristenscultures.com/ – locally made foods; also classes available to teach you how to ferment your own foods.
www.culturesforhealth.com – Great website that has for purchase items to get started on your own fermenting journey, as well as fantastic “how-to” guides, recipes and more (sourdough, yogurt, kombucha, kefir, vegetables, cheese and tempeh).