A healthy digestive system and specifically a healthy gut microbiome (gut bacteria) is fundamental to all aspects of health, including mental well-being and inflammation throughout the body. Irrespective of what your symptoms may be, if your digestive system is not working well, the consequences could be very far reaching throughout the whole body. Thousands of publications over the past decade have revealed that the trillions of bacteria in the gut could have profound effects on the brain and might be tied to a whole host of disorders. Preliminary work in humans — suggest that microbes can trigger or alter the course of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s and mental health conditions such as depression. Therapies aimed at tweaking the microbiome could help to prevent or treat these diseases, an idea that some researchers and companies are already testing in human clinical trials. What is exciting is unlike your genome your microbiome is potentially modifiable.
A good indicator of digestive health is how well your bowels function. Ideally you should be having one or two bowel movements daily. The bowels should empty easily and fully without any urgency but equally no straining. Following a bowel movement, you should feel completely empty. Your stools should be gently formed, not hard little pebbles and not so loose that they have no form. If you do not have bowel movements like this, you need to be addressing the environment within the gut (as below).
Many people suffer from bloating (distention), especially after eating or at the end of the day and acid reflux/ heartburn is also very common. These are signs of digestive problems and should not be considered normal. Bloating is often due to an imbalance or a displacement of gut microbes. If the sugar and yeast living microbes, which inhabit all of us, are overly dominant, they can trigger a wide range of symptoms from skin rashes, thrush, fatigue, brain fog, sugar cravings and bloating or distension. Through following our guidelines, the beneficial microbes will become dominant again and allow your digestive function and all its associated systems to work better.
With many digestive health problems, doctors will often give a diagnosis and possibly offer symptom relief but rarely offer a permanent solution. Improving the condition of the gut lining, the various digestive secretions such as hydrochloric acid in the stomach, enzymes and bile and supporting healthy gut bacteria will significantly improve function.
The first step is to improve your eating behaviours: key to this is to take some deep breaths before launching into eating; chew, chew and then chew some more!; focus on what you’re eating i.e. don’t eat while distracted, on the computer, reading etc. and put your knife and fork down between each mouthful so you eat slowly. These practical changes can really help. Better eating habits will enhance your overall digestive abilities and limit irritation of the gut.
Why gut health matters? – SUMMARY
We need to excrete our waste everyday. If not, we start to reabsorb toxins and waste products and start to feel crappy, fatigued and it may affect our skin health too. Follow the information in the chapter The Gut:Brain connection to learn more about feeding the gut what it needs to work efficiently.
Improve your bowel habits. How to get things moving better.
1. Hydration – make sure you are taking in two litres a day of liquids
2. Try including more soluble fibre in your diet, such as apples, oats, nuts, beans and pulses, grains and vegetables
3. Try soaking chia seeds overnight in milk of your choice, and then add fruits and granola in the morning.
4. Move more – make sure you move every day as that stimulates the gut motility (movements enable food to progress along the digestive tract while, at the same time, ensuring the absorption of the important nutrients).
5. If you sit down a lot, get up every forty-five minutes
6. Engage in stress relieving activities, such as deep breathing, doing stretching, and/or meditating.
• Switch off the stress hormones and switch on the digestive processes by taking some deep breaths before starting to eat – when we are stressed, rushing, distracted, we are in ‘fight & flight’ mode, which means our digestive functioning is on hold. By pausing and focusing on your food before you start to eat, you will trigger the ‘rest and digest’ mode. A few slow deep breaths is an excellent way to achieve this.
• Have some fermented foods daily: use a high quality (long ferment) live natural yogurt for beneficial bacteria. Kefir – a different form of fermented dairy, far higher in helpful bacteria than yogurt is really easy to make at home and extremely beneficial for gut problems, and sauerkraut (must be raw) is a really beneficial food for improving the environment within the intestine. So too, raw apple cider vinegar. Use in cooking and salad dressings and also takea teaspoon (work up to a tablespoon) in a little water immediately before eating. For some people with IBS, these fermented foods can be highly aggravating of symptoms so start slowly and aim to include small amounts of different types of fermented foods on a regular basis. Gradually increase dose.
• Use Bone Broth for Gut Health – many studies support the use of bone broth for improving digestive and immune health. You can boil up meat bones on a low heat (for at least 12 hours, ideally longer), to provide a stock full of gut healing nutrients. Always add a glug of apple cider vinegar to help extract the minerals from the bones. You can then freeze your stock in ice cube trays and use as a drinking broth, or put into soups and stews.
• Alternatively, buy a good quality bone broth. Look in the chiller cabinets of health food shops and some supermarkets for a thick, gelatinous bone broth. Try and incorporate as often as possible into your food or drink as a broth.
• Slow cooking meat also offers some of these benefits and makes red meat much more digestible so look into using a slow cooker.
• Stimulate your Vegas Nerve – imperative for good digestive function from top to bottom. This nerve allows communication from the digestive tract to the brain and vice-versa. To ensure it is working well, try regular gargling – gargle with water for 2 minutes twice a day; singing loudly and, if you can bear it, triggering the gag reflex as often as possible. A healthy microbiome is also essential for good vagal nerve function. A poorly firing vegas nerve can inhibit all aspects of digestion and absorption as well as healing of the gut wall.
• The vegas nerve is how your brain knows when to stimulate the stomach to make acid, when to trigger the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes and the gall bladder to release bowel. The vegas nerve allows control of how quickly food passes through the intestine and how bowels function. Without the communication from gut to brain and back again via the vegas nerve, the system cannot work properly. The vegas nerve does not work when you are stressed, tired and eating when distracted/on the go.
• Stewed Bramely Apples – a great dessert (or breakfast option) which has amazing therapeutic properties are stewed cooking apples. Wash some Bramley apples well. Chop them up with skins on. Just beneath the skins of these apples is a highly soothing and restorative substance.
Stew with a little water, a good sprinkling of cinnamon and a couple of finely chopped dark apricots to sweeten (if needed), or put in a bag of frozen berries once the apples have cooked down. Use warm or cold and serve with live natural yogurt sprinkled with toasted coconut, or for dairy free use coconut yogurt or coconut cream and add almond flakes or chopped, toasted hazelnuts.
• Soaking for improved digestion – soaking any grains, pulses, nuts and seeds will greatly reduce irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract. All of these foods contain proteins called lectins, and phytic acid, which are really tough on digestion and trigger inflammation. To break these compounds down, all these foods should be soaked overnight, in water with a little vinegar or lemon juice, and left to soak at room temperature.
• Pulses (lentils, chickpeas, butter beans etc.) and any whole grains you have should be soaked at room temperature with a little vinegar for at least 24 hours and if left longer than that, rinse and continue to soak in fresh water. Nuts, seeds and oats can be soaked for 12 hours. Freshly ground and then 12 hour soaked flaxseeds and chia seeds are especially beneficial as they produce lots of mucilage, which is very soothing for the gut and helps to ease constipation.
• Take time to rest, relax, have fun and get plenty of sleep: stress, fatigue, poor sleep and feeling low and/or depressed are all major triggers for IBS, so focus on lifestyle factors as well as diet. Meditating can be challenging but is beneficial and something definitely worth trying. To help, look into Mindfulness training / books or try the app headspace.com as this is a great tool to get your meditating on a daily basis.
• Rest the Gut: try and incorporate regular intermittent fasting in some form, to allow rest and recovery to take place in the digestive system.
• For Constipation: try soaked, ground flaxseeds and psyllium husks. Here is a recipe for a nutty/seedy high fibre bread but uses psyllium powder rather than flour. This is quick and easy to make and has proven to be the most beneficial intervention for chronic constipation.
Psyllium Nut Bread
135g sunflower seeds 90g flax seeds 65g almonds or walnuts 145g rolled oats 2 Tbsp. chia seeds 4 Tbsp. psyllium seed husks (3 Tbsp. if using psyllium husk powder) 1 tsp. fine grain sea salt (add ½ tsp. if using coarse salt) 1 Tbsp. maple syrup (for sugar-free diets, use a pinch of stevia) 3 Tbsp. melted coconut oil or ghee 350ml water
1. In a flexible, silicon loaf pan combine all dry ingredients, stirring well. Whisk maple syrup, oil and water together in a measuring cup. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix very well until everything is completely soaked and dough becomes very thick (if the dough is too thick to stir, add one or two teaspoons of water until the dough is manageable). Smooth out the top with the back of a spoon. Let sit out on the counter for at least 2 hours, or all day or overnight. To ensure the dough is ready, it should retain its shape even when you pull the sides of the loaf pan away from it it.
2. Preheat oven to 175°C.
3. Place loaf pan in the oven on the middle rack, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove bread from loaf pan, place it upside down directly on the rack and bake for another 30-40 minutes. Bread is done when it sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool completely before slicing (difficult, but important).
4. Store bread in a tightly sealed container for up to five days. Freezes well too – slice before freezing for quick and easy toast!
Some lovely additions to make it sweeter include adding chopped dates, or dried cranberries.