Got tummy troubles? Feeling sluggish? Time to take care of your gut! Our digestive tracts are hard at work and they’re a mighty important and powerful part of our bodies. Did you know that the digestive tract has more nerve endings than the spine? Exactly what role this plays is something we’re only just beginning to understand, but one thing is for sure: we need to nurture our guts!
First and foremost, eat a healthy diet. Plain and simple. Because what’s good for you, dear eater, is naturally also good for your gut. But if you want to get down and detailed, here are some specifics for good digestive health.
Dietary fiber is super important for a healthy gut. There are two kinds of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber forms a gel when mixed with liquid, whereas insoluble fiber passes through our system more or less intact. Soluble fiber binds with fatty acids, which helps to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and helps moderate blood sugar absorption. Sources of soluble fiber include oats, some beans, edamame and tofu, avocado, sweet potatoes, and pears.
Insoluble fiber helps prevent constipation, and regulates the acidity level in the intestines. It sweeps up debris as it moves through your digestive tract, sloughing dead cells from the intestinal walls, and generally keeps things moving along well, like a street sweeper cleaning up all those empty paper cups tossed on the street after a marathon. Sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran (including bran cereal), most beans, lentils, most whole grains and vegetables.
Don’t worry about whether you’re getting soluble or insoluble fiber. Many fiber-rich foods contain both, so simply aim for a diet with lots of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and legumes, and you’ll have your fiber content covered.
Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that populate your gut and help keep things in happy harmony. One of their most important jobs, as we understand it, is that they help keep harmful bacteria at bay. But probiotics are also responsible for helping to break down food as it passes through the intestines via fermentation. They also play a role in nutrient absorption and utilization, and they may even play a role in your mood. There’s a lot we still don’t know about probiotics, but what we do know is that they’re pretty important for healthy digestion.
Prebiotics are indigestible fibers that feed and nourish the probiotics in our guts. Since these fibers are indigestible, they work their way through our digestive tract to the colon where they are fermented and broken down by probiotic bacteria. Prebiotic fibers are found in foods such as green bananas, asparagus, onions, leeks, and jicama.
Lacto-fermented foods such as natural yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha are as popular as ever, and with good reason. Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics, the happy bacteria that are beneficial for digestion. Eating fermented foods is also attributed with boosting immunity, increasing resistance to infection, and just generally promoting good digestion.
Fermenting foods can also be seen as a sort of “pre-digestion” which helps to unlock the nutrient potential of certain foods. For example, tempeh, a fermented soybean cake originally from Indonesia, is fermented with the mold Rhizopus oligosporus in a process similar to cheese making. The fermentation process makes digestion easier and nutrients like zinc, calcium, and iron are more bio available than in non-fermented soy products like tofu.
If you want a happy gut, you gotta stay hydrated! All that fiber needs water in order to move effectively through the digestive tract, and since soluble fiber absorbs liquid as it passes through, staying hydrated is super important. Stick with just regular old water as much as possible, and try to avoid caffeinated, sugar-sweetened, and artificially sweetened beverages.
If you drink alcohol (this nutritionist loves her wine!), enjoy in moderation and allow yourself at least two consecutive alcohol-free days per week.
Aim for regular, and reasonably-sized snacks and meals. Consider that digestion takes up a lot of the body’s resources, so it’s important that we give our gut a bit of a rest from time to time to allow it to do its job properly, rather than constantly bombarding it with food. Being upright (as opposed to lying down) and active helps the digestion process and prevents reflux, so avoid a big heavy meal right before bedtime. Aim for larger meals earlier in the day when you’re going to need that energy, and smaller meals or snacks later in the day.
Yogurt photo via Shutterstock.
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