Happy Gut…Happy Life!
Well, the title doesn’t rhyme as well as the better-known life phrase, but there potentially is a similar level of beneficial life advice contained in it. What does having a happy gut mean? How do you know if your unhappy gut symptoms are normal, or signs of a problem? If you don’t have a happy gut, how do you obtain one? Let’s digest this.
What does your gut do?
Many of us think that the digestive system is simply responsible for digesting food, but the gut is responsible for maintaining health in a variety of other ways too. Yes, its primary function is to break down the chemical complexity of food into easy-to-absorb nutrients. However, it also works together with a delicate balance of bacteria, known as the gut microbiome, to help with the breakdown of fiber, and to produce nutrients such as biotin, vitamin B12, vitamin K, and short chain fatty acids. These friendly bacteria also work with the gut and surrounding lymphatic tissue to promote a healthy immunity. The gut acts as a barrier to prevent harmful pathogens from entering the body. It detoxifies harmful substances and excretes waste, it secretes and helps process some hormones (including serotonin, our “feel good” neurotransmitter), and functions as our “second brain” (aka the gut-brain axis). Given the important number of functions regulated by the gut, it is no wonder that when your gut does not work well, or has problems with digestion, you will not feel your best.
When things go wrong
The “gut” includes all parts of your digestive system. Problems can occur along any part of the gut, including but not limited to the esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large bowel, or colon. Common gut problems include bloating, nausea, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, reflux, malabsorption and food intolerances, ulcers, diverticulosis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Other conditions affecting the gut can include inflammatory bowel disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and cancer. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35 to 70% of people at some point in their life. If we aren’t intentional about supporting our gut function, the consequences can significantly impact our quality of life.
How can nutrition help with gut problems?
To keep your gut healthy and happy, it is important to understand how the gut works and what it needs to be healthy. Conditions that affect the gut, such as bloating, constipation, reflux, diarrhea, nausea, and irritable bowel are really signs that the gut is not working as well as it should. Disorders and diseases of the gut require special dietary adaptions to support a struggling digestive system. A simple example of this would be a person with lactose intolerance who would need to adapt their diet to avoid lactose, or supplement with digestive enzymes because the gut can no longer make the digestive enzyme lactase. Each of the conditions mentioned above may require very specific dietary guidelines and support in order to restore health to the digestive system.
Diet and Lifestyle Tips for a Healthy Gut
Tips for a “happy gut” can be divided into three categories: food choices, lifestyle habits, and supplemental support. These guidelines will support gut health, but you will need additional help if you have an existing condition affecting your gut.
To keep a healthy gut functioning well, it is important to make sure you consume adequate amounts of fiber and fluid. You should also aim to eat a balanced, healthy diet to meet your requirements for vitamins and minerals while supporting the balance of healthy gut bacteria (microbiome).
- To get adequate fiber intake aim to eat at least 5 servings of vegetables and fruit daily, as well as a variety of other high fiber foods. Fruits and vegetables provide pre-biotics to feed gut bacteria and provide nutrients that are necessary for optimal digestion. Fiber helps keep things moving through the digestive tract, increases stool bulk and softens it, and it is also used to produce short-chain fatty acids, which are beneficial in preventing colon cancer.
- Too much fiber without adequate fluid may contribute to bloating and constipation. Drinking half your body weight in fluid daily is generally a good guideline that can help you to stay hydrated. For example a 160-pound person should aim to drink 80 oz. of fluid (preferably water) daily. Outdoor activities, heat, humidity, and exercise can increase these requirements.
- Eating a balanced diet is a challenge in our modern world. It is helpful to talk over your specific requirements with your dietitian/nutritionist. In general it is wise to limit your intake of processed foods, fried and fatty foods, and sugary foods and beverages. It is also advisable to avoid excessive use of alcohol when trying to support the health of your gut.
- Another useful tip is to include fermented foods into your regular diet, such as yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These foods help maintain beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Managing stress is important to gut health. Stress can slow down or increase gut motility contributing to constipation or diarrhea. Stress can also increase acid production, which could lead to reflux or even the development of stomach ulcers. Try to work out what causes you to feel stressed, and aim to find solutions to manage the effects of stress on your gut health.
- To ensure adequate sleep, aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Your gut needs this time to rest and repair.
- Move more! Exercise helps to maintain the muscle tone of the digestive system, which is essential for maintaining the wave like motions that move food and waste products along the digestive tract.
- Slow down your eating. Give your body time to digest by not rushing through meals and by avoiding overeating. Following a meal schedule and aiming to not skip meals can help with this.
- Whenever possible, limit antibiotic use and limit acid blockers to short-term use. Both wipe out good bacteria in the gut. Supplementing with an appropriate probiotic while taking antibiotics or acid blockers may be helpful.
- Taking a probiotic can help support the colonization of good bacteria in your gut. However, it’s important to use the appropriate strains for your individual needs. Consult with your dietitian or healthcare provider for guidance.
- L-glutamine is an amino acid that helps to support the lining of the small intestine and helps to regulate inflammation. This is not a supplement that everyone needs, and should be talked over with your provider.
- Other supplements, including digestive enzymes and peppermint, can be considered on an individual basis as needed.
While the gastrointestinal system is complex and individual issues and needs vary, these are some simple strategies to consider for supporting gut health. For specific requirements, consult with a dietitian or nutritionist near you, or contact our office for more information.
If you would like to know more about digestive health and learn simple strategies to support a happy and healthy gut, join us for our “Happy Gut” Class. Click here for more details
By: Avril Rowerdink, RDN, LDN, CES & Anne Till, MNutr, RDN, LDN
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