You’ve heard “gut health” is important, but what can you do about it?
Before jumping into sexy supplement protocols, extreme elimination diets or liver cleanses, there are TONS of (simple) lifestyle and nutrition steps you can take to naturally optimize your digestion.
Improve Your Gut Health
Check out these 20 ways to improve your gut health in the following 4 key areas:
- How You Eat
- What You Eat
- Smart Supplementation
How You Eat
Digestion is a “north to south” process—meaning it starts up north (in your mouth and the initial steps of consuming your food).
Sit & Eat. Rest and digest. Ideal digestion happens in a parasympathetic state.
Chew Your Food. Food breakdown begins in the mouth. Chew your food until its completely liquified and you can no longer tell that piece of chicken was a piece of chicken.
Put Your Fork Down Between Bites. Slow down. This will help you slow down.
Focus on Your Food. Not tv or Netflix, not e-mails, not reading. The delicious meal before you.
Food Combining. Be aware of how food combining impacts digestion:
- Complex starches & proteins are best eaten separately (or a smaller amount of one when combined with the other).
- Eat fruit alone or with simple foods (smoothie, yogurt, etc.)
- Pair protein with non-starchy veggies.
- Pair starches with healthy fats and vegetables.
- Leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, herbs & spices go with everything.
- Eat a condiment sized serving of fermented foods with meals.
- Drink water away from meals.
- Minimalist meals digest best.
What You Eat
You already know that “processed foods are bad” for you and that you “should” shop on the permitter of the grocery store, but what you eat for digestion goes far beyond ordering a salad off the menu because it’s the “healthy thing to do.”
Hydrating Foods. Water is the #1 most essential nutrient for keeping digestion flowing—including water in our foods. “Hydrating foods” (i.e. veggies and fruits) contain higher water content than “dry foods” (i.e. nuts, grains, bars, shakes, meat, cheese, packaged or processed foods) that help flush your system. Only 1 in 10 people eat the recommended number of veggies. (No wonder we have gut problems).
Colorful Foods. Brown, tan and white are the leading colors of the American diet. Mix it up with colorful prebiotic and fiber rich foods that feed and nurture a healthy gut, and “push” food through the GI tract.
Variety. Healthy gut bacteria thrive upon a varied diet. Eating the same things over and over can trigger food intolerances.
Seasonal & Wild. Shop for foods in season and as close to nature as possible for nutrient optimization. Broccoli loses over half of its nutrients only after 3 days! Imagine what happens to the broccoli shipped in from across the country to your local supermarket. Experiment with a trip to your local farmer’s market.
The Just Right Ratio. Carbs, fats and proteins are necessary macronutrients for all humans, but depending on your personal gut health, certain ratios or types of foods may digest better than others. For example, if you have SIBO, loads of sweet potatoes (sugary stach) or Brussels sprouts (FODMAPS) may elevate symptoms until the underlying root is addressed; whereas a person with a hormone imbalance may find symptoms lessen when they incorporate them.
Cooked vs. Raw Foods. Generally speaking, for those with digestive issues (like IBS, constipation, bloating, GERD, candida, dysbiosis, etc.) cooked, sauteed, mashed, softened, pureed, steamed and roasted foods typically digest easier than raw foods. Raw foods (salad greens, raw veggies and fruits) are great for natural enzymes they provide, but if your gut health is not as strong, raw foods can worsen symptoms.
Food is not the only factor affecting digestion. What you do the other 23 hours outside of meals matters just as much.
Sleeping 7-9 Hours Per Night. Sleep has a profound impact on your digestive health. Sleep deprivation shortens your body’s natural detoxification, elimination and digestive tissue restoration processes, as well as elevates cortisol.
Circadian Rhythm Balance. Circadian disruption (like jet lag, lack of sleep or shift work) – disrupts the rhythm needed to produce a healthy gut microbiome. Ways to influence your circadian balance include: Eating at normal times, intermittent fasting (12 hours between dinner and breakfast), limiting artificial light exposure at night, fresh air and natural light exposure during the day, limiting screen time, sleeping and waking in rhythms with the natural day (i.e. not staying up until 2 a.m. and sleeping until noon).
Sweat. There is a strong link between exercise and the bacterial composition of the gut. Exercise can alter the bacterial composition of the digestive system—both positively and negatively (in the case of overtraining). One study (9) comparing the gut bacteria in healthy athletes compared to average controls found that the gut bacteria of rugby athletes was more diverse than non-athlete controls, and that the athletes had higher proportions of most types of microorganisms than the controls. Exercise can also help relieve constipation and bloating, and promote healthy digestion when you’re at rest since regular exercise strengthens your digestive tract (a muscle) as a whole. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of movement most days of the week, along with a daily active lifestyle.
Tribe & People Connection. Social connections with family and friends also influence the health of our gut bacteria. For instance, the gut bacteria of married individuals, compared to those living alone, has greater diversity and richness, with the greatest health and diversity among couples reporting “close relationships.” Amongst singles, social interactions with relatives and friends were also stronger predictors of gut microbial diversity. Make intentional time for people.
Breath Work. Since ideal digestion and gut balance occurs in a “parasympathetic” (rested) state, do not underestimate the power of breath, rest breaks and active mind-body stress management, sometimes referred to as “meditation,” “limbic system retraining,” or “biofeedback.” Take 1 to 2 minutes before meals to rest and breathe; and if digestive difficulties arise, consider tapping into the power of deep breathing to calm the stress response and inflammation inside.
In an ideal world, we’d get all of our nutrients and digestion essentials from real food, but while you are in the process of figuring out how to rewire your internal ecosystem, there are a few game changers to optimize how you feel and how digestion functions.
Probiotics & Pre-biotics. Healthy gut bacteria and the “food” that feeds them in supplement form can be helpful as you reset your own gut microbiome. Fermented foods and prebiotic fibers found in starchy tubers and fiber rich veggies and fruits are also essentials as tolerated.
Digestive Enzymes. Like the “PacMans” that chew your food and help your body break down fats, proteins and carbs.
Apple Cider Vinegar & HCL (Hydrochloric Acid). Boost stomach acid necessary for the first steps of digestion.
Digestive Bitters. The use of bitters for digestion has a long history. Blended bitter herbs stimulate the “bitter reflex,” helping prepare our digestive system for the food we are about to eat. The taste of bitter on the tongue stimulates the brain to release the digestive hormone, gastrin, responsible for appetite stimulation; releasing digestive enzymes, aiding the liver in detoxification; regulation of secretion of pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin and glucagon and an increase in the flow of bile; and stimulating mechanisms to repair the gut wall.
Warning: Not all supplements are created equal. For example, about 90% of probiotics on shelves do not contain the probiotics they claim.
“Ideal” or optimal digestion depends on a wide variety of factors (not just a particular diet). Pick one new habit to start—and build from there. Improving your gut health is all about the little things.