In all my clinical practice, there has to be one area of health that presented more than any other. Maladies of the digestive system. Whilst these issues are often as diverse and unique as the person presenting with them, there are certainly a few things that we can do to help our digestive system function at its best.
Ok, so you have probably heard this a million times before but, when you eat…slow down a bit. Im not going to be one of those people that tells you to chew your food 30 times before you swallow it, because I happen to live in the real world and dont like being a drooling fool with jaw ache. But, slowing down a bit and taking a bit more time can certainly pay off for us. There are two main reasons for this, the main one being in line with what this piece is all about – it benefits our digestion. You see, our digestive process is stimulated by all of our senses. The sight and smell of food kick starts this beautifully. Have you seen or smelled a delicious dish cooking that made your mouth water? Well there you go. There it is? Those senses being activated kick starts the early stages of digestion. Your mouth waters for a reason. Saliva contains enzymes like amylase that start the digestive process, working on the simpler carbohydrates. This early stage salivary secretion sends signals to the stomach, readying it for receiving the food incoming. The stomach does its thing by flipping food over and over coating it in HCL and proteolytic enzymes. This process, and the release of small morsels of food from the stomach into the small intestine kick starts the next stage and on and on. You get the picture. The point is each of these stages are beautifully orchestrated and one sets the stage for the next. Now, if you eat your lunch like you are snorting a line of something, then you are doing yourself no favours. You will rush the process and put undue strain on this symphony. Everything has to work that little bit harder. Also, when you guzzle your food like a possessed seagull, you swallow air. That makes you feel gassy and bloated. Not a good look.
Up your fibre
Ok, not exactly breaking news here that you need to up your fibre for better digestion, but the reasons why this is a good idea are evolving quite a bit. Firstly, the boring basic stuff. Fibre helps ‘move things along’. I think we all know that. It has the ability to take on many times its own weight in water. When it does this it swells and swells, and increases in volume. This stimulates stretch receptors in the gut wall. When they are stimulated, they stimulate peristalsis – the rhythmical contractions of the gut wall that gently move everything along. All great. One of the other areas that increased fibre intake can benefit is our cardiovascular health. Soluble fibre like that found in foods such as oats, lentils etc, forms a gel like substance in the gut that can bind to cholesterol and carry it away, lowering total serum cholesterol.
However, back to digestive health, the thing about fibre I find the most interesting is that it can……
Nurture gut flora
This is an area of health that is evolving at light speed, and understandably so. Our gut flora, our bacterial colony, otherwise known as our microbiome is a big deal. We have around 100 trillion bacteria living within our gut. That is pretty staggering!! They arent just there by accident or for the sake of it. We have a symbiotic relationship. We depend upon each other. We provide them with a safe and effective environment within to flourish. They supply us with so so much more. The list is starting to get pretty long, but systemically (throughout the body), they can influence what the immune system does when, affect our mood, affect our metabolism, and influence our synthesis of nutrients. What they do in the gut is pretty amazing too. Their first job is they break down certain nutrients – namely ong chain high molecular weight polysaccharides (basically bloody great big sugars), that dont get broken down in early stage carbohydrate digestion. They break these down by means of fermentation. When they ferment these substances they start to reproduce and grow in number and the colony begins to flourish. We get more of the good ones that benefit us. During this process they release by products. One of the big ones of concern is something called butyrate. This substance stimulates repair mechanisms within the gut – it can help to look after the maintenance of gut tissue, taking care of its long term health. They are also involved in synthesising certain nutrients like some B vitamins and vitamin K. They influence aspects of cardio vascular disease risk, how we maintain body weight….the list is ever growing. So nurturing this colony is of vital importance. Where do we find the large molecular weight polysaccharides that do this so well……high fibre foods!! Whole grains, beans, pulses, leafy vegetables, multigrain cereals etc. That simple tweak can impact so many aspects of your health. This hero recipe makes great use of some of the most potent sources of these polysaccharides – Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
Up your water intake
The final tip is kinda simple. Drink more water. Now Im not going to give you one of those numbers like ‘make sure you drink two litres a day’, because they are just made up!!! There is no set rule other than this – drink water until your urine runs clear, then stop. When colour returns to it, drink some more. Stick at this point and you are hydrated. But what has this got to do with gut health? Remember earlier we spoke about fibre swelling up? Well, it needs water to do that. We have to be hydrated enough to allow enough water to be present to get this fibre to swell and stimulate stretch receptors. This will keep everything moving well and make our gut feel much more comfortable.
Simple steps that can make a massive difference. Of course there are a million and one variables and this is NOT personalised information, but follow these few pointers and you will notice big improvements in overall digestive health.
For more in-depth information on supporting gut health and recipes that help with this, have look at this