We ask the experts for their top tips on how to improve and support digestive health…
The health of our digestive system is vital, as highlighted by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates who wrote 2000 years ago, ‘all disease begins in the gut’. Yes, our digestive system digests food and excretes the waste, but it also produces hormones, contains more than one thousands species of bacteria and is controlled by its own nervous system that is almost as complex as the brain’s. Recent research indicates than an unhealthy gut can contribute to a wide range of diseases including obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, hormonal imbalances, chronic fatigue, autism, depression, joint and heart problems.
“Your digestive system is key to most conditions,” confirms Penny Shaw, nutritional therapist and brand quality manager at G&G Vitamins. “It houses 80 percent of your immune system and is where nutrients from food are absorbed and waste material is excreted. Maintaining a healthy digestive system is crucial to ensuring your body has the working tools to maintain health.”
Hannah Braye, technical advisor at Probiotics International (Protexin), manufacturers of the Bio-Kult and Lepicol ranges, agrees: “Healthy digestion is a fundamental aspect of good health. Our digestive system is where we breakdown and absorb nutrients. These nutrients not only provide us with the energy we need to survive, but also act as messengers, passing communications between different cells and organs of the body, allowing them to function optimally together. You could be eating the healthiest diet in the world, but if you’re not digesting your food and absorbing nutrients properly, you won’t gain the benefits.”
Wendy Richards from SWAMI (So What Am I?) adds: “Restoring the health of your gastrointestinal system, can have major positive effects on your entire body, from mood to memory and more. Healing your gut allows the body to build a stronger immune system and produce the right kind of bacteria that tells your brain that it’s okay to feel good again.”
Support your digestive system
There are simple steps we can take to help support and improve our digestive tract. Ellie Isom, clinical nutritionist at BioCare, recommends focusing on fibre and live bacteria: “Fibre is really important for a healthy digestive tract as it supports gut transit, aiding with the passing and regularity of bowel movements. Indigestible fibres or ‘prebiotics’ are important for our gut bacterial balance, and can be considered as a fertiliser for these bacteria which reside in our digestive tracts. Food such as chicory, garlic and artichoke are great sources of this type of fibre.
“The live bacteria living within our digestive tracts are also important for gut health. In fact, within our body, there are more bacterial cells than human cells. We have evolved an intimate and vital relationship with the trillions of bacteria living in harmony with us in our gut. Healthy levels of beneficial bacteria appear to be essential for of many bodily functions, including the immune response, detoxification, cardiovascular health, energy metabolism, psychological wellbeing, hormonal balance and, of course, digestive function. Several factors can affect the balance of our gut bacteria, such as stress, medication (e.g. antibiotics) and infections. Fermented foods, such as kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut are good sources of these beneficial bacteria.”
To support the balance of gut bacteria, Braye suggests using probiotic supplements: “Live bacteria supplements have been shown to help restore a healthy gut flora and gut lining, support digestive function, regular healthy bowel movements and immunity. Probiotics regularly show benefit in gut conditions such as bloating, constipation, loose stools, IBS, diverticular disease and pouchitis. The mechanisms of actions are thought to involve the reduction of gut pH (making it harder for pathogens to thrive), competition with unbeneficial strains for adhesion sites and nutrients, secretion of antimicrobial substances, immune stimulation and supporting the health of the lining of the gut.”
Richards also recommends increasing your fibre intake: “Fibre is made up of the parts of plant foods that your body can’t digest, but instead pass without absorbing. Most people get only a small portion of the 20 to 40 mg of fibre that is recommended for healthy digestion. Your body needs both soluble fibre, which dissolves in water to form a gel-like consistency, and insoluble fibre, which does not dissolve in water. The combination of high fibre and water will increase the efficiency of your digestion by helping to soften and break down foods so your body can absorb the nutrients. It will also soften your stool and make regular bowl movements easier.”
Focus on nutrition
In terms of dietary changes, Braye recommends cutting out processed, sugary foods: “These have been shown to negatively impact microbial composition in the gut, instead opt for a balanced wholefoods diet, high in fruit and vegetables, good quality protein, and healthy fats. Eating foods which are high in dietary fibre and resistant starches will not only keep our bowel movements regular, helping to eliminate toxins from the body, but will also feed beneficial bacteria within the gut. I encourage clients to eat two portions of fruit and at least five portions of vegetables (a rainbow of different colours) a day and to switch to wholegrains such as brown rice, oats and buckwheat, in order to increase fibre intake.
“Prebiotic foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, onion, garlic, asparagus chicory, leeks and slightly under-ripe bananas are particularly beneficial as they are selectively fermented by beneficial bacteria in the gut to help their growth. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, live plain yogurt, kefir and kombucha have also traditionally been used to help rebalance gut flora. Bone broths/stocks made from the bones of organic grass-fed animals may also help to repair the lining of the gastrointestinal tract by delivering collagen and various amino acids.”
It’s also advisable to increase your intake of soluble fibres. Patrick Holford, author of Improve Your Digestion, comments: “One way to increase your intake of soluble fibres is to have a tablespoon of chia seeds a day, which is what I do. Another is to eat whole oat products. You can further up your soluble fibre intake by adding a teaspoon of oat bran to cereal.”
Relieving stomach problems
If you constantly suffer from stomach issues, such as bloating, Isom suggests eating easily digestible foods and avoiding ones that the stomach finds difficult to process: “Easily digestible foods such as soups, smoothies, juices and mashed vegetables could be important for those with digestive discomforts. Bloating can be an indication that the food which has been consumed is not being properly digested. Some foods can generally be quite difficult to digest and irritating to the gut, gluten is one of these. Therefore excluding gluten containing foods could be key for improving digestive health for some individuals.
“To help the body digest gluten and other foods in general, it may also be useful to take supplementary digestive enzymes, as well as increasing bile stimulating foods, such as bitter leaves (e.g. rocket), lemon juice and apple cider vinegar. Eating less food per mouthful and chewing it properly can further help with digestion. Chewing increases surface area and prepares the food for digestion, mixing it with enzymes that help to break it down.”