During digestion, food or drinks break down into nutrients which the blood absorbs and the body uses for energy, growth, and cell repair. The GI tract is long and complex — 30 feet long, in fact — so digestive issues such as heartburn or indigestion are not uncommon from time-to-time. In addition, according to the National Institutes of Health, 60 to 70 million people in the U.S. are affected by a digestive disease. Common digestive diseases include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Digestive problems and diseases are caused by many different things, from bacterial infections and inflammation to allergies and poor diet. But another common contributing factor to gastrointestinal issues is an imbalance in gut bacteria, or, microflora. The health of the gut plays a key role in an individual’s overall health and well-being — so when microflora is imbalanced (either too little or too much), it can cause a host of health issues. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, acne and other skin conditions, inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and IBS, and unhealthy food cravings — especially for sweets or sugar – can all be a symptom of an unhealthy gut balance. Also, since 80 to 90 percent of serotonin (which affects mood, sleep, appetite, memory, and more) is produced in the gut, gut imbalances can trigger depressive symptoms and sleep issues.
So how do we restore or promote better gut health? A lot of it has to do with adjusting lifestyle-and diet habits. Some important steps to take include:
- Consume Probiotics – This can be in the form of a probiotic supplement, by regularly eating foods with a lot of probiotic bacteria, or both. Foods that have been fermented with lactic acid bacteria are probiotic, and they keep good and bad gut bacteria in check. Probiotic foods include yogurt (low-sugar, preferably), pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, miso, and tempeh. It’s best to eat these foods once or twice a day with meals, but some people find it difficult to eat fermented foods on a consistent basis. So, probiotic supplements are an option, too. Do your research on probiotics as not all are created equal — potency (percentage of live cultures present), total amount of bacteria in the probiotic, and different number of bacteria strains in the probiotic are important.
- Avoid Processed and ‘Toxic’ Foods – If you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, your consumption of processed foods is probably minimal. But many people still consume too many processed foods, and the emulsifiers and other additives can affect gut flora. Along with avoiding processed foods, it’s also good to avoid or minimize foods that irritate gut flora and the gut lining, such as sugar and unhealthy oils.
- Manage Stress – Chronic, unmanaged stress raises cortisol levels, which can stop the gut from working properly. If you haven’t taken steps to manage your stress, chances are you have an unhealthy gut and inflammation. Some effective ways to manage stress include eating well, getting regular exercise, meditation, and simply taking a break from the stressor for a bit. Sleep deficits raise cortisol levels, too, so be sure to get enough quality rest every night.
- Use Antibiotics Correctly – Antibiotics kill both bad and good gut bacteria, which can result in unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea. Ask you doctor if you should supplement with a probiotic while on antibiotics. Of course, only take antibiotics that are prescribed for you, and take them exactly as directed. Never discontinue antibiotics just because you are feeling better – it’s important to complete the entire course as prescribed by your doctor.
The digestive system is complicated, and play a critical role in our immune system. Poor food choices can cause immediate pain and discomfort, as well as long-term health issues, so keep your digestive system running smoothly by understanding how these problematic foods might affect you.
Learn more about digestive health.
This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.
This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Chinese Health Initiative Wellness eNewsletter. Learn more about the Chinese Health Initiative.