The past four articles of this series on gut health should have provided a comprehensive introduction as to why the role and balance of the gut is so critical to our health. In this final article we will look at some easy ways to support your gut whether you’re trying to do some serious healing or just care about your health!
We hear a lot about probiotics, but prebiotics are just as important for supporting gut health. Prebiotics are fibres – fuel for your microbes.
You might be aware that there are two types of fibre. Soluble and insoluble fibres – fibre that can dissolve and fibre that does not.
Prebiotics are the soluble fibres that are indigestible for humans, but a digestible for your body as a whole because the colonies of microbes use them as fuel. Almost 90% of prebiotic fibres make it to the large intestine intact, where they are fermented by your microbes and eventually broken down. Consumption of soluble fibre is great for feeding the colonies of ‘good’ bacteria in your gut. Because the majority of our microbes live in our colon they only get to eat the food that isn’t broken down in our stomach and small intestine. If things are working perfectly, it should only be fibre that makes it to the colon undigested.
Prebiotics are found in abundance in vegetables and fruit. Inulin, oligofructose, and xylooligosaccharides are examples of prebiotics. There are two particular strains of bacteria, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus (mentioned previously in this series) that feed well off of prebiotics. For people with a healthy gut the inclusion of fibre rich foods such as starchy vegetables, artichokes, bananas and some nuts like almonds is a great way to keep the good bacteria in your gut nourished. Consuming prebiotics has been shown to have the following positive effects:
- Aiding magnesium and calcium absorption;
- Lowering blood sugar; and
- Increasing the production of short chain fatty acids in the gut, which has an anti-inflammatory effect in your body.
For people dealing with conditions such as SIBO or Fodmap intolerance prebiotics might not be ideal as they can also feed the bacteria colonies that are overgrowing. This is a complex area and if you have concerns I suggest some more serious research on this topic and perhaps seeing a naturopath or medical practitioner.
Insoluble fibre is indigestible throughout your entire body and acts as a bulking agent in the bowels, stimulating gases and lubrication. There is controversy about whether insoluble fibres are actually beneficial to gut health or damaging to the lining of the gut. However, as many insoluble fibres come from grains (wheat is 90% insoluble), reducing your consumption of these is a good choice for gut health.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can bring balance to the gut microbiome. The two most commonly studied probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium and we can find these as probiotic supplements and many fermented foods and beverages. Enterococcus and Streptoccus are also strains that are starting to be studied for their health benefits.
Including the aforementioned probiotics in your diet is easy and the increased number of good bacteria colonies will inevitably bring wider health benefits. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and spend money on supplements. Instead these probiotics are found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and keifer – a yoghurt like substance that contains a great number of probiotic variants. Kombucha is a fermented tea that contains a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast – a Scoby. It is quite interesting to make and is a delicious beverage. We are only just starting to explore it ourselves, but once we are practised I will write more on this.
There is also a need to exercise caution when supplementing with probiotics and fermented food and beverages.
Kombucha is a delicious beverage that is full of beneficial bacteria that can improve gut health. We made this ourselves!
Not everyone needs to add these to their diet, and for people with already volatile gut flora and a proclivity towards conditions such as SIBO, adding probiotics can be too much of a good thing. Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus acidophilus overgrowth is possible. Saccharomyces boulardii, normally beneficial yeast, can also cause problems in people with yeast or fungal problems.
However, this is a warning is mainly directed at people who have a history of conditions such as SIBO. Generally speaking strains of Lactobacillus such as acidophilus are beneficial for most people particularly if you show signs of digestive distress or take antibiotics and the pill.
Support your digestion: one of the easiest way to improve gut health
When our digestion is working optimally it is a pretty slick machine. But this requires you to do some work too! It all starts with chewing our food properly, which stimulates our digestive enzymes further down the track in our stomach and intestines. Ideally we should have good levels of hydrochloric acid in our stomach to break down our food and bile salts and other enzymes to assist the remainder of our digestion downstream. It should only be fibre that makes it to our colon not fully digested, because as mentioned this feeds our gut flora.
Learn to rest and digest
We have a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic nervous system controls balance in the body (homeostasis), which includes the body’s ‘rest and digest’ mode. Conversely our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our stress response or ‘fight or flight’ mode and releases adrenaline.
When we eat we want to be in rest and digest mode not fight or flight mode, because this is what calms us and slows our body down. This means that we should try to be calm and measured when we eat and avoid eating straight after exercise. (1)
To allow our PNS to dominate we need to slow down and enjoy eating and pay attention to chewing each mouthful carefully. Unfortunately many of us now have to eat on the run or when we are not fully in rest and digest mode. While I appreciate some circumstances to be unavoidable, try your best to prepare your body for food by relaxing and entering the parasympathetic state. Chewing your food properly not only breaks it down more for when it gets to your stomach, but also stimulates our stomach acid and enzymes.
Low stomach acid is quite common and this has knock on effects to how our food makes it into the gut. If the food is not properly broken down in the stomach then we will have bigger particles entering our intestines. This can contribute to leaky gut. I will talk about stomach acid at more length in another article; however, it is important to know that many people that suffer from heart burn actually have low stomach acid, not too much. This is problematic because often we are prescribed antacids when we have heart burn. These suppress stomach acid, which can actually exacerbate the problem.
Instead we should be finding ways to stimulate our stomach acid so we produce more naturally. Supplementing with a spoonful of apple cider vinegar at meal times is a great way to do this. Aromatic bitters are also a nice way to encourage the flow of our digestive juices.
Another thing to keep in mind is that water dilutes your stomach acid. We have always been told to drink as much as we can with our meals to help us feel full, yet this is another piece of nutritional advice that can do more harm than good.
Try and avoid drinking with meals, unless it is a small bit of cider vinegar or bitters. I do not expect you to give up a nice glass of wine with dinner every now and then, but there is simply no need to be chugging the water while you are eating. Keep well hydrated throughout the day and then reduce your consumption before, during and immediately after you eat.
Certain spices, like turmeric and cinnamon are great for soothing digestion and improve gut health.
Supplements and teas
If you consume a healthy, balanced and predominantly anti-inflammatory diet (limited grains, diary etc) then you have a much better chance of consuming and absorbing all of the important nutrients you need. However, where there is damage to the gut there are some great supplements we can take to support its healing. I don’t agree with a lot of supplements that are out there, because they often give you micronutrients in absorbable forms that are not absorbable or unnecessary quantities. However, the following are good choices for supporting gut health.
Collagen peptides: Collagen is the most prominent protein in the body and is a building block of our skin, bones, teeth, hair, cartilage and more. It is a structural protein that acts as the glue to hold our tissues together. Collagen is also a key constituent of our gut walls, so it is very good for healing a damaged digestive tract.
Collagen contains the same amino acid as gelatine, which is found in the bones and fattier cuts of meat. You can boost your intake by eating meat straight from the bone, including some bone marrow in your sauces and drinking stock (or bone broth) that is made by boiling bones with stock. While natural is always best supplementing with collagen peptides, hydrolysed collagen, can also benefit your gut.
Glutamine: An amino acid that supports the gut and can heal inflammation. It also helps to regulate your blood sugar, which can assist you in making good food choices that will support your digestion.
Tumeric: A potent anti-inflammatory that can assist in particular with inflammation in the gut. Boil raw turmeric into a tea or add in powdered form to your meals.
Slippery elm and marshmallow root: These are mucilaginous herbs that can soothe and irritated gut by producing an extra layer of mucus, which is essential for coating the inside lining of the digestive tract.
Peppermint: Has been shown to mitigate IBS symptoms and offer mild relief for an irritated gut.
Liquorice root: Another, soothing and healing supplement. Deglycyrrhizinated liquorice root (DGL) is an adaptagen (herbs that support the adrenal system) that helps to normalise cortisol levels and in turn a leaky gut.
Final words on how to improve gut health
This has been an extensive group of articles aimed at introducing you to the huge significance of the gut. We are only just beginning to understand just the significance of the gut and its influence on each of our body’s systems. However, we are also now aware of many ways that we can preserve its health. The whole point of a no grainer is to encourage people to make better nutritional choices and a huge reason for doing this is to support gut health.
Personally, when I removed grains from my diet I noticed a huge improvement in my digestion with knock on effects to my immunity, my skin and my energy levels. I hope this article has provided the foundational knowledge you need to make healthy choices that will support your gut health and in turn the rest of your body.