There’s a famous saying: you are what you eat. And for most people, this quote indeed say many things about a person health status. It also speaks about someone’s mental and social state on how he/she lives their lifestyle.
Your digestive system is truly remarkable – and when you take a moment to think about how much it does for you, you might be more inclined to take better care of your digestive health. Your digestive system has a huge job – it breaks down the foods that you eat in order to make nutrients and energy available to the body, and it is responsible for steering unwanted waste out of the body, too. On top of that, your digestive tract is a key player in immunity, because the cells lining your digestive tract help protect your body against bacterial and viral invaders that could make you sick. And yet, many people abuse their digestive system – by filling it with highly processed foods, or eating too much, or eating too fast – and tend to pay little attention to it until something goes wrong.
The good news is that when provided with a healthy diet, the digestive tract is well-designed to take care of things naturally.
A nutrient-rich, balanced diet helps to nourish all of your body’s cells, including those in your digestive tract. So you’ll want to provide your system with plenty of fiber, and make sure that you get adequate fluids and plenty of exercise to help keep you regular. You’ll also want to ensure that you get a source of probiotics. These are beneficial bacteria found in certain foods that help maintain the proper balance of the microorganisms that live in your digestive tract.
Fiber is the structural portion of a plant, and is found in whole fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains like oats and brown rice. Adults should be eating in the neighborhood of 30 grams a day, but the average grownup only eats about a third of that. Our busy lifestyles contribute to the problem – when we’re on the go, we’re less likely to eat the high fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are more typically found at home.
Different types of fiber have different effects on the body, and it’s important to get plenty of fiber from a variety of sources. Some fibers – such as those found in foods like apples, oranges, potatoes, oats, barley, and beans – produce a feeling of fullness, while the fibers found in vegetables and whole grains help move food through the intestines, so they are particularly helpful in preventing constipation.
Proper bowel function relies on adequate fluids to keep your system running smoothly. Fluid helps the fibers in foods to swell, which adds bulk to the stool and aids elimination. You also need water to produce saliva and digestive juices, and to transport nutrients to your cells, so taking in adequate fluids every day is vitally important to not only your digestive health, but your overall health, too. Aim for about 8 glasses of liquid daily – water and other calorie-free beverages are preferred (and yes, tea and coffee count towards your daily fluid intake).
Your digestive system houses tens of trillions of microorganisms, including a huge variety of species of bacteria. Taken together, these organisms are termed probiotics, and the entire colony is sometimes called the “gut microbiome”. These helpful bacteria serve a variety of functions. They help your body extract nutrients from your food, they help with the production of certain vitamins, and they protect the health of the digestive tract by keeping out dangerous foreign invaders. But this mini ecosystem residing in your gut may do even more – there is evidence that your gut microbiome may also influence your body weight, memory and mood, too, although it is too early to draw conclusions from the little research published so far.
Probiotics in your foods can help promote the right balance of the various bacteria residing in your digestive tract. (And, certain dietary fibers – called “prebiotics” serve as a food source to the beneficial bacteria). One of the most common strains of probiotic bacteria that reside in your intestines is Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is found in yogurt. Aside from yogurt, “good” bacteria are found in other fermented foods, such as fermented soy products (miso or tempeh) as well as pickled foods like cucumber pickles or fermented cabbage (sauerkraut or kimchi), as well as probiotic dietary supplements.
Regular exercise supports digestive health in a couple of ways. As your muscles contract and your breath deepens during activity, the natural contractions of your intestinal muscles are stimulated, too, which helps to move food through your system. Exercise is also a well-known stress reducer, so it can help reduce digestive upsets that can occur in response to negative emotions. This connection between your gut and your brain is a suggests that keeping your digestive system in tip-top shape is vital to your sense of well-being.
Putting it All Together
The diet and lifestyle steps you take to keep yourself healthy are the same ones that promote digestive health, too. A diet that includes plenty of fiber from colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains, adequate hydration, and regular exercise are all key factors. And don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids, and to include sources of probiotics in your daily diet. If you feel you can’t meet your fiber or probiotic needs, you can add a supplement to your diet. Lastly, take time to enjoy your meals. Slow, mindful eating won’t tax your system, and you’ll be less likely to experience the indigestion that often comes from eating too much, too fast.