foods support healthy digestive system image

Foods to support a healthy digestive system

In this article I am going to discuss some basic tips to help you maintain a healthy digestive system through the food that you eat.

Supporting the health of our gut and “diversifying” the microbiome has become somewhat of a trendy subject to speak about. The development of new technologies over the past twenty years has allowed for a better understanding of the bugs that live in and on us, what impact they can have on our health and the importance of the symbiotic relationship we have with these bugs. We rely on them and they rely on us.

If that balance is maintained, we can go through life with few digestive symptoms and what is now apparent is that a healthy microbiome can reduce our risk of disease and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety and even body composition as well.

“The human gut contains some 10 trillion individual bacteria in 1,000 different species. These bacteria influence how our bodies break down foods. Gut microbes play a crucial role in our health and disease. They help us absorb nutrients and fight off viruses and “bad” bacteria that disrupt good intestinal colonies. Almost every sort of disease has a gut bug connection somehow. Ulcers, bowel disease, obesity, cancer, neurological disorders like autism, ADHD…When gut bacteria become altered so does the brain chemistry. They survive in highly acidic, oxygen-free environments. Their populations are kept in line with the help of probiotics, prebiotics and their combination synbiotics.”

Melinda Wenner / Jeremy Nicholson, Scientific American – Jul. 2008, p.90

It is worth noting that there will be individual circumstances that mean that even the recommendations given in this article may cause you digestive upset, if that is the case then you probably need some assistance to understand more about the environment in your gut and how you might be able to improve this. Everything with health is about context, so whilst these recommendations should assist the majority of people, upset to some of these foods may actual be a clue for you as you explore ways to improve your own digestive health.

What is the microbiome?

The “microbiome” has to be one of the buzz words of the last 10years, with around 90% of all research on the gut taking place over the past 5-10years, our knowledge of the microbiome has developed significantly, but I suggest it is still well in its infancy.

The microbiome is a miniature world make up of organisms and their associated genes that flourish in and on you. The gut is a place where so many of these bugs reside. I think of the gut microbiome as a metropolitan city, all the bugs having their own little role to play, allowing for somewhat of a chaotic harmony to exist allowing the city/gut to function as it should.

Challenges come when there are too many of some and not enough of others, a lack of diversity or too many of some bugs hanging out in the wrong areas. Of course, this is quite a simplistic way of looking at it, but it’s a helpful starting point.

How can you support a healthy and diverse microbiome?

The microbiome is impacted by so many things, some we personally had little control over such as, how we were born (natural birth vs C-section), whether we were breast fed or not, exposure to antibiotics or other medications, early childhood stress, trauma and illnesses and our diet in our early developmental years.

Good news is there are ways in which you can influence your gut microbiome now and most are well within your control. Our nutrition and lifestyle can have a considerable impact on the health of our microbiome and thus our gut and overall health. What we choose to put in our mouths and our minds are probably the two most crucial areas that you can influence.

Food Diversity & Stress Management

At the moment a diverse microbiome appears to be one of the areas that we should try and support for optimising health and disease or symptom prevention.

A good variety of food in the diet has been shown to help diversify the gut microbiome. Plant-based foods appear to play a particularly important role because of their fibre and polyphenol/phytonutrient content. These foods have been shown to help reduce inflammation in the gut, feed the bacteria (acting as prebiotics), support immune balance etc. This is not to say that only plant-based foods play a role in diversifying the microbiome, all food will have some role, and this is why I think diet rich in variety that lacks significant restriction will provide the most effective strategy in microbiome diversification.

Good news is this means you don’t have to remove anything (unless it is having a significant impact on your health such as an a food allergen), instead just try and increase how many different things you do eat and perhaps put a large emphasis on plant-based colourful foods for the majority of your meals. For some people you may have to gradually increase portion sizes of these foods as a sudden increase in fibre can lead to digestive symptoms as the gut adapts. So perhaps start low and increase slowly from where you are at now. This might mean simply adding one new vegetable to each main meal and slowly building up from there.

The next big step in my opinion is stress management. Emotions can have impacts on our food choices and also those emotions can affect our physiology as well. Stress can impact how the immune system in the gut functions which in turn can impact our ability to maintain a balanced microbiome, it can disturb the production of acids and enzyme that help with digestion, effect the health of our gut barrier, as well as affect the movement and speed at which food can pass through the gut.

I like to use a simple analogy to describe how stress could impact the gut. If you were a zebra running from a lion do you think at that point your body wants to eat or digest anything? No, your body is doing all it can to manage stress and survival.

Management of stress and emotions is obviously easier said than done, however, if you recognise that stress and emotions are impacting your digestive symptoms then rather than doing lots of physiological exploration you may have to work more on mind and emotional therapies instead. Both can feed into one another; the gut can impact emotions and emotions can impact the gut. Your journey of exploration if you suffer with chronic digestive systems is what is causing what or is it both. This is why a holistic approach to functional digestive issues is crucial. The thought that you are going to find a pill or a single solution to a complex chronic issue, lacks understanding of the human body and its interaction with the environment that surrounds it.

Supporting microbiome diversity is therefore about focusing on what you eat, how you eat as well as what your brain eats in the form of emotions and stressors.

Tips to support microbiome diversity and a healthy gut

  1. Promote the intake of pre and probiotic foods – Here is a link to an article on some of the best pre and probiotic foods.
  2. Eat ½ a plate of colourful plant-based foods in each main meal to increase phytonutrients and therefore polyphenols.
  3. Use freely herbs and spices and drink all kinds of herbal teas, green tea, black teas etc if you enjoy them.
  4. Choose foods rich in fibre.
  5. Practice mindful eating – check out 10 of my favourite tips from Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh on mindful eating.
  6. What is your stress load? Consider this and look at how you might be able to reduce it. Are there things you can remove, are there things you can put in place to help you manage stress more effectively?
  7. Avoid dogmatic unnecessarily restrictive diets.
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