Nearly every single one of us has experienced digestive problems at some point. If you’re one of the afflicted, then every time you eat is a potential for stomach and intestinal discomfort. While the symptoms and severity may vary from person to person, digestive health has become a widespread concern for the majority of the world’s population.
The digestive system doesn’t just merely break down the foods we eat. It also happens to house around 70% of the cells that make up your immune system. The state of your digestive health also plays key roles in hormone balancing that affects your mood. And of course we can’t overlook the digestive system’s ability to remove unnecessary waste and toxins.
Many health professionals and scientists consider the digestive system as its own inner ecosystem. So if we can maintain a stable equilibrium within this specialized ecosystem, we should expect both mental and physical well-being. This is why so much importance has been placed on maintaining a healthy gut for optimal health.
A survey from 2019 of over 71,000 Americans revealed that nearly two-thirds of participants experienced digestive problems including heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea. If this survey is indicative of the US population in general, then more than 200 million of us have experienced gastrointestinal problems!
While it’s true that digestive health can decline as a natural part of aging, some people think there’s not much that they can do to improve digestive function. However, there are some proven ways to enhance digestive health, and they’re quite easy to implement.
1) Probiotics Can Work Miraculously
We might be hyper focused on shielding ourselves from the microbial world, but not all microbes are bad. A healthy gut is flush with the good bacteria we call probiotics.
The location of this hub of activity means probiotics play an integral role in digestive health. Probiotic strains have been influential in treating diarrhea, IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and peptic ulcers. But probiotics have broader capabilities that extend beyond digestion. They can also help to manage eczema, food allergies, urinary tract infections, and support overall immune function.
You can increase the health of your probiotic population by consuming fermented foods and beverages such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. It you’re not into fermented foods, probiotic supplements are readily available.
2) Don’t Overlook a Balanced Diet
This is a no-brainer, but it’s worth repeating. A healthy diet is an integral part in resolving numerous health problems, not just digestive issues. A balanced and wholesome diet is also a cornerstone in maintaining sound health and longevity overall.
Digestive health is a direct reflection of what you put in your body, so making an effort to fuel up with complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats will go a long way in supporting digestive function. Choosing foods that are the least processed retains the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and fibers that support good digestion.
And whenever possible, wash whatever you’re eating down with water. Fluids help to move the byproducts of digestion out of the body. The end stage of the digestion journey is a significant part in maintaining the GI tract too.
3) Don’t Forget About Fiber
Fiber is an essential yet commonly overlooked component of the diet. Fiber plays the important role of adding bulk to stool in an effort to reduce constipation and may also reduce the risk of colon cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases. Additionally, increased fiber intake can influence weight management and lower the risk of heart disease.
You need both soluble and insoluble fibers in your diet. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and slows down digestion. This type of fiber helps to maintain blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Sources of soluble fiber include fruits, vegetables, beans, oat bran, and barley.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve and moves through the digestive system intact. This is the type of fiber associated with accelerated movement of waste through the intestines. Good sources of insoluble fiber are whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fruit with the skin still on.
Adults should aim for 20-30 grams of total dietary fiber each day.
Did you know that certain types of fiber can help you multiply your probiotic population? Prebiotics are special soluble fibers that travel undigested to the colon, where they begin to ferment. The fermentation byproducts of fatty acids are what feed the probiotic bacteria, supporting their growth. Sources of prebiotic fiber include, onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichokes.
4) Maintain Ideal Stomach Acid Levels
The food we eat isn’t broken down by digestive enzymes alone. Stomach acid, or more accurately the hydrochloric acid found in gastric juice, aids in the digestion process as well.
The stomach secretes gastric juice when eating begins, but acid levels don’t remain the same throughout life. Your stomach acid production naturally declines with age; however, some diseases affecting the stomach lining and medications that suppress stomach acid production can contribute to low acid production as well.
Adequate stomach acid levels also play a role in killing harmful bacteria in the stomach that cause food poisoning and peptic ulcers.
While there are some individuals who can link their acid reflux to an overproduction of stomach acid, many are afflicted with this common effect of indigestion due to insufficient stomach acid levels. The root cause of acid reflux and its common symptom heartburn can often be pinned on a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) that initiates chronic low level inflammation of the stomach lining. H. pylori can wreak havoc in the stomach if you don’t have enough stomach acid to efficiently kill it.
Inflammation and pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter develops when H. pylori is allowed to colonize the gut. This irritation and pressure doesn’t allow the sphincter to close properly, and you no longer have that protective seal that keeps gastric contents in the stomach. The weakened flap allows stomach contents to retreat back up into the esophagus (this is acid reflux) where it creates the characteristic burning sensation.
If you don’t have a hyper acidic stomach, you can increase hydrochloric acid levels by taking betaine hydrochloride (betaine HCL) supplements at mealtimes. Betaine is a vitamin-like compound found in some foods such as sugar beets and grains. As a supplement taken before meals, betaine HCL helps to raise acid levels in the stomach when natural levels are deficient.
5) Maybe It’s Time for a Colon Cleanse
A well-functioning digestive system goes a long way to promote overall health.
Accumulated toxins and wastes in the intestinal tract can diminish digestive function. While regular bowel movements help to eliminate the collection of potentially harmful microbes, fatty acids and other byproducts of digestion waiting in the colon, sometimes a more thorough cleaning out is beneficial.
Colon cleansing can take many forms. It can be as simple as a plain water enema or can involve consuming certain oils, herbs, or mineral-rich substances that have a laxative effect.
Whatever method you choose, performing a periodic colon cleanse can help to reinvigorate functionality to this region of the digestive system.