As we emerge from the depths of winter, regaining optimum gut health can be a balancing act. Tanya Hollis explains how.
Rich comfort foods and perhaps a little less exercise than usual might have added a snug kilo or two. This helps to preserve core heat in the cooler months but, left unchecked, can slow down the digestive system, leading to gut cramps, bloating and bowel movement irregularity. Thankfully there are plenty of strategies that will help put back the spring in your step.
The food we choose plays an important role in our gut health, and one of the key players is fibre. Fibre is an indigestible carbohydrate that pushes wastes through the intestines and keeps things regular. Australian nutritionists recommend adults consume between 25-30 grams of fibre daily through a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. When you need a fibre boost, psyllium is a particularly rich source of soluble fibre, which binds with toxins and wastes, and insoluble fibre, which creates bulk and helps move things along. But fibre can’t do its job properly without sufficient water intake. The water we drink, or absorb through our food, helps digestion by lubricating the intestinal tract and creating a smoother path for waste to easily pass through.
As well as water, glutamine plays an important role in lubricating the intestines by supporting the gut’s mucosal function. Found in foods including beef, lamb, chicken, saltwater fish, milk, nuts, eggs, cabbage, soybeans and kidney beans, glutamine is the main energy source of the epithelial cells that make up the intestinal lining.
Effectively flushing waste from the gut is one way of keeping the digestive tract healthy. Another consideration is the health of the thousands of species of microbiota living within it. Healthy microbiota aid digestion and absorption of nutrients, synthesise some vitamins and amino acids and support the body’s immunity. They also help keep nasty bugs in check, warding off any pathogens by crowding them out. An effective microbiota population works to strengthen the intestinal lining, improve fat metabolism and reduce inflammation, so it makes sense to look after these little guys.
Plant-based, fibre-rich foods will keep your microbiota in peak condition, as will an active, healthy lifestyle. Avoid fried and highly processed foods, especially those containing food additives and sugar. Experts also suggest sticking to healthy fats found in nuts, seeds and avocados and avoiding non-essential exposure to antibiotics, which can undermine the natural diversity of gut flora.
Prebiotics and probiotics are essential elements of a healthy microbiome, but can create some confusion. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fibre that supports the growth of healthy bacteria and are abundant in leafy greens, beans, asparagus, garlic, onion, bananas and oats. For those on limited diets or who are unable to tolerate certain foods, prebiotic supplements might be of use. So while prebiotics create healthy bacteria, probiotics are themselves live bacteria that assist by colonising the microbiome with the right type of residents. This is especially important after an illness or a course of antibiotics, in order to rebuild the gut’s population of good bacteria. Currently, most probiotic bacterial strains are not able to permanently colonise the gut, which means they need to be taken regularly to confer a health benefit. Researchers are working on ways to change the ecology of the gut by delivering a range of strains. Until then, regular use of quality probiotics can assist in maintaining a good balance of gut bacteria to support general immune function and recover after a bout of illness.
A range of vitamins and minerals are also essential to keep your gut working smoothly. Like glutamine, active vitamin A – or retinol – is crucial to the gut’s mucosal immune system and is found in eggs, dairy and organ meats. Plant based vitamin A needs to be processed by the gut before it can be of use to the body, and this is not always possible in the case of poor gut health. Pregnant women, or those planning pregnancy, should consult heir doctor before taking retinol supplements.
Zinc has a protective and strengthening effect on the gut’s lining, while curcurmin, found in turmeric, delivers anti-inflammatory benefits and helps regulate a healthy microbiota. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice extracts specifically relieve discomfort from chronic indigestion, heartburn and stomach ulcers.
Suboptimal gut health can lead to poor absorption of nutrients from the diet, which is where supplementation with natural digestive enzymes might assist. Digestive enzymes work by breaking down food so that it can be efficiently delivered through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. Supplementary dietary enzymes can be animal or plant-based, with vegetarian options often derived from ginger, peppermint, fennel seed, beets, papain from papaya and bromelain from pineapple.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get your gut on track is to spend more time outdoors. Exposure to sunshine delivers a healthy dose of vitamin D, which supports antimicrobial molecules that are essential for healthy gut flora. So step out into the new season and start regaining your intestinal balance.