A quick review of why we should care about a healthy gut and the simple-to-do steps that we can all take to improve digestion.
It seems to me that we've been hearing about "gut health" a lot in the last few years. Before that about the only time I mentioned the word, "gut" was as a kid when I'd say, "I hate your guts!" Or as an adult when I'd say "I'm going to go with my gut."
Am I alone in this? I was seriously trying to think of a time I used the word in a passing-normal way like we hear now and I can't come up with anything else.
But 'gut' is a real, medical term for a part of our bodies that we're learning more and more needs to be taken care of to work at it's best level. And my non-expert guess for the reason we haven't heard about gut health earlier is that it's taken this long for the Standard American Diet (SAD) to wreak it's havoc in the form of autoimmune diseases, Celiac, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, among others. I also know from experience (family, previous jobs, and now personal) that as we grow older, digestive issues become a big deal. Things just don't work as well as they do when we're younger.
So I've been listening, reading, and researching lately all about gut and digestive health. And I'm guessing many of you have, too - even though it's not always something we want to talk about! We have talked about it some in the Facebook Healthy Eating group, so I do know it's something others are thinking about, too.
I thought I'd share a bit about what I've learned, why I'm paying attention to my gut, what things I've incorporated into my diet and lifestyle, and how you, too, can start focusing on this part of our body that I've heard referred to as our "second brain."
Why care about a healthy gut?
All disease begins in the gut. -Hippocrates
- The good bacteria in your digestive system can affect your body’s vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and ability to eliminate toxins, as well as overall mental health. Well. That covers a lot, doesn't it?
- 30 to 40 percent of the population has functional bowel problems at some point and a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety (source).
- Research over the past two decades has revealed that gut health is critical to overall health, and that an unhealthy gut contributes to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autism spectrum disorder, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome (source).
I could go on, but I'll let you google it to find even more compelling reasons to care about our digestion. So now we can see why - how about the what? What can we do? What do we change?
I've mentioned in my series on weight loss that I grew up eating terrible - lots of fast food and packaged foods (think Hamburger Helper, American cheese, and diet pop) into my twenties. What I didn't mention (because who really wants to talk about it?), is that I had digestive issues to go along with a diet like that, mainly in the form of constipation, bloating and gas. Sorry - there's no beating around the bush, here!
Over the years I've done a number of things that have helped - some intentionally for digestion and some not:
- Added 250-500mg of magnesium daily (a life-changer in the constipation department - ugh, seriously, this isn't easy to write about, but if it helps even one of you, it'll be worth it!) NOTE- a little more on magnesium after a reader comment: there are different types and the milligrams are often different: magnesium oxide isn’t absorbed as well, but is better for bowel health for many – it’s what I take at the 250-500mg level; magnesium citrate absorbs better so the pills are usually smaller with 125mg (but not always). So everyone needs to start with a small amount and see how their body reacts (too much can cause diarrhea) as well as try the different kinds, but I urge everyone to try it because it’s so important (gut, heart, bone, etc,) and we typically can’t get enough through food.
- Added a lot more vegetables to my diet
- Got rid of packaged, processed foods and concentrated on eating real, whole foods (with an 85-15% rule)
- tweaked recipes to lower the sugar, increase protein, and lower gluten
As I've gotten older and my hormones have fluctuated - and as I heard more and more about gut health - I've started looking into it more. I found that hormones and gut health are related, too (our bodies are sure complex, fearfully and wonderfully made!). So in January, I made a personal goal to focus on gut health as a next step in my healthy living journey.
Other than eating mainly whole, unprocessed foods, here the simple steps I've taken since then towards the goal of a healthy gut:
- Researched, reading books and websites like this one and this one. Oh, and this article is amazing. (see below for more of my favorites).
- Started making my own fermented foods to provide good gut bacteria with foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables, and corn relish (these are SO good and I'm going to start sharing my favorite recipes made with these easy lids I've already told you about).
- Tried probiotic supplements (the two I've tried haven't really worked for me, though I know they work for many people to easy digestive discomfort).
- Continued to reduce sugar even more in my diet (though I won't give up my piece of dark chocolate after dinner - you gotta live after all, right?).
- Added more sources of omega-3 fats to balance omega-6 fats.
- Continued to avoid trans fats - apparently there are still trans fats in foods labled "trans fat free" so it's best to avoid all foods with partially-hydrogenated oils and yellow industrial oils (canola, vegetable, corn, etc.). I haven't used these for years, preferring olive, coconut, and cold-pressed, high oleic sunflower oils (better than regular sunflower oil, though I buy it at Trader Joe's for a fraction of the price).
- Make even more bone broths and soups. I've been making bone broth for years, since it's frugal and yummy, but I didn't know that bone broth can promote digestive health and healing of intestinal lining. Just another reason to plan more soups!
What I love about these steps is they're all easy to do - nothing complicated or hard. I'm not choosing to do elimination diets because I don't feel I have a hurdle to overcome - I just want to be as healthy as possible - so that makes it easier. My whole family has loved the fermented foods, I love seafood (good sources of omega-3s) and soups, and I was already on a lower-sugar path.
What You Can Do
This has all been a process of many years for me, though you can start to implement the steps above right now. It does help to know more of the how to gut health, though, which has really solidified my desire to stick to my goals.
And tell me - have you been thinking about this 'second brain' and if not, have I convinced you to start?
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