Improving our gut health is one of the best things we can do for our overall health. In today’s post, we’re exploring 7 ways to improve your gut health, including some simple things that you can implement right away.
When it comes to improving our gut health, there are a lot of angles we can approach it. Like ruling out food sensitivities, eating more gut-friendly foods, taking certain supplements, or undergoing a full-on gut healing protocol. But today I want to share with you some basic, everyday things that you can start implementing right away, or working towards over time, to improve your gut health.
What even is ‘gut health’, really? Gut health simply refers to digestive health, and this my friends influences our overall health. If our digestive systems are out of whack, we can experience trouble digesting foods, a lot of discomfort (bloating, diarrhea, constipation), IBS or other digestive disorders, and even skin, joint, hormone, or mental health issues. Likewise, when our gut is healthy and happy, we feel a lot more balanced overall.
Improving the health of your digestive system takes time. One way that you can think about it is that your gut is like a muscle: The more you work on giving it the right foods, the better it gets at digesting them over time (even if it’s the healthy things that give you the most trouble) and the better you feel. One step at a time is the best-ever motto for most things, I’d say, and certainly so for improving our gut health.
Continue reading to learn more, or watch the video below (you can also subscribe to my channel for weekly videos!)
1. Swap Out Refined Foods
Refined foods, like refined carbohydrates and grains, are not only stripped of nutrients, but essential fibre that keeps our gut happy and healthy. There are two kinds of fibre: insoluble and soluble.
Insoluble fiber is responsible for aiding GI motility. It acts like a scrub brush in our intestines by brushing waste along and keeping things moving. It also helps promote regular bowel movements by adding bulk to the stool (daily bowel movements are important!), and maintaining proper pH of the intestines. You can think of insoluble fibre as the “roughage” of foods. Things like stalks, skins, and seeds.
Soluble fiber, on the other hand, turns into a gel-like substance in the digestive tract and doesn’t pass through us in the same way that insoluble fibre does. Instead, it helps soothe digestion and nourish our microbiome (we’ll talk about about the microbiome in a moment). In some cases, soluble fibre can also slow down digestion which can be helpful for those dealing with loose stool. Soluble fibre is found in foods like lentils, beans, sweet potato, oats
Most whole foods have a combination of both insoluble and soluble fibre, so the best way to get both of them is to eat a diet that’s rich in plant diversity. Here are some ways you can swap out refined foods for whole, high-fibre options:
- Use brown or wild rice instead of white
- Try 100% whole grain breads instead of white (even better, look for sprouted loaves which improves digestibility)
- Use whole grains pastas instead of white pasta
- Keep the skins on your fruits and vegetables, like apples and potatoes
Can fibre make you gassy?
If we suddenly and substantially increase our fibre intake, bloating and sometimes even constipation can follow. The key here is to increase your consumption slowly, over the course of a few days or a few weeks. Also note that in some cases, reducing insoluble fibre (e.g. consuming white rice) can be helpful for diarrhea or an upset stomach as there’s less “roughage” passing through the gut, which can be tough on sensitive guts. But generally speaking, whole, unrefined foods are best for supporting gut health.
Prebiotics (and Probiotics)
Probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi are great, but fuelling our gut microbes to begin with is just as important, if not more! We do this by consuming a variety of prebiotic-rich foods.
Prebiotics are certain kinds of fibres that bypass digestion and act as a source of food for the bacteria that reside in our colon. One of the many benefits of prebiotics are the products of fermentation. Bacteria ferment prebiotic foods and produce substances like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as butyrate, a major fuel source for our colon cells that helps improve gut integrity, support immune health, reduce inflammation, and prevent food sensitivities.
Some rich sources of prebiotics include:
- whole grains like oats
Having a diverse gut microflora (microbiome) is essential for true gut health and overall health, and without prebiotics to fuel them, we would have a very lacklustre microbiome which is associated with a number of health issues.
Prebiotics and Bloating
If you’re not used to eating many fibrous, prebiotic-rich foods, start slowly. Because prebiotics are fermented in the gut, they can cause a lot of bloating and gas for some people. This is due to the FODMAPs they contain (an acronym for certain kinds of poorly digested short-chain carbohydrates. Learn more here).
When my gut health was at its worst, I couldn’t tolerate prebiotics at all. Like, nope. Over time though, I was slowly able to increase my consumption of them without issues. Remember that the more we eat, the stronger our gut becomes. However, if you’ve had major long-term issues digesting these or other kinds of foods, talk to your doctor.
Polyphenols are anti-inflammatory (and actually also prebiotic) compounds found in certain foods that are absolutely jam-packed with antioxidants. Polyphenols are incredible for our gut health and microbiome. They’re found in foods like blueberries, green tea/matcha (which is particularly high in a polyphenol called epigallocatechin-gallate, or EGCG), and cacao.
I love drinking green tea in the morning. Eating 1/2 – 1 cup of fresh berries each day is another great way to increase your intake of these lovely polyphenols.
Take a few deep breaths before you eat
This may sound trivial, but taking a few deep breaths before you take your first bite of a meal helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This branch of our nervous system governs “rest and digest”, which–yes, actually–helps us digest our food better! When we’re stressed or rushed around mealtime, we simply do not digest our food as efficiently. But a few deep breaths can do the trick.
Relaxing at mealtime also ensures you chew more thoroughly, which is another key for improving digestion. When we chew our food well (until it’s a paste, ideally!) instead of swallowing large chunks, enzymes are better able to break down the components of our food, like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Eat Until 80% Full
The notion of eating until you’re 80% full is rooted in Japanese teachings. The idea is to eat until you’re no longer hungry, as opposed to eating until you’re stuffed. You know those times when you’re uncomfortably full and you need to lie down after you’ve eaten a large meal? Imagine that’s your stomach at 100% capacity. Then imagine eating until you’re 80% full, where there’s still some space left. You feel satiated. You’re no longer hungry, but you’re not completely stuffed either.
Eating until you’re 80% full gives your body a chance to catch up and not overeat, which can be hard on the gut to process.
Movement is absolutely essential for a healthy gut. Not only does research show that exercise benefits our microbiome by increasing diversity, but moving our bodies is key for issues like constipation, bloating or gas by helping to stimulate the bowels. Try heading outside for a 20-30 minute walk after dinner, or doing some stretches that help open up the abdomen.
Don’t eat too close to bedtime
Eating an earlier dinner helps to create a meal pattern that aligns with our body’s circadian rhythm. Our gut microbes and digestive organs have their own ‘clock’ that is set by the timing in which we eat. Eating in alignment with night and day helps to support our internal rhythms. Having your last meal 2-3 hours before bedtime is ideal. Doing so also gives your gut a chance to rest overnight.
Aside from that, we’re also more insulin sensitive in the morning and more insulin resistant in the evening. This means we’re better equipped to digest food earlier on in the day than we are at nighttime. Plus, many people find they sleep better and have more balanced appetites the following day when they don’t eat so close to bedtime.
To learn more comprehensive strategies for supporting and improving your digestive system, check out my 4-week Digestive Wellness Program.
Questions? Leave ’em in the comments below!