Dr. Lindsey Josephson, Naturopathic Physician with the Tri-Cities Cancer Center
Talking about the health of our digestive system might not be as sexy as its next-door neighbor the urogenital system, but our digestion actually plays a big role in our overall health. It is where nutrients are taken into our bodies, a major player in elimination of waste, and plays host to an entire ecosystem of friendly bacteria, yeast and archaea collectively referred to as the microbiome. When this ecosystem is disrupted or the diversity is reduced you not only end up with tummy trouble, but you are also at increased risk for many diseases like cancer, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also very hard to be in a good mood when your intestinal pets are unhappy because if you don’t treat them well, they can strike back with their own little chemical warfare causing gas, bloating, sluggishness, achiness and mood alterations to name just a few. Fortunately, taking care of this ecosystem is entirely within your capabilities and here are a few tools you can use.
- Fiber – This often taken for granted nutrient is the number one key to gut health. Fiber is not digested by you, but it is digested by your microbiome. And those friendly bacteria in turn give you some really awesome products to you when you feed them. Things like short chain fatty acids that nourish your intestinal lining, vitamins and special signals shared with your immune cells that help them learn to tell the difference between friend and foe. They also help you digest and assimilate the nutrients from your food. Just try getting all the anti-oxidants out of your celery without these buggers, you just can’t do it. 25g is generally recommended, but that is really a minimum. It should come from a variety of sources. Why? Because studies show that diversity in friendly bacteria is key to a healthy microbial ecosystem. All of those different bugs like different types of food are important, so make sure you are getting fiber from whole grains, legumes, fruits, veggies and mushrooms on a regular basis.
- Antioxidants – As with fiber, more variety is better. There are thousands of different antioxidants available in plants that have different activities protecting your cells from harmful byproducts of your own metabolism. The best way to make sure you get all the benefit that nature has to offer is to make sure you have a variety of colors. I recommend shooting for a full rainbow every week, but even within each color family more variety=better.
- Friendly probiotic foods like yogurt. The mechanism by which these help your microbiome isn’t really known. They contain many of the same species that are present in your gut, but studies have shown that they don’t actually colonize. Studies have also definitely shown that they are beneficial to gut health and in some unknown way help you to grow a healthy microbiome.
Regular physical exercise keeps things moving and improves every measure of health currently know ranging from energy, to mental focus, blood sugar regulation, cholesterol, BMI, and even enjoyment of sex! Promoting normal motility is also the biggest defense you have against overgrowth of opportunistic bugs in your gut. Like a river develops algae blooms when it becomes stagnant, your gut will “bloom” with less than friendly bugs if you sit still too long.
The gut communicates with the brain through the Vagus nerve- also known as the 10th cranial nerve. This nerve sends repair signals to the gut during parasympathetic conditions. The parasympathetic state is the “rest and repair” side of physiology and is opposed to the stress state, so the better you manage stress the better your body will repair, especially your gut.