Likely wherever you’re reading your health information, you’ve probably seen the term “gut health” used quite frequently. Optimizing gut health is a hot topic these days and now more than ever, people are concerned with improving their digestive systems and getting rid of those pesky symptoms many of us believe are just an inconvenient, but expected “normal" part of digestion, like bloating, cramping, heartburn, acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea. Thankfully, this idea is changing, and people are ready to start feeling better!
If this sounds like you, keep reading as we walk through five great tips for restoring your gut health.
- Remove and reset
- Repair the gastrointestinal lining
- Replace digestive enzymes and gastric juices
- Repopulate your microbes
- Maintain renewed gut health
- Supplements for gut health
Tip 1—Remove & Reset; Identify Potential Triggers
Typically, the first step for addressing poor gut health and restoring digestive function is to assess current dietary habits. Often this means trying to identify potential triggers that could be prolonging your journey toward achieving optimal health. Sometimes we are aware of what the potential trigger foods are (for example, experiencing extreme gas and bloating every time you eat cheese), and other times we might have no idea what is going on. For both, but especially the latter, following an “elimination diet” might be recommended to you by a nutrition practitioner to get a clearer image of what is going on. If you’re wondering whether it's right for you, it’s important to get a clear understanding of what an elimination diet is, as well as the pros and cons of following this kind of restrictive diet.
An elimination diet is broken down into two different stages: the “elimination stage” and the “reintroduction stage” (which is equally, if not the most important stage–hello food variety!). During the elimination stage an individual typically removes one or several identified foods from their diet that are suspected triggers for the digestive symptoms. Ideally, this would only occur for 4 to 6 weeks, depending on the individual recommendations. Unfortunately, too many people get stuck in this stage and forget that it is designed to be short term. This is especially common if the person starts to feel better and doesn't want to add foods back into their diet for fear they might start to feel worse again. While this is a completely valid concern, remaining in this restrictive state is exactly the opposite of what we should do for a few reasons. First, prolonged elimination diets are extremely restrictive and can increase the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies which may lead to a whole host of additional problems. Secondly, without completing the reintroduction stage you are unable to be sure which food could be triggering your symptoms and are likely missing out on a lot of nutrient dense foods that you can tolerate well! During the elimination phase, it is possible that you could experience a decrease in symptoms. If you do, you’re likely on the right track.
There are many different types of formal elimination diets that are frequently used. The most used include:
- Low FODMAP
- Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)
- Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet
- Gluten-free diet
- Dairy-free diet
As was discussed, moving to the reintroduction stage is important for identifying food triggers for uncomfortable symptoms. The purpose of the reintroduction phase is to slowly introduce eliminated foods one at a time to identify possible causes of symptoms. It is important to introduce foods or food groups individually, giving at least 2-3 days between each introduction so that if a reaction does occur it is easier to identify which food might have been the culprit. Common symptoms that might occur when introducing foods include headaches, skin changes, digestive symptoms, fatigue, changes in bowel movements, and migraines.
Due to the restrictive nature of elimination diets, it is recommended that you only follow an elimination diet under the guidance of a medical doctor or nutrition professional. Due to the restrictive nature and potential risk for nutrient deficiencies, it is not recommended that individuals with or at risk for eating disorders follow an elimination diet. It is also recommended that parents consult with their primary medical provider before placing their child on an elimination diet due to the potential risk for nutrient deficiencies.
If you notice that symptoms return after introducing a food or food group, it is possible that this food could be a trigger and you may benefit from limiting or removing it from your diet while you work to restore your digestive health. Do not lose hope, as not all intolerances are forever and with focused gut support and restoration you may find you're able to better tolerate dietary triggers in the future.
Tip 2—Repair the GI Lining
The second step for restoring digestive health is to focus on repairing and restoring the integrity of the gastrointestinal (GI) lining. The digestive system is well known for its involvement in breaking down and absorbing nutrients from food, but what you might not realize is that it also protects your body by stopping food particles or potential pathogens from sneaking through your GI lining. When your GI lining is strong and functioning how it should be, it keeps the junctions that line your intestinal wall tight and selective. This means it only allows things like water, vitamins, and minerals to pass through to the bloodstream and it prevents unwanted materials from accessing your bloodstream. When these junctions become loose or leaky, unwanted pathogens and/or undigested food can pass into the bloodstream triggering inflammation or an immune reaction. This is known as increased intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”. Unfortunately, current modern-day lifestyle and environmental factors strongly impact the integrity of our GI lining, often negatively. Common examples include long term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), chronic stress, nutrient deficiencies, harmful or poor-quality house cleaning and personal care products, exposure to chemicals, antibiotic use, and lack of exposure to nature.
Repairing and restoring your GI integrity can be quite easy when you start by focusing on all the wonderful things you can add to your diet and changes you can make to personal care product choices. When it comes to dietary choices, focusing on three main nourishing food groups is essential for decreasing inflammation and repairing your GI lining.
- Eat prebiotic fiber rich foods–Prebiotic fibers are a form of indigestible fiber that humans are unable to break down and absorb. It acts as fuel for the healthy gut microbes and helps to restore the delicate microbial balance that exists within your digestive system4. Examples of prebiotic rich foods include jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, chicory root, asparagus, garlic, onions, and leeks.
- Include “vitamin U” rich foods–Vitamin U is not really a vitamin, but an important nutrient that has been found to be helpful in soothing and repairing the GI lining especially when it comes to addressing ulcers. Foods rich in vitamin U include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale.
Enjoy L-Glutamine rich foods- L-Glutamine is an amino acid that is an important fuel source for all cells, including those that line the intestinal wall. It helps to support and strengthen your GI lining, which makes leaky gut much less likely. L-Glutamine rich foods include whole-eggs, grass-fed beef, cabbage, tofu, grass-fed dairy, and chicken.
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Tip 3—Replace Digestive Enzymes and Gastric Juices
After you have successfully removed potential triggers and repaired the integrity of your GI lining, it's time to support the production of digestive enzymes and gastric juices, what we’ll refer to in this section as igniting your digestive fire. The production of these bodily juices plays an essential role in healthy digestion by helping to break down the food you eat and absorbing key nutrients. Important digestive enzymes like pepsin, pancreatic amylase, and lipase as well as hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) often become dampened and diluted due to modern day lifestyle and dietary choices. Examples of these lifestyle and dietary factors include chronic stress, certain medication usage, age, excessive alcohol intake, and the consumption of toxic fats like canola oil or margarine.
Symptoms that your digestive fire may be a little bit sluggish include bloating after meals, constipation, gas, nausea, and undigested food in your stool.
So now that we know what might slow down your digestive fire, you might be wondering how you can boost it.
- The first step would be to chew your food fully before swallowing, we’re talking chew your food to baby food texture. It might sound silly and feel foreign at first, but the mechanical motion of chewing stimulates the production of salivary amylase, a digestive enzyme in the mouth, and alerts the rest of the digestive system that food is on the way. Digestion is a north to south process, so starting off strong with your first bite is important.
- Another way to ignite your digestive fire is through specific dietary changes. For instance, beginning your day with a glass of filtered warm water and fresh lemon juice or 1-2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar is a great way to wake your digestive system up for the day. Other dietary choices include eating bitter foods like arugula, radishes, dandelion greens, and kale before or after meals. Bitter foods contain compounds that stimulate the liver and gallbladder, as well as bile production, which are helpful for the breakdown and digestion of fat. Including zinc rich foods in your dietary rotation is also important for proper digestion of foods. Zinc is a mineral that helps the body to sufficiently produce pancreatic enzymes and hydrochloric acid which help to break down the food you eat. Foods rich in zinc include shellfish, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, red meat, and eggs.
- Finally, hydration is important, but avoid drinking large amounts of water during your meals. Consuming large amounts of liquid before or after a meal can dilute your gastric juices, making it more difficult for your body to break down your food.
Tip 4—Repopulate Your Microbes
Now that your digestive fire is restored and your system is soothed, it’s time to think about restoring balance and repopulating your gut microbiome. Diversity in your microbiome is essential for a healthy functioning self. This is one of the many reasons why eating the most varied and diverse range of foods possible is important as different types of foods feed different types of bacteria within your digestive system. Different species of bacteria can benefit different types of symptoms so simply put, the more species of bacteria you have the greater number of health benefits you might experience.
There are certain types of foods that boast more gut boosting qualities than others.
Fermented foods are a great way to repopulate your gut microbes and increase microbial diversity through naturally occurring probiotics. What are probiotics? Probiotics are living organisms that are naturally found in some foods, also known as “beneficial bacteria”. Like their nickname suggests, these bacteria have many good-for-you properties including crowding out pathogens or bad bacteria and boosting your immune system (most of which resides in the gut). Examples of fermented foods to introduce food-based probiotics to your digestive system include traditional fermented foods include kimchi, kombucha, kefir, full-fat and grass-fed yogurt, and sauerkraut.
Another great way to increase microbial diversity is to eat a wide range of whole foods, specifically fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, and legumes. These foods are high in fiber, which functions as food for our healthy bacteria thus stimulating their growth. Score! Research has even shown that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can prevent the growth of some harmful bacteria. Good-for-you foods that are high in fiber include chickpeas, lentils, berries, beans, artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, and apples.
Tip 5—Maintain Renewed Gut Health
When you finally have reached digestive balance, and your symptoms have subsided your work is not done. In fact, maintaining your digestive balance is just as important as all the previous steps discussed to prevent the return of uncomfortable digestive symptoms. The key to maintaining your renewed gut health is to choose whole foods-based options, specifically a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and good quality protein sources.
Supplements Can Also Help Your Gut
Dietary changes are not the only way to improve your digestive health, and for some people including targeted supplementation might be an important part of their journey toward optimal digestion. If you feel that you fall into this category it is important to remember that you can’t out supplement a bad diet. You should always start with the foundations (lifestyle and dietary habits) before moving to supplementation.
If you are making changes to improve your digestion, here are some important supplements that might be helpful. Please remember that you should always consult with your doctor before starting any new supplementation or making any changes.
Short term supplementation with L-Glutamine, the amino acid involved in repairing and maintaining the integrity of your GI lining, is beneficial when working to restore digestive functioning.
Both prebiotic and probiotic supplementation is important for repopulating and fueling the beneficial bacteria.
Bitter foods contain compounds that stimulate bile production and support the liver and gallbladder, all of which are essential for fat digestion. If eating bitter foods feels unappealing, supplementing with digestive bitters can be a practical and effective way to improve your digestion.
Digestive enzymes are essential for proper digestion, and although there may be dietary ways to increase our digestive enzymes supplemental enzymes might be most convenient for adding to our daily lives.
Optimizing your digestion is an important part of becoming your healthiest and best-feeling self possible. Although it can feel overwhelming, breaking it down into small steps can make it feel more manageable, and often leads to the best results! Ready to give supplementation a try but not sure where to start? Check out our Digestive Rescue and Repair essential curation created specifically with your digestion restoration mind.
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About the Author
Emily Alexander, M.Ed, FNTP—Emily is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner with Curated Wellness. She is passionate about supporting others in their journey to improve their relationship with food and their body through gentle nutrition, and is a firm believer that understanding the bio-individual components of nutrition is one of the best ways to do so. Emily completed her Master’s of education in health education and promotion with a concentration in eating disorders, and draws from both her educational background and life experience to help her clients improve their energy, understand their bodies, boost their athletic potential, and break down diet myths one at a time. Learn more about Emily.
The information presented on this website is intended for educational purposes only. Statements within this site have not been evaluated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This content is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any specific condition or disease, nor is it medical advice and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical expertise. Readers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health conditions or concerns. One should always consult a qualified medical professional before engaging in any dietary and/or lifestyle change or new health program. Curated Wellness does not take responsibility for any health consequences of any person or persons following the information in this educational content.
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