Having good overall health requires normal, healthy digestive function. That’s why it’s important to know that there are a number of ways your diet and lifestyle can influence the well-being of your GI tract and, in turn, the rest of your body. Discomforts like gas, bloating, indigestion, and acid reflux happen only on occasion in normal, healthy digestive systems.
Healthy digestion can be influenced by:
- The foods we eat
- Mental and physical stress
- Our gut bacteria (the gut microbiome)
- The natural lining of our gut
When it comes to maintaining healthy digestion, we often pay most attention to what we put into our bodies and, later, the excretion process, but the in-between matters just as much. Proper digestion plays a significant role in overall wellness: What happens in the GI tract impacts your mood, focus, energy, skin, and how well you age — from day-to-day vitality to long-term well-being.
That’s because the lining of the gut is a major line of defense for the body. It serves as a literal barrier between your gut and the rest of your body, ensuring that only what’s supposed to leave the GI tract can.
Your good gut bacteria are key here: When they’re in balance, it helps keep unwanted bacteria in check, maintains that natural gut barrier, and supports your nervous system. Equilibrium in the gut and microbiome helps your body maintain balance and well-being.
How Modern Life Influences Digestive Health
At every turn, gut function intersects with modern life. Your stress levels and sleep and exercise habits play a role; so does anything that comes into or leaves the body, from medications to foods and beverages. Here’s an overview of some of the most common gut influencers:
Stress: A little stress is natural and unavoidable, but constantly feeling on edge has become a way of life. Stubborn stress takes a toll on our health, including that of our gut. When under stress, your body is hard-wired to divert focus toward the perceived threat and away from digestion, naturally slowing it down.
Stress interferes with your body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s crucial for moving food through your GI tract. When functioning normally, the digestive system efficiently moves food and undesirable substances through the gut, to keep your health in balance.
Modern Diets: Our ancestors would hardly recognize most of the foods on our plate today. They subsisted on a diverse yet often low-calorie diet that was rich in nutrients (including valuable bitter phytochemicals). Now, we collectively rely too heavily on excessive carbohydrates, storage proteins like gluten, and gut-irritating lectins. Even healthy, “clean eating” regimens lack the phytochemicals found in foraged foods that balanced our ancestors’ microbiomes and nourished and supported their gut health for millennia.
Our Microbiome: The microbiome is the sum of all the microbes — both helpful and harmful — that inhabit the body. Your gut health depends on a diverse, robust population of friendly flora, which crowd out the unfriendly ones.
Compared to today, our ancestors had an extremely diverse microbiome, thanks again to their diet. The foods they foraged and fermented were rich in the dietary fiber and supportive phytochemicals (plant chemicals) their microbiome needed. Our modern diets are sterile by comparison, too light on fresh vegetables and fruit, and too heavy on processed grains.
Unseen Toxins: The food we eat may contain far more than its nutrient profile suggests. Unseen toxins like pesticides, herbicides, and mold are all found in our food supply, even in otherwise healthy foods. In addition, we are exposed to petroleum residue and other environmental pollutants on a daily basis.
The liver, a primary organ for detoxification, must process all of these substances. That diverts its attention from another of its key roles: aiding digestion.
Tips for Supporting Digestive Health
While some aspects of digestive health are beyond our control, there are many lifestyle changes and dietary habits that can help maintain gut health. Western medicine often overlooks the crucial role that our day-to-day habits — including what we eat and drink — play in both overall and gut health.
Dr. Bill Rawls began his own gut health journey by taking a long, hard look at his diet and lifestyle. As an OB-GYN working long hours and regular night shifts, his vending machine diet, constant stress, and sleepless nights caught up with him. He eventually had to abandon practicing obstetrics and limit his medical practice to focus on his health. The good news: Today, he enjoys a rich, full life — including a healthy gut!
Here are some of his gut-health tips you can integrate into your own routine.
- Chew your food thoroughly. Digestion starts in your mouth; chewing is the only part of the digestive process over which we have voluntary control. Slow down and savor every bite.
- Enjoy smaller, more frequent meals. Eating less allows the stomach to return to normal size more quickly, whereas big meals stretch the stomach out and require more time and energy to digest.
- Embrace the bitter. Bitter flavors are important to digestion — this is something our ancestors inherently knew. Often found in foraged and traditional plants, bitter stimulates the release of the saliva, enzymes, and bile that help break down your food. Include bitter herbs and foods in each meal, ideally at the start.
- Drink diluted apple cider vinegar before meals. Drinking 6 ounces of water with 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before each meal is a simple way to encourage healthy digestive function. Apple cider vinegar helps to augment the stomach’s naturally acidic environment, promoting healthy digestion.
- Drink ginger tea. Ginger offers antioxidant support and promotes a healthy inflammatory response, and it naturally soothes the stomach and intestinal tract. Sip spicy ginger tea daily, and try Dr. Rawls’ Ginger Tea Recipe. Ginger can also aid occasional nausea.
- Eat fermented foods. They contain probiotics — good gut bacteria that may help balance your microbiome — and prebiotics (fiber that feeds those good bacteria). Good examples include sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi.
- Manage your stress, and be proactive about relaxation. Moderating stress and regularly practicing relaxation techniques are essential for allowing the gastrointestinal tract to perform its job. When your good bacteria are in balance, it keeps the unwanted ones in check — and helps support your nervous system. Learn more here about managing your stress.
- Avoid processed foods and fast food. These foods do not nourish the body, and they throw off the delicate balance of the gut microbiome. A good general rule is that if your ancestors — even your grandparents — wouldn’t recognize something as food, you shouldn’t eat it.
Top Foods for Digestive Health
A healthy gut starts with a healthy diet. In addition to avoiding foods that are known to cause occasional digestive distress, you need to give yourself plenty of gut-friendly nourishment. Even the healthiest diet is of little use to you if your body can’t absorb and break down critical nutrients or remove toxins.
For healthy gastrointestinal function, start with a diet that includes plenty of lightly cooked vegetables. Steaming or sautéing over low heat with minimal oil is best. To promote healthy digestion, avoid grilling or frying, as well as raw foods (other than in smoothies).
These foods are gut-friendly and should comprise the bulk of your diet:
- Squash, spinach, green beans, asparagus, carrots, celery, sweet peas, and mushrooms are helpful for the gut.
- Sweet potatoes and cabbage are generally well-tolerated
- Onions and garlic (and other alliums) promote growth of favorable bacteria in the intestines.
- Temperate fruits such as berries, apples, pears, and peaches can be included.
- Poultry (chicken and turkey) is the best meat option.
- Non-oily fish (such as cod, halibut, flounder, and canned tuna) is also generally well-tolerated.
- Tofu is acceptable if tolerated.
- Oat milk and rice milk are suitable alternatives to dairy.
- Rice and gluten-free oats are the best-tolerated grains.
- Include herbal teas, bone broth, and filtered non-carbonated water daily.