Our digestive system is a cornerstone of health. It is the site of our body where food is broken down and nutrients absorbed. These nutrients are crucial in every bodily process, from strengthening immunity to rebuilding new cells, to supplying us with energy or influencing our hormones. While this may sounds relatively straight-forward on paper, if there’s one thing for sure, our gut is no simple internal plumbing system! As a system of organs, it’s intricate and fine-tuned, and if we don’t give it the TLC it needs, our health may be impacted or compromised.
Gut symptoms affect as many as one in three of us, and may include issues like bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, tummy pain or gas. A myriad of factors can impact digestive functioning, including the quality of our diet, stress, certain foods or drinks (e.g. coffee or alcohol), our eating habits or some medication or infection. That’s why when we look at improving digestive function, it’s not just about what we’re eating, but how we’re eating too.
Where do gut bugs come into play?
The idea that some bacteria are good for our health may seem totally foreign – after all we’ve been taught to think of bacteria as harmful! But our digestive system is actually home to home to trillions of microorganisms (particularly within our large intestine) including bacteria, with many strains beneficial to health.
Similar to a rent agreement, our gut provides certain bacteria a home (and food – they happily eat the leftover fibre from our diet as it makes its way through our gut!), and in return these ‘good’ strains of bugs do handy biological work for us. Whether boosting our immunity, assisting digestion, or producing certain nutrients, some of which can help strengthen our gut. Supporting optimal digestion, in conjunction with a largely well-balanced nourishing diet, can help look after these ‘good’ bugs, and in turn our health.
How can we improve our digestion?
Chew your food
When there’s delicious food around, it can be all to easy to quickly gobble it down, without taking the time chew properly. However, digestion really begins in the mouth. Chewing food causes the release of saliva, which contains digestive enzymes that will begin to break down parts of our meal. Chewing also helps turn larger bits of food into smaller ones, which really gives a helping hand to our digestive system later down the track. Remember, there are no teeth in our stomach!
Breaking down our food from larger to smaller particles increases the surface area of our food, helping prepare it for nutrient absorption in our small intestines.
To assist with chewing, try putting down your cutlery between mouthfuls and aim to chew each mouthful until it’s a puree (aim for at least 20 chews!).
Practise mindful eating
In today’s face-paced, tech-savvy environment, eating with intent is a practice many of us are out of touch with. We often inhale our foods (chew, swallow, chew, swallow), while scrolling through Instagram, typing away at our desk or chilling with Netflix. No matter how great we believe we are at multi-tasking, our gut much prefers when we take the time to sit, focus on and enjoy food in front of us.
Mindful eating is when we take the time to give a meal our full attention. This means eating without distraction (mobile and TV away!), using our senses to get familiar with our food (e.g. what does it smell and look like?), and savouring the flavour of our dish. We don’t need to practise mindful eating every meal or every day, but by incorporating it into the week it can really assist with healthy digestion, and an overall healthier relationship with food.
Eat a variety of high-fibre plant foods
Fibre is a part of carbohydrate-rich foods that is resistant to digestion, and is found in a variety of plant-based foods, like veggies, fruit, legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils), seeds and nuts. Being indigestible, this means it passes through our digestive tract relatively unscathed. Although we don’t extract nutrients from it, it’s still highly beneficial for our gut – keeping us regular or assisting with the removal of waste and toxins, all leading to a happier, healthier digestive system.
Some types of dietary fibre also provide a meal for beneficial bugs. These are commonly known as ‘prebiotics’ ,and include garlic, artichoke, leeks, onion, asparagus, banana, dandelion greens, oats, apples, flax seeds and yacon root. By increasing our intake of prebiotics we can help increase our proportion of good bugs in our gut. Aim to get in as many different kinds of plant-based foods each week – remember, different foods contain different nutrients needed for health.
Be mindful of stress
Destressing is easier said than done. But for a health body and mind, managing stress as much as possible is key to health and wellbeing, and will positively affect gut health.
Find stress-reducing activities you enjoy and try best to include them into your day. These might be:
- Reading a book
- Going for a walk
- Having a bath
- Talking out issues with a someone you trust
- Hanging with loved ones or your pet
- Taking some deep restorative belly breathes
- Doing some relaxing exercise, like yin yoga
- Writing in a journal
If you’re having digestive issues, it could be caused by a range or combination of issues. These simple tips will help regulate minor issues and get you into positive habits when it comes to your eating. If your issue continues, we would recommend that you seek advice from a healthcare professional. It may be exacerbated by an intolerance or you may need to go onto a ‘weed, seed, feed’ protocol to assist in realigning your gut health.
It’s amazing the unexpected impact that poor digestion can have on your health (lack of energy, skin problems as well as more obvious symptoms like gas and bloating), but with a little mindfulness and TLC is can often be fixed :)
Danijela Unkovich is a nutritionist from New Zealand. She divides her time between both public health and clinical work, and also runs the health blog Healthy Always, where she shares healthy recipe and meal ideas, and wellness blogs.
She is passionate about educating ways to live a healthier life, particularly with a focus on sustainable habits and making it work for you. She is a total foodie, and loves spending time in the kitchen or enjoying a delicious meal with loved ones.