Last week I explained why your overall health is so dependent on the health of your gut (your gastrointestinal, or GI, tract). Now it's time to learn what you can do to improve your health by being good to your gut.
It All Begins With the Food You Eat
As with nearly all health-related issues, gut health is extremely dependent on the foods you eat. To improve and maintain healthy functioning of your gastrointestinal tract, you need to follow a healthy diet.
For the vast majority of people, this means eating in accordance to what has become known as the Mediterranean Diet, so named because it is the traditional diet eaten by people in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Diet is the only diet scientifically proven to reduce the risk of the most serious diseases that plague our Western world, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. And, because this way of eating avoids all of the processed foods and food additives that are so common in the standard American diet, the Mediterranean Diet also support healthy gut function.
You can find plenty of information about the Mediterranean Diet by conducting a search online, or by reading books on the subject. Briefly put, the main aspects of the Mediterranean Diet include plentiful amounts of legumes (beans), unrefined grains and cereals, fresh, organic vegetables, and olive oil, along with moderate to high amounts of fresh, wild-caught fish, moderate amounts of dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt, but also including up to four eggs per week), and low amounts of meat and meat products. For dessert, fresh fruit is perferred. In addition, the diet allows one or two glasses of wine each day.
One of the reasons that the Mediterranean Diet is so good for your gut is because of its high dietary fiber content. Dietary fiber is essential for healthy gut function, as well as proper elimination. In addition, dietary fiber helps to keep blood suagr levels in check, thereby preventing both hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and type 2 diabetes. In addition, the diet is also low in unhealthy saturated fats and high in healthy monounsaturated fats.
Beware of Food Allergies and Sensitivities
By shifting to a diet that is primarily Mediterranean-based, you should begin to notice an improvement in your health within a few weeks. However, there is another aspect of your diet that you need to be aware of too, when it comes to healthy gut function: food allergies and sensitivities.
Food allergies and sensitivities can be a factor in a variety of gastrointestinal problems, although many doctors today still fail to screen for them. Common food allergy culrpits are foods such as chocolate, corn, milk and dairy products, peanuts, shellfish, soy and soy products, tomatoes, and wheat, but any food can potentially cause allergies or sensitivities. Therefore, it's important that you be screened for food allergies by a physician trained in their treatment. To find such a Health Coach in your area, contact the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) Web site.
To learn more about allergies, see my article, Do You Suffer From Hidden Allergies?
Eating healthy foods is only one part of the equation to healthy eating. The second part is good digestion. When the foods you eat aren't properly broken down, your body has a more difficult time digesting them and assimilating the nutrients they contain. As a result, large, undigested food particles can pass through the linings of your gastrointestinal tract to enter your bloodstream. When this happens, the food particles can cause what is known as "leaky gut syndrome." Leaky gut syndrome is considered by many holistic Health Coach to be one of the biggest undiagnosed health problems in the United States today. Once undigested food particles enter your bloodstream, your body's immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to neutralize and eliminate the food particles. But if leaky gut syndrome persists, this process continues unabated, leading to immune dysfunctions and other health problems, including allergies.
Another major problem caused by improper digestion of foods is nutritional deficiency. This occurs because your body is unable to obtain the full range of nutrients contained in the foods you eat due to the fact that they aren't fully digested. Chronic nutritional deficiencies can lead to a variety of other health problems, including GI disorders.
There are two simple ways that you can effectively improve your body's ability to digest the foods you eat. The first step is to chew each bite of food thoroughly, something that most of us fail to do. Ideally, you should chew each bite of food you consume 20 to 40 times, or until the food becomes almost watery. By chewing your food thoroughly, you spare your body from having to expend more energy than normal to begin the digestive process. Some health practitioners maintain that this easy step of chewing food 20 to 40 times per bite is enough alone to eventually create dramatic health improvements.
You can further enhance your body's ability to digest and make use of the foods you eat by taking digestive enzymes with your meals. Digestive enzymes are a form of nutritional supplements that mimic the enzymes your own body produces in order to digest the foods you eat. Unfortunately, because of a variety of factors, including aging and cooking methods, today many people aren't producing enough digestive enzymes to deal with the foods they consume. Additionally, because of such internal enzyme deficiencies, the human body has to expend more energy and work harder to accomplish digestion. By taking digestive enzyme, which are available at your local health food store, you can prevent such problems and make it easier for your body to obtain the nutrients it requires from the foods you eat.
Protect Your Gut with "Friendly Bacteria."
As I mentioned last time, between 300 and 500 distinct species of bacteria exist within your body's GI tract, and together there are approximately 100 trillion of them. As I also mentioned, these "friendly bacteria", form a protective shield that covers the intestinal walls and prevents harmful and damaging substances such as toxins and "non-friendly" bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms, from passing through the GI lining into your body's bloodstream. Additionally, these friendly flora play an important role in enabling vital nutrients and fluids to pass through the GI lining into the body.
So long as the friendly bacteria are present in sufficient numbers and remain unharmed, the overall functioning of your GI tract will remain intact. However, if the bacteria are subjected to repeated exposure to harmful substances, white blood cells within the GI tract go into attack mode. In cases where healthy bacteria are temporarily exposed to harmful substances, the white blood cells are soon able to resolve the problem by attacking and eliminating these substances. But when chronic exposure to such substances occurs, the effort of the white blood cells to dispose of them can cause the lining of the GI tract to become irritated and inflamed. The end result is gastrointestinal problems that can potentially lead to other health issues.
Unfortunately, today many people lack sufficient amounts of friendly bacteria. There are a number of reasons for this, including the overuse of antibiotics, which kill both friendly and non-friendly bacteria. Steroid medications, such as cortisone and prednisone, also kill off friendly bacteria, as do birth control pills. Other factors can deplete friendly bacteria include food poisoning, poor diet, and over-acidity.
When friendly bacteria become depleted in the GI tract unhealthy bacteria that the friendly bacteria would otherwise hold in check are able to grow and spread throughout the GI tract and, if their spread is unchecked, into the bloodstream, causing or contributing to a wide range of potential health problems, including candiasis (systemic yeast overgrowth, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as allergies and autoimmune disorders.
Because of how important friendly bacteria are to gut and overall health, many health practitioners today recommend the use of probiotic supplements to replenish the body's stores of friendly bacteria. Probiotic literally means "pro-life," and probiotic supplements contain the most common and important strains of healthy bacteria that naturally occur inside your GI tract, especially the lower colon. For many people the use of probiotic supplements on a daily basis has resulted in significant improvements to their overall health. You can find such supplements at your local health food store. They are safe to use and can be used indefinitely. For best results, seek out a nutritionally oriented physician who is experienced in the use of probiotics so that he or she can advise you on how to use probiotics most effectively.
Get and Keep Active
Finally, there is one other important step you can take to improve your gut and overall health: exercise! Exercise is at least as important as a healthy diet is to overall health, and it can also significantly benefit gut function. That's because regular exercise has been shown to improve digestion and promote healthy and regular bowel movements so that your body easily and efficiently eliminates wastes created after food is digested. In addition, exercise burns calories and helps to maintain healthy metabolism, both of which supply your body with more energy to perform its many tasks, including those that occur within the gastrointestinal system.
One of the easiest and most effective steps you can take to ensure that you meet your daily exercise needs is to take a 20 to 30 minute brisk walk after lunch or dinner. (For best results, walk after your largest meal of the day.) By getting into the habit of taking a daily walk after you eat, you will soon start to notice improved digestion and more energy.
Now that you have learned these easy-to-apply steps to improve both your gut and overall health, all that's left for you to do is take action. By applying what you've learned before long you will soon be reaping many health benefits, not the least of which will be a healthier gut.