Nutrition strategies: What you eat can help or hurt your digestive system, which will influence how you feel physically, mentally, and even emotionally. A better plan for dietary gut health includes eating a Mediterranean diet, avoiding inflammatory foods, and prioritizing gut-nourishing foods.
Exercise guidelines: Taking a brisk 20- to 30-minute walk four to five times a week im- proves bowel function and decrease bloating.
Sleep habits: You can also improve your sleep health by creating a bedroom that is cool, quiet, free of screens, and dark. It also helps to avoid caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon and evening.
Stress management: Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits can help keep stress balanced, but it’s also good to learn some relaxation techniques from gentle yoga, deep breathing, or mindfulness meditation to reduce stress.
In an earlier article about the gut, you learned about all the parts that make up your digestive system, and the phases involved in eating, moving, absorbing, and eliminating food and nutrients throughout your digestive tract. Here, we’ll take a closer look into the three main factors that affect your gut health: nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits. Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract works with other digestive organs in your body (including your liver, pancreas, and duodenum) to break foods and beverages down. These smaller nutrients can then be absorbed into your blood and cells to be used as fuel for energy, repairing, and regenerating. When you add up all the various types of gut issues, more than 60 percent of Americans live with digestive discomfort. These issues range from diarrhea, gas, and bloating to bacterial infections, ulcers, gallstones, and hemorrhoids—to even more severe liver disease, pancreatitis, systemic inflammation, and viruses.
Read on for nutrition, exercise, and sleep strategies that will protect your gut and your overall health.
What you eat can help or hurt your digestive system, and the functioning of your gut influences how you feel physically, mentally, and even emotionally.
- Include dietary probiotics: Dietary probiotics are foods that provide healthy bacteria to the gut. Have a daily serving of a probiotic-rich food such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, or miso.
- Eat more fiber: Fiber is essential for a healthy digestive system. Women should include 25 grams per day, while men should aim for 38 grams (those over age 50, should aim for 21 and 30 grams daily, respectively), according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The bad news, says the Institute of Medicine, is that less than 5 percent of American adults achieve these levels. Fiber-rich foods (also called prebiotics) act as “food” to the healthy bacteria living in our guts.
- Spread fiber-rich foods throughout your day. Every time you eat, have a serving of fresh fruit or vegetables, and least once a day eat a fiber-rich power food. Foods most abundant in fiber include legumes, broccoli, dried fruits, bran, chia and flax seeds, and even popcorn (hold the butter).
- Be whole-some with grains: When choosing grains stick to brown rice, whole-grain breads, whole oats, and whole wheat pasta. Plus, look for less common grains such as barley, rye, and quinoa. Refined grains like white bread and pasta have little to no fiber. Whole grains reduce inflammation in the gut and protect the lining of your stomach.
- Feature leafy greens: Hale, spinach, and other leafy green veggies are a great source of fiber and are packed with nutrients and antioxidants. These vegetables also contain a healthy sugar molecule that encourages healthy gut bacteria, according to researchers in the UH and Melbourne.
- Avoid inflammatory foods: Inflammation is a normal and sometimes good bodily reaction that happens when your body needs to fight off infection or injury, but some foods can cause chronic inflammation—and that’s when inflammation becomes dangerous. Chronic inflammation can cause cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, arthritis, anxiety, and depression. It’s essential that you avoid highly-processed, highly-refined, sugar-filled, and saturated fat-filled foods (this includes limiting or omitting alcohol and highly caffeinated drinks). The Mediterranean diet, which we’ve discussed in past articles, is a great way to cover all your bases. If you try all these strategies but still suffer from GI upset of any sort, discuss a food-intolerance test with your doctor. And don’t forget to hydrate. Water is your best friend and can help you to keep nutrients moving efficiently through your gut.
Regular physical activity of all types are great for digestive health. Exercise reduces chronic stress, which reduces other gastrointestinal woes such as bloating, irritable bowel issues, ulcers, and heart- burn. Here are some ways you can use exercise to help your gut:
- Take a walk: A brisk 20- to 30-minute walk four to five times a week can improve bowel function and decrease bloating.
- Incorporate Yoga: Mind-body exercises such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong lower stress, which im- proves digestive health. Plus, research shows that regular yoga sessions reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
People don’t always associate digestion and sleep, but they are intimately intertwined. Getting enough sleep reduces your risk of multiple chronic diseases and lowers anxiety, stress, and depression—but what about gut health? When you’re asleep, your digestive system finishes absorbing the nutrients you ate that day, but there are other essential jobs to be done. These digestive tasks include replenishing, repairing, and rebuilding itself. If you don’t get enough sleep, these tasks can’t be completed, and that leads to increased risk of digestive troubles that include bloating, cramping, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heartburn, diarrhea, acid reflux, and more. To reduce these gut issues, aim to incorporate the healthy sleep habits below:
- Get the right amount of sleep: Getting the rest your brain and body needs is a powerful way to improve health. The human-animal (historically speaking) is designed to go to sleep before 10:00 p.m. and to wake up after seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Many sleep strategies that help, including having a set bed and wake up time. You can also improve your sleep health by creating a bedroom that is cool, quiet, free of screens, and dark. It also helps to avoid caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon and evening.
- Don’t be a shift worker: Shift work is traditionally used to refer to those who work outside of traditional daytime hours. Sleep can be a challenge for those who regularly work or are up late into the night, overnight, or early in the morning. However, anyone can be considered a shift worker if they keep these odd hours. If you to stay awake for at least 3 hours between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. for more than 50 days a year (once a week), you are a shift worker and are at risk for shift work-related health issues. If you can’t avoid shift work, still aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep as often as possible—and don’t forget that naps also count towards your sleep hours. Also, do your best to pump up the other areas that help your gut. When you eat healthy, exercise, and reduce stress, you can offset some of the damage caused by shift work.
Bonus: Keep Stress in Check for Better Gut Health:
Chronic and excessive stress slows the production of stomach acid (leaving you vulnerable to harmful bacteria) and interferes with how well the stomach can empty itself. Mental tension can also cause stomach upset, irritation of the colon, and diarrhea. Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits can help keep stress balanced. Still, it’s good to learn some relaxation techniques from gentle yoga, deep breathing, or mindfulness meditation to reduce stress.