You’re probably still in the midst of deciding on your New Year’s resolutions for the year. While classic goals such as saving money, working out more, and practising mindfulness are all admirable options, might we suggest another goal to consider adding to the list? Gut health is probably not the most enticing topic to discuss, but it should definitely be one of your top priorities in 2021. Yes, it's time for your tummy to shine.
What is a "healthy gut", anyway?
"The digestive tract, or the gut, is responsible for breaking down, absorbing, and distributing the nutrients from food to all the cells of the body. It has millions of microorganisms living within it that have different roles that aid digestion, hormone production, etc.," Bianca explained. "The gut is considered healthy when it has a diversity of microorganisms that make sure the body functions well."
Some indications of a healthy gut are regular bowel movements, sufficient stomach acid, and no abdominal pain, bloating, or excessive gas.
Bianca also says factors such as stress, exercise, sleep, and how well you chew your food all have a role in gut health. These factors "affect gut motility (the stretching and contracting of your gastrointestinal tract muscles) and stomach acid levels" which in turn "dictate which bugs — the good ones or the bad ones that are associated with diseases — survive in the gut."
Gut health has holistic perks
Well, aside from the obvious physical health reasons, good gut health also has a connection with your mental and emotional well-being. According to Bianca, "The gut and the brain are connected via the vagus nerve, so there is anatomical and psychological communication between these two."
Your mood is directly related to gut health, as Bianca explained that "a large portion of your serotonin receptors are found in the gut". Serotonin is the hormone that’s responsible for regulating our mood as well as feelings of well-being and happiness. Perhaps that's why some foods make us feel more sluggish after eating compared to others.
Bianca adds on that there is also emerging evidence that suggests there's a correlation between inflammation caused by some kinds of gut bacteria with anxiety and depression. "There is an emerging branch of science called nutritional psychiatry that explores all these topics to shed light on how food affects mood."
Your road to a healthier gut
So how do you improve your gut health then? "The food you consume is a major contributor to gut health because the microorganisms in the digestive tract also feed on this material that we bring into the body." Bianca recommends eating a variety of fibre-rich and nutrient-rich (antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, etc.) food to feed all the different types of bacteria in the gut.
Having a diet that involves consuming big amounts of processed food decreases the diversity of the digestive tract’s microbiome. These snacks are usually made of the same ingredients like refined sugars and trans fats and therefore contain little to no actual nutrients that your gut bacteria need.
While the daily required intake varies depending on your age and sex, fibre requirements range from 20 to 40 grams per day. To make it easier to visualise, Bianca recommends making sure that at each meal, half of your plate is "comprised of vegetables with a side of fruit" and aiming to have "at least five colours on your plate so you know you're consuming enough antioxidants."
Hold off on the probiotic supplements
While we're talking a lot about food, you might be wondering if there are other ways to improve the gut health, namely, by adding probiotic dietary supplements to your daily diet. The thing is, it's not necessary to do so and even may not be the most effective. "Adding supplements to your diet isn't a surefire way of diversifying your gut microbiome as there are lots of different factors that need to be considered such as the delivery of the supplement, the count, whether it will survive stomach acid, etc."
Instead, it's better to take care of the good bacteria that are already in your gut and diversify them by getting into the habit of making sure you get enough fibre, chewing your food well, and eating a variety of whole foods instead of consuming highly processed items.
Some simple ways of improving your gut health
Hustling your way to good gut health is quite simple. One thing you can do is eat on time and not skip meals. "Doing this will prevent blood sugar drops that cause stress to the body; stress, in turn, wreaks havoc on your hormones and gut health. This will also help avoid instances where you're too hungry to be mindful of your food choices." So schedule your meals accordingly and really make a point to stick to it. Snack on fruits in between meals, too, to keep cravings at bay.
The other thing you can do is chew your food well, “almost to liquid consistency”. Doing so, according to Bianca, "ensures that it doesn't sit too long in the stomach. This helps prevent excessive gas, abdominal pain, and bloating." If you need to take 30 or more minutes to finish a meal, by all means, do so! Savour every bite and morsel and enjoy the short reprieve from work.
At the end of the day, you have nothing to lose if gut health becomes your wellness focus this year.
(Cover photo from: Mariana Medvedeva via Unsplash)
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