Gut health has become an increasingly hot topic. Research continues to explode around the powerful influence it has over many aspects of a person’s wellbeing including mood, energy, weight, menstrual cycles, sleep and brain health. When it comes to “investing in your health,” it has an exceptionally high Return on Investment (ROI).
Translation: by improving one’s gut health, there are MANY secondary short and long-term gains.
Here are a few key reasons the gut has such an influential role over the rest of the body:
- It regulates your nutrient status. You are not what you eat, you are what you absorb. Without proper breakdown and absorption, you aren’t likely to benefit from everything you ingest.
- It has a direct connection to the immune system. Your gut is lined with a variety of immune cells, which means that what’s in your gut has the ability to trigger an immune response in susceptible individuals. This susceptibility can be from genetics, a damaged gut lining, an imbalanced microbiome, chronic stress, infections, etc.
- It is highly integrated with the nervous system and therefore influences brain health. The Enteric Nervous system, the gut’s own nervous system, communicates directly with the brain via the vagus nerve (think of the Autobahn highway in Germany). This means that what happens in your gut has the ability to influence things like mood, memory and cognitive health.
- It helps your body get rid of toxins and waste material. We are exposed to a large number of toxins everyday through the air, water and food we consume. Buildup of waste material and toxins can impair a large number of bodily processes and functions including reproductive, brain, thyroid, liver and metabolic health. The digestive tract is one of the major ways the body eliminates harmful waste.
- It houses the microbiome. The trillions of bacteria that inhabit the gut play an astounding number of important roles in overall health. They help to synthesize key vitamins (K & B12), they teach and regulate the immune system, they help (or hinder) motility, they produce Short-Chain Fatty Acids (that play a role in preventing a number of chronic disease) and they protect you from potential pathogens, to name a few. Keeping them thriving is as important as drinking water.
There are many key signs that the gut isn’t working optimally including excessive gas & bloating (abdominal distention), diarrhea/loose stools, constipation/incomplete bowel movements, reflux/heartburn/indigestion, abdominal pain/discomfort and nausea. But keep in mind that since the gut influences so many other aspects of health, there are MANY other non-digestive signs/symptoms that often have an underlying gut problem. A few examples include anxiety/depression, brain fog, PMS, chronic fatigue, anemia, acne, rosacea, weight gain, diabetes and insomnia.
In most cases, gut health doesn’t need to be complicated. Despite all the confusing and conflicting information on what and when to eat, you don’t necessarily need to follow a ketogenic, low FODMAP, intermittent fasting, paleo, vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free diet to have good gut health. Investing your efforts in some of the basic principles will get you pretty good payback.
Dr. Lovink’s 5 Core Principles for Optimal Gut Health:
- Get your fibre. Your good gut bacteria (microbiome) LOVE fibre! In fact, they need it to survive and a lack of fibre can significantly reduce the number and diversity of bacteria in your gut.
Key insight: If you are upping your fibre intake, take it slow. Adding too much fibre too quickly can cause gas and bloating.
- Aim for diversity in the plants you consume. In order to get all the different vitamins, minerals and types of fibre that our gut (and the bacteria that inhabit it) needs to thrive, we’ve got to feed it the rainbow.
Key Insight: Try to include at least 10-15 different vegetables in your diet per week.
- Focus on Meal Hygiene. This means focusing on the “how” of eating. Sit down to eat. Chew your food thoroughly. Eat slowly. And breathe deeply.
Key Insight: Taking 5-10 deep diaphragmatic breaths before you eat can really help to promote optimal functioning of all your digestive processes.
- Be discerning with your medication use. There are a number of medications that are known to have negative implications on the health and functioning of your gut. Some of the biggest offenders include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (eg. ibuprofen/Advil), birth control pills, acid blocking medications and antibiotics.
Key Insights: Have an informed discussion with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks of all medications you are taking.
- Eat mostly whole foods. One of the downsides of our ever evolving and growing food industry is that we now have access to a plethora of packaged and processed “convenience” foods, which often contain ingredients that are damaging to our gut.
Key Insight: Mostly buy foods that are in their whole form and when buying packaged goods try to avoid the following: “natural flavouring”, added sugars, vegetable oils (canola, corn, soy, etc), thickening/emulsifying agents (guar gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan, xantham gum).
Applying these 5 principles will make huge strides in bringing your gut health back on track and ensure a thriving microbiome.
Dr. L’s Protein-packed Steelcut Oats
This recipe is easy to make as meal prep (just double or triple the recipe), very nutrient dense and packed full of fibre; an essential factor for good gut health.
- 1/2 cup steel-cut oats (must be soaked overnight in filtered water)
*soaking the oats overnight helps to make them more gut-friendly and easier to digest
- 1 cup filtered water
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1-2 eggs
**Substitute with a fermented and/or sprouted protein powder if vegan.
- 2 tbsp of ground flax
- 1/2 cup of frozen blueberries
- Cinnamon to taste
- Optional: 1/2 cup Grass fed Bovine Collagen (my favorite is Vital Proteins Bovine Collagen Peptides). This increases your protein intake and adds a good dose of gut healing amino acids.
Toppings (pick 2-3, or all of them!):
- Nuts, seeds (eg. hemps seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans, walnuts, etc)
- Coconut yogurt or fermented regular yogurt
*tip: Fermented yogurt has a lower lactose content and is usually better tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant. Make sure the brand you buy does not have added sugars and actually lists the probiotics on it’s label (it should taste sour indicating that the fermentation process has taken place).
- Non-dairy milk (cashew, oat, almond)
*tip: Try to avoid those that have added sugar, thickeners/emulsifiers (guar gum, carrageenan, sunflower lecithin and xanthan gum) and vegetable oils (sunflower, canola, corn, soy). Cashew milk is super easy to make at home in the blender and does not need to be strained.
- Nut butter
- Hemp hearts
- In a bowl or storage container place steel-cut oats with enough filtered water to completely cover. Place a lid over the mix and let sit overnight.
- In the morning, strain off any excess water and then place oats in a pot with ¾-1 cup of filtered water and pinch of salt. Bring mixture to a boil.
- Reduce heat and let simmer until water is almost completely absorbed and oats are becoming a thicker mixture (approx. 10 mins). Add in the frozen blueberries and mix.
- Then add in the eggs (or protein powder if vegan) and stir thoroughly (this is also where you would add in the collagen). Continue to stir for 3-4 mins as the eggs cook.
- Remove from heat and serve ½ of mix into bowl. Top with 2-3 (or all!) of toppings listed above.
- Store remaining mixture in a container in fridge for subsequent morning meals (you can eat it cold or heat it up in the microwave).
Dr. Rachael Lovink is a Victoria-based Naturopathic Doctor who focuses on digestive health. She draws from both clinical and personal experience to treat chronic digestive disorders including IBS, diarrhea, constipation, reflux/indigestion, heartburn, bloating, abdominal pain/discomfort, food sensitivities, IBD, SIBO and diverticulitis.