5 Ways Your Digestion Impacts Your Health
We’ve all experienced occasional digestive troubles. Common complaints such as gas, heartburn, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea are uncomfortable and usually temporary. But if these things are happening all the time, it’s a sign that your digestive health is out of balance, and you may need to check in with your doctor.
Poor digestive health isn’t just unpleasant, it can have wide-ranging effects on your health. Here are 5 ways your digestive health impacts your overall health.
1. Nutrient absorption
When it comes to your nutrition, it’s not just what you eat that matters, it’s what you digest and absorb. No matter how healthy your diet is, if you aren’t fully digesting your food, then you aren’t getting its full nutritional value.
Your digestive system is responsible for breaking down what you eat into nutritional components that your body can use for energy, growth, and cell renewal. When digestion isn’t functioning well, this process becomes less efficient, so your body gets less energy and nutritional benefit from your food.
Some of the most nutrient-rich foods, including nuts, beans, whole grains, and fibrous veggies, can be difficult to fully break down, particularly when your digestion is compromised. Your body may struggle to extract their nutrients, and they may trigger gas and discomfort, ultimately discouraging you from eating these healthy foods.
Ironically, these fiber-rich foods are important for gut health and avoiding them won’t do your digestion any favors in the long run. Dietary fiber supports healthy elimination and helps feed your friendly gut bacteria, which also play an important role in nutrient absorption.
2. Immune health
Your digestive system and immune system are intricately connected. In fact, about 75% of your immune system lives in the digestive tract. The gut is the body's largest immune organ and acts as your body’s first line of defense, working to keep pathogens, allergens, and toxins from being absorbed into the bloodstream along with the nutrients in your food.
The gut’s immune defenses include specialized immune cells, friendly gut bacteria, and the gut barrier lining, which work together to suppoert healthy defenses. Friendly gut bacteria play a key role, helping to eliminate toxins, keep unwanted microbes in check, maintain the gut lining, and regulate immune responses.
An unhealthy digestive system is typically characterized by an imbalance in your gut bacteria. Without enough friendly bacteria to do their job, immune health is compromised. This can result in weakened immune defenses, as well as unbalanced immune responses, such as allergic or autoimmune reactions.1,2
3. Inflammation management
Inflammation is the body’s normal immune response to a foreign substance. But an immune system that isn’t functioning normally will react even when there isn’t a real threat, triggering unnecessary inflammation. Persistent inflammation can damage healthy cells, leading to health problems down the road.
An unhealthy gut is more prone to unbalanced immune responses, including excess inflammation. Friendly gut bacteria that help regulate inflammation are diminished, while unfriendly microbes that promote inflammation are increased. An unhealthy gut lining is also more permeable, allowing more toxins and unwanted particles to pass into the bloodstream, which again triggers an inflammatory response.3,4
Inflammation in the gut is linked with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common condition characterized by abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating, and bowel changes.5 Persistent inflammation can also damage the digestive tract over time. Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's, are characterized by chronic gut inflammation.
But excess inflammation isn’t just a problem for your gut. Persistent inflammation is a common factor in many serious health conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and dementia. There’s evidence that all these inflammatory conditions may be linked with gut health, particularly with the balance of gut bacteria and its effects on inflammation.6,7 So taking care of your gut health may help with managing inflammation levels.
4. Mood balance
Have you ever had a “gut feeling” about something? There’s a reason the gut has been called a “second brain.” Your gut is in constant communication with your brain and your nervous system. This complex relationship is known as the gut-brain axis.
Millions of neurons live in your gut, connected to the brain through a system of nerves, including the vagus nerve. It’s no wonder that emotional and nervous stress is often felt in the gut. Your gut bacteria also help produce important neurotransmitters that influence your mental health, including mood-boosting serotonin and dopamine and calming GABA.8
With these connections in mind, it should be no surprise that gut health issues are linked with mood imbalances. For instance, about half of those who suffer from IBS also struggle with depression and anxiety, and vice versa. Stress can disrupt gut health and bacterial balance, and likewise, changes in gut bacteria can influence mood and mental health.9,10 In other words, if your gut is unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy, too. You can also try using a natural sleep and mood balancing supplements.
The gut-brain axis also has an impact on your sleep. Some of the same neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, are also crucial for regulating your sleep cycles. These neurotransmitters are produced in the gut by your friendly bacteria.
Recent research shows that your gut bacteria interact with your circadian rhythms, which govern your sleep cycles. If your gut bacteria are out of balance, it can disrupt your circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Likewise, a circadian disruption and unhealthy sleep patterns can disturb your gut bacteria.11,12
A healthy, diverse population of gut bacteria is linked with better quality sleep,13,14 while an unhealthy or depleted population of gut bacteria is linked with poor, disrupted sleep.15,16 So taking care of your gut health can help you stay in balance with your natural rhythms and get better quality sleep.
How to Support a Healthy Gut
As you can see, keeping your gut healthy is important for your overall health. It helps you absorb the nutrients you need for energy and healthy cell renewal, helps keep your immune system in good shape and your inflammation levels in balance, and helps regulate your mood, stress levels, and sleep cycles.
So what can you do to support healthy digestion and a healthy gut? Here are a few things that can help:
Drink More Water
Water is involved in every stage of the digestive process. It helps break down food for better nutrient absorption, keeps things moving through the digestive tract, and helps flush out toxins and bad bacteria. Lack of water can slow down digestion and elimination, allowing waste and toxins to build up, and ultimately leading to other digestive complaints, such as gas, bloating, or constipation. Dehydration is a very common issue, so make sure you’re drinking enough water.
Eat More Fiber
Make sure you’re eating foods with plenty of fiber, such as fruits and veggies, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Fiber helps keep things moving through the digestive tract and helps feed your friendly bacteria, encouraging a healthy balance in the gut. As the bacteria feed on the fiber, they produce short-chain fatty acids that help support a healthy colon.
If your digestion isn’t in great shape, you may struggle at first to digest these fiber-rich foods, which can trigger gas and discomfort. It’s best to increase these foods gradually, while making sure to drink plenty of water. Digestive enzymes can also help break down difficult foods and ease occasional digestive discomfort.
Avoid Sugar and Processed Foods
Heavily processed foods and simple sugars feed the bad bacteria in your gut, while providing little to no nutrients or fiber. This tips the scales in favor of the bad bacteria, allowing them to overtake the good bacteria. The bad bacteria love this, of course, so they may take advantage of the gut-brain connection to trigger sugar cravings, encouraging you to eat more of these unhealthy foods. Needless to say, this is bad for your health in more ways than one. Cutting back on these foods will help reduce the power and influence of these not-so-nice bacteria.
Add Probiotics & Prebiotics
Your friendly bacteria can have a considerable influence on your gut and overall health. So what can you do to help increase these beneficial microbes? Some fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, or kombucha, contain live beneficial microbes, although it's not usually known how many or which strains are included. A probiotic supplement, on the other hand, contains specific bacterial strains that have demonstrated benefits for your health. Diversity of bacteria is key to a healthy gut, so look for a supplement with multiple strains.
It’s also important to feed your friendly gut bacteria with prebiotics. Prebiotics are a type of undigestible fiber that pass through the stomach to the lower intestine, where they get broken down by beneficial microbes. Some examples of foods that contain prebiotics include asparagus, artichokes, apples, bananas, berries, onion, garlic, oats, whole wheat, soybeans, and mushrooms.
Try Digestive Enzymes
Sometimes, a poorly functioning digestive system means there are insufficient digestive enzymes to break down food properly. Digestive enzyme production diminishes with age and can be affected by stress, medications, nutrition gaps, and gut health issues. It’s also common to have difficulty digesting certain types of foods, such as dairy, beans, or cruciferous veggies.
Taking supplemental digestive enzymes can help break down foods more completely, unlocking their nutritional benefits and keeping them from lingering too long in the gut, where they can ferment or trigger irritation. While they won’t fix an underlying gut health issue, taking digestive enzymes can help reduce some of the uncomfortable symptoms of sluggish digestion.
Get Some Exercise
Being sedentary isn’t good for your body, and that includes your gut health. Getting in some low-impact exercise on a regular basis will boost your metabolism and help keep things moving through the digestive tract. Not only that, recent research has shown that exercise can actually change the composition of your gut bacteria in positive ways.17 After six weeks of regular exercise (30-60 minutes, 3 times a week), the study participants showed an increase in the kind of gut bacteria that help manage inflammation. These changes then reversed again six weeks after the participants returned to a sedentary lifestyle. In other words, you have to keep up those good habits.
Manage Your Stress and Sleep
As we’ve already seen, your gut health is intimately connected with your mental health and your sleep cycles, and the influence goes both ways. If you can keep your stress levels in check and get on a healthy sleep schedule, not only will you feel more calm and balanced, your gut will, too. Set aside some time in the evenings to wind down and practice a calming activity before bed, whether it’s meditation, yoga, a good book, or a hot bath. Herbal adaptogens such as ashwagandha are also helpful for supporting a balanced stress response and healthy sleep.
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