Are you feeling run down? Do you get frequent colds? Do you feel like your mood is all over the place? Have you ever wondered if these things are related to your digestion?
If the answer is no, then you've probably never been to see a functional or holistic health practitioner. While I have nothing against conventional medical practitioners (I've both been one and worked with some very good ones over the years), they tend to focus on prescribing medications to make symptoms go away without actually addressing the cause of these symptoms. Holistic practitioners look for the root cause of symptoms, and often start with taking a good look at what's happening with your digestion.
The idea that your digestion affects your health is starting to get more attention in mainstream medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that your gut is extremely important in your overall health. Digestive dysfunction can be attributed to many health conditions such as cardiovascular issues, autoimmune diseases, and musculoskeletal complaints.
In order to understand how to improve your digestion, you first need to understand the basics of your digestive system.
Digestion is what happens after you consume food. It starts with your mouth where food is broken down by digestive enzymes in your saliva and from chewing. Then the food goes through your esophagus into your stomach where gastric juices, including stomach acid, breakdown your food further. Stomach acid is a topic for an entire post, but the important thing to note here is that our bodies must have enough acid to breakdown the food and proteins that we eat and those who have low stomach acid actually have more issues with GERD and acid reflux.
Your liver and pancreas are also part of the digestive process, the liver produces bile which meets the food in your small intestine and the pancreas also secretes enzymes that are important in digestion. After the food has been broken down and passed through the small intestines, the large intestine is responsible for absorbing all the remaining nutrients and water, which is how stool is formed.
immunity and your gut
Researchers have also known for a long time that the microbes in your gut play a crucial role in protecting against disease. Most of us don't think of the things that are inside of our digestive system actually being outside of our bodies, but that's technically the case (your digestive tract is just a big tube that's "open" at both ends). Your gut protects you from invaders trying to get into your bloodstream from anything you eat (that's why you don't always get sick even if you eat something that has harmful bacteria or viruses on it).
Think of how many times you've touched something and then put your hands near your mouth. Because of that, your gut is a huge player in protecting you from anything that might cause illness. The bacteria in your gut protect you in several ways:
- They increase the strength of the physical barrier of your gut wall. The inside of your body (remember you gut is technically the outside of your body) is protected by a layer of cells within the lining of your gut (epithelial cells) and by chemical barriers (stomach acid). The bacteria in your gut (of which there are millions) activate the immune functions within the epithelial cells. If for some reason the bacteria could not communicate with the cells, neither would be able to do their job properly. The bacteria in your gut also affect the chemical barriers by changing the pH of your stomach.
- They compete with pathogens (viruses, harmful bacteria, parasites, etc.) for both space and food. If your gut bacteria are healthy and using up all the available resources in your gut, there shouldn't be anything left to feed things that don't belong there.
- They help to regulate the inflammatory response. Inflammation is important in immune function and is a complicated process. However, it is important that inflammation is properly regulated to happen when you need and want it, but not to get out of control. Healthy bacteria in your gut help to accomplish this.
A study done on mice made it very clear that these functions are crucial. Mice that had no microbiome in their gut had very different immune reactions and got infections much more easily than regular mice.
It's also important to remember that this is a two-way street. What happens in your gut affects your immune system and what happens to your immune system affects your gut. So, improving the health of your gut will help make your immune system function better, which will also help to improve the quality and function of the bacteria in your gut.
Food and mood
Your gut and your brain are closely connected. 90% of the serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for feeling happy, in your body is made in your gut. Which means that when your gut is unhealthy, your mood suffers. If you aren't eating enough or you are missing out on essential food groups (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) both your gut and your mood will suffer. Not getting enough vitamins and minerals can also cause depression, inability to concentrate, and fatigue. Missing out on nutrients such as iron can disrupt your brain chemistry.
Eating too many processed foods can lead to lots of fluctuations in your insulin levels, making you feel cranky or tired, and can contribute to inflammation which is associated with depression and other psychological disorders.
In order to make sure that your mood isn't suffering from poor food choices, make sure that you are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, skip the processed foods, and consume plenty of foods high in omega-3s such as fish. Leafy greens, poultry, and eggs help your body create plenty of dopamine, another feel-good neurotransmitter.
FOOD SENSITIVITY TESTING
If you’ve been eating right and getting the right kind of exercise, but still aren't feeling your best, it might be worth doing some more investigating. You could be suffering from a number of chronic health conditions (such as anemia, thyroid disorders, or a hormone imbalance) or you may have food sensitivities.
Remember that feeling tired and sad all the time, isn't normal. Sometimes it can be as simple as removing some specific foods from your diet, and sometimes it requires additional help. You can do an elimination diet or my Real Energy Reset protocol in order to eliminate some of the most common offenders and decrease inflammation in your body (and get your energy back), or you can get some food sensitivity testing done with your healthcare provider.
One thing I recommend for all of my patients (no matter what their symptoms are) is keeping a food journal. This can help you make some important associations between what you are eating and how you are feeling. It can take some time to begin seeing patterns emerge. It's also important to remember that with a food sensitivity you may not notice any symptoms for 6-24 hours after eating a food and they can be anything from brain fog and fatigue, to breakouts and digestive troubles.
Doing food sensitivity testing can be expensive because it is rarely covered by insurance. If you work with a holistic or functional medicine practitioner, they may have a lab that they work with at their office, you can also order your own testing through companies like Pinnertest (which costs $490) or you can order your own blood testing through this lab (you would want Food allergy testing (IgG 184).
Eliminating foods that you are sensitive to can help clear up your skin, clear up systemic inflammation, increase your energy, and decrease aches and pains.
There are a few other things you can do to help your digestion in addition to eliminating foods you might be sensitive to. Remember that a majority of your immune system is in your gut and your mood and gut health are closely related.
- Restorative exercise such as yoga to reduce stress and relax
- Ginger has a soothing effect on your digestive system. I love ginger essential oil, just smelling it can reduce nausea within seconds. I love ginger tea or ginger chews. Be careful not to overdo it though because ginger has a drying effect.
- Glutamine helps to support and rebuild the lining of your stomach.
- Probiotics help to restore the right kind of bacteria in your gut. Remember that quality matters when it comes to supplements. I prefer doTERRAs probiotics, but Prescript-Assist and Garden of Life are good options as well.
- Digestive Enzymes help your body to break down the food better so you can absorb the nutrients. Again, I prefer doTERRAs digestive enzymes, but Pure Encapsulations and Thorne Research are brands that I have also used and worked well.
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, or pickles
- Cooked vegetables can be a game changer if you don't tolerate raw veggies. If your digestive system isn't working well, you likely aren't getting the nutrients from them, cooked veggies are much easier on the stomach.
While changing your diet and fixing your gut might seem like a lot of work, especially if you are exhausted already, you might be surprised at how great you feel once you make a few small changes. If you aren't sure where to start, you can try my Real Energy Reset coaching program or schedule a free consult with me and we can figure out what the best first steps for you would be.