Salad in bowl

Top Five: Digestive Health

Digestive health and digestive issues are common problems that many of us are concerned about, they can strike at any time and really have an impact on our lives. Our digestive tract is highly sensitive to what we eat and certain things can really improve or worsen its function. It is also highly connected to our brain and can have a significant impact on our mood so having a healthy digestive tract is key to feeling great. We have billions of different bacteria living in our gut - the bacteria outnumber our human cells by 10 to 1! These bacteria help us digest food and absorb nutrients and they can become imbalanced easily which has been associated with many health conditions such as irritable bowel disorder, obesity, cancer, autism, diabetes and many other conditions. You would be right in thinking that it is quite a complex system! While there are many things that are important for digestive health such as stress management, exercise and a balanced diet there are a few things that we can include in our diet that are particularly important. So let's talk about 5 nutrients for a healthy, happy digestive tract.
This is one that most people have heard of, and for good reason, fibre is amazing for digestion! Fibre is certain types of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by our bodies and so passes through us. Some ends up as fuel for our gut bacteria but some also passes through untouched. It is vital for digestion because it attracts water to our stools which reduces constipation and helps things move along. It is also great for the health of our digestive tract in general and most of us aren't eating enough. Some of the best sources of fibre are legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), wholegrains (brown rice, brown pasta, brown bread, barley, quinoa), oatmeal, seeds, berries, broccoli and apples. Don't be afraid of eating bread, starting your day with two slices of wholemeal toast is an amazing way to get some fibre in! Whenever you are eating a carbohydrate, try to swap for a wholemeal option where possible and you will dramatically increase your fibre intake.
Our digestive tract is filled with billions of living bacteria that do so many wonderful things for us. Changes in our diet, stress, medications and more can all affect our bacteria and change the ratio of species present or wipe them out. Probiotics are one way to support your digestive health by introducing more healthy bacteria to your system. They are also particularly important if you have taken antibiotics recently as your good bacteria will have been wiped out. There are a few foods we can eat that have live bacteria in them, these include kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, probiotic drinks (yakult, benecol) and any fermented food. As these are foods that many people don't eat regularly, a supplement can be beneficial to keep your gut regularly stocked. Look for one that has multiple species, a high number of bacteria and one that is proven to survive the gut.
As well as keeping our digestive tract stocked with good bacteria, there are things we can do to keep them healthy, happy and performing all the functions we need them for. Prebiotics are undigestible fibre that act as food for the bacteria and help them grow and thrive. Think of bacteria as the seeds and prebiotics as the fertiliser. As we cannot digest this fibre, it arrives in our large intestine where the bacteria then ferment it. You can find probiotics in onions, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, leeks, asparagus, cabbage, radish, green bananas, radicchio and whole grains. One thing to note is that most of the prebiotic benefits are higher in the raw versions of these foods as cooking tends to remove some of the prebiotic fibre.

Radishes, fennel and asparagus in a bowl on table 

Omega-3s have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that reduce inflammation in our gut. Many digestive symptoms - stomach pain, bloating, diarrhoea and malabsorption are related to inflammation of the lining of our gut. Omega-3s reduce this inflammation and also are vital for healthy cell membranes so it makes sense that they are great for our digestive tract among a variety of other systems in our body. The best source of omega-3s is seafood, particularly oily fish (salmon, mackerel and tuna) as it contains the most beneficial types of omega-3s (EPA and DHA). However things such as seeds, nuts, soybeans, flaxseed oil and rapeseed oil provide a different kind of omega-3 that is still great for us and can be partially converted to EPA and DHA. Aim to include fish at least once a week in your diet and try swapping your snacks to include some nuts or nut butters to up your omega-3 intake.
Our B vitamins have some important functions in the digestion and breakdown of food in addition to many other metabolic processes. For digestion, they are essential for the metabolism of carbohydrates and also for the breakdown of fats and protein. Vitamins B1, B2 and B3 are particularly important and can be obtained from a range of foods. Meat, fish, dairy and eggs are all full of B vitamins and many leafy vegetables and legumes are also good sources. If you are a meat eater it is unlikely you need to worry about your B vitamins, but for our veggie friends it is extremely important to pay attention to.

These 5 nutrients are not the be-all and end-all of digestive health, but they are highly beneficial to our gut. So next time you are planning your meals or ordering your meal prep service, think about what you are including and whether you can work any of these things in to your diet. 
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