I recently gave a talk called Healthy Habits for a Happy Gut. Before I did the research for the talk, I was already aware of how important our gut health is for our general wellbeing. I knew about the gut brain connection and the fact that the gut/microbiome is often referred to as the second brain. However, my reading led to me to a far deeper understanding of how our gut health impacts on our mental health, our brain health, our ability to absorb minerals and vitamins, our immune response, our ability to eliminate toxins, our weight and of course our digestive health. Our gut health is even more important than I realised. As Hippocrates said ‘All disease begins in the gut!”.
So how can we support our gut health? In my talk I chose to focus on 4 simple lifestyle changes that we can incorporate into our daily lives. There are of course many more things we can do and I will follow this blog up with another one in a couple of weeks.
- Drink more water!
Your body maintains a finely tuned balance by absorbing more water from your gut if you get a little dehydrated. This hardens the contents of your bowels which in turn causes a slow gut transit time and yes, you’ve guessed, constipation. I am sure we’ve all experienced this at times, particularly when we travel. We avoid drinking much water so we don’t need to find a loo at an inconvenient time! Then we spend the first couple of days on holiday with bowel discomfort. And quite possibly some bloating and gas as well. Great!
A 60kg person needs to drink approximately 2 litre of water a day (that’s 33ml of water per kilo of bodyweight). Bear in mind that hot weather, central heating, air conditioning and activity will mean you need to drink more.
So, if you’re not drinking enough water, how can you persuade yourself to drink more?
Something I do is drink 2 glasses of warm water first thing in the morning. We are dehydrated in the morning and warm water rehydrates us quickly as it has a vasodilating effect on blood vessels which promotes absorption. This sets me up for the day. You could also try habit stacking – for example my husband says that by leaving a glass next to the coffee machine, he remembers to drink a glass of water every time he comes down for a coffee. I also find that popping 4 elastic bands on my 500 ml water bottle in the morning and removing one every time a refill it serves as a reminder and motivator to drink more water.
2. Eat a plant centric diet.
By this I mean, make plants the focus of your diet. Our gut needs fibre and if we don’t eat plants then we don’t get enough fibre. I use the term plants loosely to include nuts, seeds, wholegrains, fruit, beans and pulses as well as vegetables. A diet full of fibre is associated with an increased diversity of gut microbiota and the more varied our diet, the more diverse of microbiota. Dietary fibre keeps the digestive system moving and prevents constipation. This is because it is made from complex structures that cannot be broken down by the digestive system, so the fibre passes through it and helps waste flow. The fibre also provides crucial food for our gut microbiota which in turn plays a key role in digesting the food we eat and absorbing and synthesising nutrients.
So, what can we do to increase our plant intake?
First, it might be useful to plan meals ahead and write shopping lists. Secondly, aim to eat the rainbow everyday – put a colour chart up in the kitchen and get your children (or you can do it) to tick off the colours as you eat them.
Thirdly, have an organic vegetable box delivered to your home. This will quite possibly introduce you to some different vegetables and improve the variety in your diet.
Lastly, more challenging than eating the rainbow, you can aim to eat 30 different phytonutrients (anything that grows in the ground!) a week. Keep a checklist. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
3. Manage your stress.
Stress impacts the gut. You know that feeling you get in your stomach before an exam or an important interview? Wells that is the gut brain connection at work. I knew people at school and university who got so stressed before an exam that they would be in the loo right up to the last minute! Stress triggers raised cortisol and activates the amygdala (part of the brain) which in turn triggers a feeling of anxiety and fear and the urge to empty our bowels! Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system – our fight or flight response and shuts down our digestive system. This is ok in the short term but the chronic stress which so many of us experience is disastrous for our gut health. Chronic stress causes inflammation in the gut and inflammation plays a central role in almost every major disease including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, depression and cancer.
So how can we manage our stress?
We are all different so what works for one person won’t necessarily work for you. This philosophy is at the core of my health coaching. You are unique and you know your body better than anyone, or at least I will help you get to know your body better than anyone! Anyway, here are a few ideas; try them and see what works for you.
Walking outside in nature; meditation; breathing exercises – these can work really well before eating; yoga or exercise of any type but don’t over stress your body; doing something creative like painting or singing; other self-care activities such as a massage, a bath, sitting down with a book etc
4. Slow down
Our digestive system needs time to work properly. The more relaxed we are when we eat, the more we activate the rest and digest state (parasympathetic) of our nervous system. Slowing down and giving ourselves permission to enjoy our food is really important.
Try to give yourself at least 10 minutes for a small meal and 20 minutes for a bigger meal. Eat at a table because your posture and digestion will be better than if you eat whilst slumped on the sofa! When you are seated. Lift your rib cage and increase the gap between your hip bones and your bottom rib. If you suffer from indigestion this will help.
Try to remain mindful around eating. In fact try to remain mindful right through from the food preparation, to smelling it and eating it. It will improve your digestive response to the meal.
Slowing down your eating will help prevent overeating. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to send signals to your brain that is full. If you eat quickly, it is much easier to overeat and then feel uncomfortably full. Slowing down has been shown to reduce bloating and general digestive discomfort. To help yourself slow down, try putting your cutlery down between mouthfuls and breathe.
Keep a look out for my next blog when I will follow up with 4 more healthy habits for a happy gut. In the meantime if you would like to know more about my coaching programs contact me here or to arrange a Discovery call click here.