Your gut may play a bigger role in your overall health than you think.
The digestive system is tasked with breaking down the nutrients in food for energy and cell repair, according to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and there’s even some scientific evidence that the environment of bacteria in your gut, called the gut microbiome, may play a role in your current health and future disease risk.
Luke Coutinho, a holistic lifestyle coach in integrative medicine, uses his practice to educate individuals about the importance of taking a 360-degree approach to their health, whether the goal is improved gut health, weight loss, improved blood sugar control, or lower triglycerides, such as reduced cholesterol or blood pressure.
Diet, he noted, is only one piece of the puzzle. “I have adopted the concept of using lifestyle as a medicine for holistic health, and today it’s become our key to success in handling a variety of conditions from all across the globe,” Coutinho said.
When it comes to gut health in particular, he acknowledged that there’s a lot of chatter about topics such as probiotics vs. prebiotics, alkaline vs. acidic foods, and raw vs. cooked foods. But those are complex, nuanced health topics that ultimately are misunderstood. In short, he explained, the body needs pro and prebiotics, and balance is key when it comes to food pH. Raw food, on the other hand, can have the opposite of the desired effect and exacerbate digestion problems, cause gut damage, and increase inflammation when overeaten.
Tending to your gut might seem confusing and daunting, but the truth is you can make a handful of minor tweaks to your diet and lifestyle to improve digestive health.
Coutinho shares some of his tips below.
1. Detox your kitchen
Coutinho recommends avoiding or limiting inflammation-causing white sugar, caffeine, and refined oils —especially when cooked at a high heat. Choose healthy oils labeled unrefined, such as olive oil, which have been linked to reduced inflammation.
2. Chew mindfully
“Saliva has two main enzymes: amylase and Llpase,” Coutinho said. “These are enzymes that aid the digestion of carbohydrates and fats in our mouth. The more you chew and break down food, the more you spend time mixing your saliva with your food before swallowing, the more you digest these carbohydrates and proteins.”
3. Rethink mealtimes
Consider fasting to promote gut healing, Coutinho said. If that’s not for you, simply eating at the same time each day can help train your digestive system to work on a schedule. Also, he said, finishing your last meal at or before sunset can help prevent digestive overwhelm. “People who eat late night meals often wake up feeling heavy, unrested, and sluggish,” Coutinho explained. “This indicates that the body was unable to digest last night’s meal.”
4. Try a supplement
Coutinho suggests exploring zinc, pure cow ghee, coconut oil, omega-3s, L-glutamine, and selenium as gut superstars. Just be sure to check with your doctor before adding a supplement to your diet because some pills may interact with medications you’re already taking. And know that supplements never replace a nutritious, whole-foods-based diet, according to the National Institutes of Health.
5. Get out of your chair
Excessive sitting can be bad for circulation, nutrient processing, and the body’s detoxification capabilities, Coutinho said. “Simple movement can mean just being active throughout the day, walking, or getting up from the chair every hour to stretch, twist, or touch your toes,” he explained. “Yoga specifically helps the digestive system immensely.”
6. Tame stress
Stress affects the entire body, including hormone and neurotransmitter production, nutrient absorption, inflammation levels, food cravings, and, yes, digestion. Research has even linked chronic stress to an increased risk for digestive disorders including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and worse management of conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). “The brain and gut are connected to each other via a system of nerves called the Enteric Nervous System and are thus continuously communicating with each other. This is exactly why the gut is also called the second brain,” Coutinho said. Finding ways to manage stress, such as by exercising or meditating, can be a boon to your mind as well as your gut.
7. Don’t forget to breathe
Another way to help reduce stress: Breathe. And do it deeply. “Deep breathing is the quickest way to calm down our mind and thus the gut,” Coutinho said. “It helps shift our body from a state of stress to a state of calm in a matter of a few deep breaths.”