Modern diet, lifestyle and environmental factors can wreak havoc on our digestive systems. Considering how important good gut function is when it comes to things like mental health and immunity, we can see that the gut really is the foundation of health. When considering how to tackle health issues, it is often the first place you need to start.
So, what can we do to nourish and nurture our guts, and how does our digestive system change as we get older?
One of the most important aspects of good digestion is having enough digestive secretions to be able to break down your food. Digestive secretions include salivary amylase, which is released in the mouth and helps break down starch; hydrochloric acid which is released in the stomach and helps break down proteins; pancreatic enzymes which help break down carbohydrates, fats and protein; bile which is released from the gallbladder and helps to emulsify/break down fats. If any part of this incredible digestive symphony is disrupted/reduced, then problems can start. Improperly digested food will sit around in the digestive tract and ferment. Whilst a certain level of fermentation is helpful, if food is continually stagnating in the digestive tract due to a lack of digestive juices, there will be an excess level of fermentation and wind, bloating and digestive discomfort can result.
Our levels of hydrochloric acid naturally decline as we get older, so it’s important to make sure you ‘stoke the fire’ and adopt some tactics to help boost your levels. Ways to increase your stomach acid production include eating bitter greens before a meal, such as radicchio, chicory, rocket, mustard greens and watercress. Getting into the habit of having a bowl of bitter greens dressed with olive oil and apple cider vinegar is a great way to stimulate stomach acid production. Cooking your own food and taking the time to eat slowly and mindfully has also been shown to be an important factor in increasing stomach acid. Engaging with your food from a sensory perspective – seeing, smelling and handling your food, all help to stimulate gastric juices.
It’s also worth noting that whilst stomach acid lowering drugs such as Omeprazole may be necessary for acute cases of acid reflux, they are not a long-term solution, and may actually make the situation worse. In my clinic I’ve seen many cases where people have been taking these drugs for digestive discomfort, only to find their symptoms getting worse over time. Considering the vital role stomach acid plays in digestion, it makes sense that reducing it through drugs could cause problems. In certain cases, the problem is not an excess of stomach acid but a weakness of the LES (lower oesophageal sphincter), which acts like a one-way valve to prevent back flow of acid from the stomach to the oesophagus. Interestingly, many cases of heartburn and digestive discomfort are actually down to too little stomach acid, and are improved by taking a digestive aid supplement that includes stomach acid boosters. A sign that you may have low stomach acid is if you feel heavy and lethargic after meals, along with a sensation that the food is just ‘sitting there’, especially after something like a steak which requires a high level of stomach acid to be broken down.
Zinc is an essential mineral for the production of stomach acid, and a decline in zinc levels is also very common as we age. You can consider a zinc supplement, or focus on delicious zinc rich foods such as oysters, scallops, prawns, beef, lamb, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, kidney beans and lentils.
Another important aspect to your digestive ‘fire’, is making sure that it is concentrated enough to do the job. Drinking excessive liquids during mealtimes can dilute your digestive juices and impede proper digestion. It’s best to limit your intake to a few small sips of water – just enough to lubricate the mouth whilst you are eating. Try to limit larger amounts of fluid to a minimum of 30 minutes either side of your meal.
Fortunately, we don’t need to continually graze in order to stay alive as the food humans eat contains far more calories than grass. Ideally, we should be able to sustain ourselves on 3 meals a day, plus 1-2 snacks if needed. If you are experiencing blood sugar drops (meaning you need to eat very regularly or you become irritable, shaky and weak), this is suggestive of poor blood sugar management – cutting out caffeine, and eating meals rich in protein and good fats, with less of a focus on refined carbohydrates, can work wonders.
The reason this is important when it comes to digestion is down to something called the MMC (migrating motor complex). Every 90 minutes, when in a fasted state (i.e. your gut is not actively digesting food), the MMC, otherwise known as the ‘cleansing wave’ is initiated, sweeping debris and bacteria out of the small intestine. If you are partial to a nibble here and a nibble there, and having several snacks rather than proper meals, this can prevent the MMC from happening, leaving bacteria and waste to sit around in your small intestine. This can increase your risk of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, which studies show is the dominant cause behind a large percentage of IBS sufferers.
This is one of the most helpful things you can do to support your digestive health. Eating a large meal too close to bedtime leaves food sitting around in the stomach whilst you sleep. Your body has many jobs to do whilst you are sleeping so if it has to focus on digestion rather than its repair and restore jobs, it is likely you will wake up feeling sluggish. Although dinner time is a ritual for many families, it can be tweaked to be more supportive to your health by eating earlier (before 7pm ideally) and 1-2 nights a week eating something very light, such as a homemade chicken soup. This is also a very useful weight loss tool if that is something relevant to you.
Sugar can encourage the growth of bad bacteria in your gut so it’s important to evaluate your sugar intake. Obvious sources of sugar include cakes, biscuits and sweets, but there are many hidden sources of sugar, such as bread, pasta sauces, granolas and ready meals, so it’s always wise to check labels and make food from scratch where possible.
Another important thing to consider is fruit. The term ‘5 a day’ is misleading, as it fails to differentiate between fruit and vegetables – whilst 5 portions of vegetables a day is healthy, 5 portions of fruit is excessive. Whilst fruit is a wonderful source of phytonutrients, fibre and antioxidants, it still contains a high amount of fruit sugar. Fruit sugar is just as capable of upsetting blood sugar levels and encouraging bacterial/yeast overgrowth as refined sugar. If you suffer from digestive issues, it can be helpful to reduce your fruit intake to 1 piece a day, and focus on fruits lower in sugar such as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and cranberries.
Every traditional culture has some form of fermented food – the Germans like sauerkraut, the Japanese enjoy kimchi, the Turkish drink kefir. In ancient times, we used to ferment our bread for weeks on end and dine on fermented fish dishes. We have really lost touch with these traditional methods of preserving food, and our guts have suffered as a result. Fermenting something means there will be an abundance of beneficial bacteria – once ingested this will replenish our gut flora and support the bacterial community that provide us with so many wonderful benefits including nutrient production and immune support.
If you have tried a lot of the tips in this article as well as taking a digestive aid supplement, and are still suffering, it might be worth considering food intolerances. A test can provide insight, although they are not always accurate. Another alternative is a 30-day elimination diet. This requires cutting out the foods you suspect are causing a problem (most common offenders include wheat, gluten, dairy, nuts and eggs) and at the end of the 30 days introducing each food one by one and monitoring for any reactions. Generally, if food intolerances are an issue, you should expect to feel markedly better during the elimination diet.
If you are fed up with your digestive issues and are struggling to find answers, functional testing can provide invaluable information on your digestive health and where the problem may lie. My two favourite tests to run for clients are the GI MAP test, which takes a comprehensive look at many different markers of digestive health as well as any harmful bacteria or yeast that may be present, and an organic acids test which provides a huge amount of information about your detoxification capacity, neurotransmitter health, gut flora and nutritional status. Functional testing is useful in chronic cases where simple changes are not providing enough relief. Nutritional Therapy is much like detective work, where the more clues you can find, the faster you will get to your desired outcome.
About Anoushka Davy
Anoushka Davy is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Wellness Coach and GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) practitioner, with a special interest in digestive health and mental wellbeing. She is available for private consultations at The Hampstead Clinic of Chinese Medicine, as well as on Skype for those outside of London/abroad. For more information visit Anoushka Davy