Fab Five: Nutrients for Digestive Health
This week I am back with another Fab Five post for you all. Today I am going to be talking about nutrients for digestive health, which I think is quite an appropriate topic for this time of year when many of us are still suffering the effects of the Christmas period. Lots of alcohol and the rich, fatty foods that are synonymous with Christmas can leave our tummies feeling a bit worse for wear after a month of consumption. Our digestive tract is highly sensitive to what we eat and certain things can really improve or worsen its function. We also have billions of different bacteria living in our intestines that help us digest food and absorb nutrients and they can become imbalanced easily which can lead to digestive symptoms. You would be right in thinking that it is quite a complex system! So let's talk about 5 nutrients that can help you have a healthy, happy digestive tract.
This is one that I think 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 pass 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, those with the highest fibre intake are found to have the lowest risk of colorectal cancer. Many of us aren't eating enough fibre, the UK guidelines recommend 30g a day and even if you eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, you still may not be meeting this. 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!
As I just mentioned, our digestive tract is filled with 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. Many people find that eating probiotics regularly keeps their digestion in check and that everything moves regularly if you know what I mean! It is also particularly important if you have taken antibiotics recently as they will have killed your good bacteria too. There are a few foods we can eat that have live bacteria in them, these include live yoghurt, 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. Look for one that has multiple species and a high number of bacteria. Here are a few of the ones I would recommend:
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. As we cannot digest this fibre, it arrives in our large intestine where the bacteria then ferment it - fuel for them and benefits for us! You can find probiotics in onions, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, leeks, asparagus, cabbage, 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.
If you haven't realised by now, omega-3s are a bit of a wonder nutrient that have so many amazing functions! With regards to our digestion, they have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that reduce inflammation in our gut. Many digestive symptoms - stomach pain, bloating, diarrhoea and malabsorption are related to inflammation. The lining of our gut can easily get aggravated and inflamed, contributing to some of these unpleasant symptoms. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and also are vital for healthy cell membranes so it makes sense that they are great for our digestive tract. The best source of omega-3s is seafood, 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-3s that are still great for us and can be partially converted to EPA and DHA.
5. B Vitamins
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.
In addition to these things, regular exercise, limiting alcohol, reducing stress, staying hydrated, and reducing processed food consumption can all have a significant effect on our digestive health. Our gut is linked directly to our brain via the Vagus nerve, so our mental state can have a large impact on how our stomach feels and equally our stomach can have a large effect on our mood. This connection is known as the gut-brain axis and is highly important to our health! So if you are experiencing stomach problems, immediately deciding to restrict intake of certain food groups may not always be the answer. Look to improve your lifestyle as well as your diet and you will likely see an improvement.