SO... if we’re going to be friends, I have one caveat: it’s important to me that you’re comfortable talking about digestion and elimination. I guess you don’t have to talk about it, I will.
I became interested in these topics during a particularly difficult time in my life when I did not go “number two” for 3 weeks. I think Mr. Einstein was right when he said that time is relative; that 3 weeks seemed like a very, very long time. Not only did I feel super physically uncomfortable, I also felt emotionally uncomfortable. The results are in: after that experience, having a good bowel movement everyday is a major priority of mine. And although I can get a little obsessed with this priority, research is showing that my physical and mental health are better for it: our gut health contributes a great deal to our overall health.
Mark Hyman M.D., a doctor of functional and integrative medicine in Lenox, Massachusetts says, “A healthy gut is central to your overall health.”
According to the National Institute of Health, 70 million Americans (approximately a quarter of us) suffer from digestive disorders. Yikes!
More and more, research is pointing to the way gut health affects mental health. Pediatric Neurosurgeon, Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride says, “Most psychiatric patients suffer from digestive problems. They have unhealthy inner ecosystems where there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria, yeast and fungus; they cannot digest food properly. This creates a large number of neurotoxins that can move from their intestines through the damaged intestinal lining into the blood stream where the toxins are carried to the brain.” Preliminary research published in the National Academy of Sciences showed that scientists were able to reduce anxiety and stress hormones in mice by feeding them a particular probiotic strain. And Michael Gershon, author of The Second Brain says that, “Very often, people with [Irritable Bowel Syndrome] suffer from depression and anxiety.”
The gut has its very own nervous system called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), which controls digestion. Health and science journalist Emma Young says that, “Digestion is a complicated business, so it makes sense to have a dedicated network of nerves to oversee it.” In addition to being a super-awesome network of 500 million neurons stretching from your esophagus to your anus your ENS is connected to your brain via the vagus nerve; according to Young, “...about 90 percent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from above, but from the ENS.”
For me, knowing all of that makes me want to make it as easy as possible for my gut to digest and the best way to do that is with a clean diet, and to make sure that things “keep moving.” Dr. Hyman says that, “You should have at least one bowel movement a day, it should be banana-shaped and it should float.” However, professionals do say that if you're having more than 3 or 4 bowel movements a day, you may want to consult your doctor.
KEYS TO A HEALTHY GUT
Experts Agree on Fiber
Lifestyle and Plant-Based Diet Superstar, Kris Carr explains the differences between soluble and insoluble fiber so nicely: “Soluble fiber absorbs water and forms a gel in your intestines, which bulks up your poop and makes it smooth enough to keep the trains moving. Soluble fiber also helps regulate blood sugar and can lower cholesterol levels. Add these foods to increase soluble fiber: oatmeal, apples, oranges, pears, berries, flax, beans, peas, lentils and psyllium husk. Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, so it acts like the bristles in a broom to sweep poop along. It also has a mild laxative effect, which helps with healthy elimination. Add these foods to increase insoluble fiber: whole grains, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, celery, broccoli, cabbage, onions, dried fruit and root vegetable skins.”
Go Crazy (but not too crazy) with Water
Dr. Edward Loftus, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic says “If you’re well hydrated, there’s a greater chance your stools will be softer which make them easier to pass. Remember you can tell if you’re properly hydrated by the color of your pee, and it should be light yellow. Try and remember not to drink too much water during mealtime, drinking water, especially cool water, during meals dampens digestive fires.
Keep Up the Good (Bacteria) Work
Kris Carr nails it again, “Good bacteria (also known as probiotics) are very important to help keep us regular. We need probiotics to work alongside our digestive enzymes and help break down food to release the nutrients our bodies need. In return, probiotics survive and multiply in our gut when they dine on the leftover fiber from our digested food. To increase good bacteria in your gut: Eat fermented foods like tempeh, miso, kombucha and sauerkraut, eat high-fiber foods (prebiotics) and take a high-quality probiotic supplement.
Literally Keep It Moving
Doctors concur that one of the key risk factors for constipation is inactivity. But hold your horses until at least an hour after eating a big meal, so that the blood that wants to be in your gut helping you digest your food, doesn’t go to your heart. Really any movement is good movement, even walking 15 to 20 minutes a day helps. Exercise tones the muscles in your core which helps the contractions and rhythms associated with peristalsis and elimination. If you’re feeling more ambitious than just a walk, Kris Carr says that “...moderate aerobic activity on a regular basis is a more effective way to keep constipation at bay in the long run.” Many yoga postures are helpful for digestion and elimination and are just a Google away.
Finally, if you can’t get your digestive system going, it may need a little prompting. Dr Hyman suggests, “consuming two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds (sprinkle them over a salad or stir them into a cup of applesauce). If you don’t see a positive change, try taking one teaspoon of buffered ascorbic acid (vitamin C) powder in a glass of water. Still no relief? Two or four capsules of magnesium citrate a day may help.”
Are we still friends dear readers? I hope so.