It’s easy to take for granted the inner workings of your gut. What you eat, how often you eat and your ability to digest and eliminate food are critical for your health and wellbeing.
Your food preferences may not be entirely in your control. There is a tiny world inside you that controls your cravings, energy levels, mood and overall health. It may sound creepy, but it’s true! Inside your gut is a microbiome which contains trillions of microorganisms (mostly bacteria) and their genetic material. The health and happiness of this microbiome can have a significant influence on your health, your mood and frankly, your fate. Hippocrates sums it up:
All disease begins in the gut
Inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, poor nutrient absorption and toxic byproducts can flip a genetic switch from good health to poor health relatively quickly.
What to eat?
I won’t tell you what to eat. I won’t suggest you follow a certain diet. But there are five rules which you should follow.
- Limit processed food.
- Limit or avoid sugar.
- Don’t overeat.
- Chew your food well.
- Make sure you ingest adequate fiber.
Many other rules I used to follow have gray areas and I’ve had to reevaluate. Eating fruit and vegetables is important, but which ones, how often and whether you combine them with other foods, could make the difference between feeling good and feeling bloated.
Should you buy organic? Probably. Is organic produce really organic? I hope so.
I’ll share what’s worked for me towards the end, but I don’t have all the answers. How your body responds to food is very personal.
Changing your dietary habits
Changing your diet and your dietary habits is hard. It’s not just mind over matter. The composition of your gut microbiome starts at birth. All the critters that live inside of you dictate your cravings, your metabolism, and how you respond to certain foods.
You can’t land in Greenland, for example, and instantly tolerate a high fat, low-fiber diet. You can’t travel to a third world country and eat whatever you want and not expect to pay the consequences. Your body won’t tolerate it. These are extreme examples, but may shine light on why some diets worked for your buddy, but not for you.
The bacteria that live in your gut influence your metabolism, physiology, and your weight. They keep your gut healthy as food moves through your intestines, extracts nutrients, and eliminates toxins. If you suffer constipation, nausea, or feel bloated after you eat, it’s a good sign you don’t have a healthy balance of good versus bad bacteria within your gut.
And when your gut isn’t happy, you aren’t happy.
What goes in, must come out
If you want to increase your chances for a healthy gut and long life, it makes sense to pay attention to the signs and symptoms and, frankly, evidence (i.e. consistency and quality of your poop), your gut gives you every day.
The most obvious signs of digestive woes are bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. Pain, fatigue, and brain fog are less obvious signs of digestive distress. Research on gastrointestinal issues (i.e. dysbiosis) and “brain fog” is questionable. It’s difficult to quantify. We know there is a bidirectional relationship between your stomach and brain, so what you put in your mouth will influence how you think and process thoughts (not to mention your mood).
If you are having symptoms or simply haven’t felt well for some time, it seems logical to consider how well you digest your food. Having to take a pill every time you eat seems illogical to me. There’s got to be a better way.
Which diet is right for you?
I’ve struggled with digestive issues most of my life. The diets I’ve tried to boost health include vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, Whole30, Keto, gluten-free, dairy-free, gluten and dairy free, food free (i.e. intermittent fasting), low FODMAP, and some of the wacky fad diets from the 80s (remember the Grapefruit Diet?!).
What I’ve learned through experiments and my discussions with GI specialists, allergists, endocrinologists, naturopathic doctors, and dietitians is there is no one-size-fits-all. We are all unique and outside of true allergies and autoimmune conditions, you have to learn for yourself what your body can and cannot tolerate and how to keep yourself healthy. It helps to have guidance. It helps to read the research. And it definitely helps to monitor how your body responds to certain foods.
Ultimately, eating well is a process that may need to be tweaked to suit your lifestyle, genetic profile and the area in which you live. If Hippocrates was onto something, it’s worth the time and effort to get it right.
Tips and tricks for a happy gut
- Seek professional guidance. I know I just said you have to figure out what works for yourself, but don’t try to cure yourself if something feels off. It’s important to rule out true allergies, pathogens, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and non-digestive issues contributing to your problem. You may need blood work and other tests to know what you’re dealing with. A reputable dietitian or nutritionist can then help you design an appropriate diet effectively. What specialist you see first may depend on the severity of your issues. You want someone who listens, performs appropriate tests, and provides you with resources and guidance, not just prescribes a pill and/or a truckload of supplements. You will have to do the hard work of evaluating how what you ingest affects you.
- Limit inflammatory foods. Start by limiting, or better yet, eliminating high inflammatory foods: sugar, hydrogenated fats, Omega-6 oils, processed meats, and refined carbs. If this immediately improves your symptoms, you can determine if the occasional splurge is worth it.
- Try an elimination diet. Eliminate entire food groups and then add them back in slowly or just eliminate one food at a time to see how you feel. There are several types of diets out there such as the low FODMAP diet, Whole30 and others. If you have allergies, a disease, or autoimmune disorder, you may want to consider professional guidance to help you get started. Ultimately, you want to eat as much variety of foods as possible and not live a life of restricted intake if you don’t have to.
- Eat a variety of foods. The problem with many diets is the limitation of foods. If you find you are stuck with just 5 foods that agree with you, there is most likely an underlying issue (SIBO is more common than you think!) We should all strive to eat a variety of foods that provide us with most of the nutrients we need, and fiber. Lots of fiber.
- Customize your supplements. I’ve spent A LOT of money on expensive supplements. I think it’s best to get as much as you can from food, and “supplement” what you are lacking. Most people need to add vitamin D and essential minerals like magnesium and zinc because these are hard to get from our food and water, and most of us could benefit from probiotics, but we tend to fall prey to the companies that claim to offer all you need in a drink or pill. Do your research and learn what your body may need. (Robert Roy Britt wrote a nice article about supplements here.).
What you eat is just part of optimal digestive health. Your stress levels, general health, environment and the quality of your relationships play into the big picture of optimal health, happiness and longevity.
Science continues to investigate the gut-brain-body relationship. We are learning more and more about how our food and environment affect us. Despite this knowledge and all the tools we have available to improve the quality of our lives, no single food, vitamin, or pill will be the answer.
You have to do the hard work of listening to your body. Hopefully with time and attention, you will begin to learn what it, and the microbiome inside, truly needs.
- Microbiome | Humans as holobionts: implications for prevention and therapy by Maarten van de Guchte, Hervé M. Blottière, and Joël Doré
- Nutrition Reviews | Defining the human microbiome by Luke K Ursell, Jessica L Metcalf, Laura Wegener Parfrey, Rob Knight
- Medicina | The Microbiome in Health and Disease from the Perspective of Modern Medicine and Ayurveda by Robert Keith Wallace
- Scientific Reports | Collective effects of human genomic variation on microbiome function by Felicia N. New, Benjamin R. Baer, Andrew G. Clark, Martin T. Wells & Ilana L. Brito
- Cureus | Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth: Comprehensive Review of Diagnosis, Prevention, and Treatment Methods by Ted George O Achufusi, Anuj Sharma, Ernesto A Zamora, and Divey Manocha
- Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology |Efficacy of the low FODMAP diet for treating irritable bowel syndrome: the evidence to date by Wathsala S Nanayakkara, Paula ML Skidmore, Leigh O’Brien, Tim J Wilkinson, and Richard B Gearry