As I explained in my last post, gut health is vital for immunity, reducing inflammation, and nutrient absorption, all of which are important for athletes and just general overall health and wellness. In my opinion, there are two primary things necessary for gut health:
- Proper digestion
- Gut bacteria / microbiota
Therefore, those are the two main things I’m focusing on to improve the health of my gut. Gut bacteria have been getting most of the attention on the health scene lately but something that I think should be equally considered in the gut health equation is optimizing the digestive process. Before we all start ordering probiotic supplements and devouring fermented foods we should all take a moment to understand how digestion works.
The sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous systems are the two parts the autonomic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling bodily functions like breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are like yin and yang. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate increases, muscles contract, saliva production is reduced, and the stomach stops many of the digestive functions (one of the reasons we get stomach cramps if we eat before a hard training session). Correspondingly, when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, muscles relax, heart rate drops, saliva production increases and digestive enzymes are released.
It important that our parasympathetic nervous system is active when we eat because proper digestion requires saliva and the release of various digestive enzymes in addition to the acid in the stomach to properly breakdown food. Problems can start to occur pretty quickly if food isn’t properly digested when it is released from the stomach into the small intestine. Undigested food molecules can compromise the lining of the gut and lead to leaky gut. If these undigested molecules pass through the gut lining into the blood stream, our immune system is called into action and it creates inflammation. Undigested food particles that make it all the way to the large intestine can even disrupt the gut flora and cause various other issues. Let’s be real…angering the large intestine is ill-advised. Nobody wants to be the third stall bandit.
Now that we know how proper digestion and gut health are connected, these are some of the things I have been doing to optimize my digestion:
- Eating in a more relaxed state to activate my parasympathetic nervous system. I’ve been trying to sit down to enjoy my meals vs. devouring food on the go or shoveling food in my mouth between meetings. Essentially just trying to get my body into the rest-and-digest mode when I’m eating.
- Thoroughly chewing food so it is can mix with the enzymes in saliva and is broken down enough for the stomach to do its thing more effectively.
- Taking a digestive enzyme supplement prior to big meals because the body may not be able to produce adequate enzymes to break down meals that are high in fat and protein. Therefore, I take one to two capsules of this digestive enzyme supplement prior to my biggest meals to give my digestive system a little extra help.
- Not drinking a lot of water before, during, or after meals because it may dilute stomach acid. Pepsin is the enzyme that breaks down protein and is more effective with a lower pH level (higher acidity) in the stomach. Drinking a lot of water before, during, or immediately after meals has the potential to slightly dilute stomach acid and raise the pH environment in the stomach that may inhibit the breakdown of harder to digest proteins. I try to limit water intake ~20 minutes before and up to an hour after a meal.
- Not snacking unless I’m truly hungry. For one, there really isn’t any evidence that snacking throughout the day increases metabolism beyond what is required to digest food. For two, the gut needs some downtime to take care of housekeeping activities like repairing the gut lining. If it is constantly digesting food…these activities can’t occur.
- Not eating too close to bedtime because laying down isn’t exactly an optimal position to digest a meal. I try to avoid eating at least two hours before bedtime.
- Letting it all hang out and not sucking in my stomach. Over the years I’ve developed a habit of holding in my stomach. This may help me look better in a swimsuit photo but it is not good for promoting proper digestion. Sucking in the stomach doesn’t provide the digestive system with the space it needs to function properly and interferes with the wave like motion of the intestines, causing a delay in digestion. Contrary to popular belief, sucking in the stomach doesn’t activate the abs.
- Limiting and avoiding foods that could promote leaky gut like excessive sugar, grains, and dairy. Gliadin is a protein molecule that is found in most gluten containing foods (wheat and processed foods being the biggest culprit) that can cause an inflammatory reaction in the gut. Gliadin tolerance can vary from full-blown celiac to total tolerance. As we know, inflammation in the gut can increase gut permeability (leaky gut) and nutrient malabsorption. Here is the deal…I’m not saying gluten is the root of all food evil like it often gets made out to be because everyone tolerates it differently. All I’m saying is that, because of the potential implications to gut health, I would prefer to make other food choices that are more gut friendly.
I’ve been doing the things above for a few weeks now and I’ve definitely started to notice a an improvement in my digestion. One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed is that my food and sugar cravings have gone way down and I actually feel like I don’t need to eat as much. #Boom
Based on my experience, I’m starting to be a big believer in this whole gut health movement.