We are constantly inundated with a variety of mixed messages and conflicting advice regarding what to do about our health. In no realm is this brought into such sharp contrast as the world of digestion. Not a topic we like to chat about much publicly, anyway…
I’ve compiled this list of eleven things that you can stop doing TODAY that could be detrimental to your digestion. This list is by no means complete but it’s a great start. So without further ado, here we go….
1. Stop eating foods that are inappropriate for you: Every body is unique, and as-of-yet undiscovered food sensitivities reign as one of the top causes why gastrointestinal distress will not go away. When we eat foods that are less than optimal for our bodies, several things go on. One, the immune system creates complexes that are able to drift into the blood and create an inflammatory response. This excessive inflammation can create a wide variety of body-wide symptoms from joint pain to headaches to acne and brain fog. Next, these foods may not be adequately broken down by the digestive system. Partially broken down food molecules trigger gas, bloating, distension and stomach pains.
Solution: It’s simpler than you may think to uncover food sensitivities. You can do an elimination-challenge diet, where the most common allergens are eliminated for a month or so and then systematically reintroduced, or you can get an IgG blood test. The worst foods for digestive health sadly enough are eaten quite commonly, so take stock of your diet to see if any of these guys could be contributing to your symptoms. The biggest contenders are gluten, dairy products, sugar, soy, legumes, artificial sweeteners, legumes and beans, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, bell pepper, eggplant) with corn, eggs, caffeine, alcohol and tree nuts being second-tier food groups to look at.
2. Stop eating soy: Ok, so this is a piggy-back from #1, but it is worth highlighting the digestive pitfalls of soy since it is commonly touted as a health panacea (sigh). Soy contains protease inhibitors. Protease is the enzyme your body uses to break down proteins, so when you consume soy you are effectively blunting protein digestion. When large, unbroken protein molecules hit the small intestine – gas, bloating, distension and pain are the result. Soy also contains oligosaccharides (read: carbohydrates) that are unrecognizable to the human digestive system. This means they are not broken down, and these large carbohydrate molecules hit the small intestine along with unbroken proteins – a great formula for bloating and gas. Soy has phytic acid, which prevents absorption of certain trace minerals. This, combined with the fact that soy prevents the conversion of active thyroid hormone and acts like an estrogen in the body, increasing the body’s burden of estrogen puts soy on the black list.
Solution: All that I said up there about soy? If soy is fermented, like miso, soy sauce or natto, that doesn’t apply. The fermentation process breaks up those hard to digest carbohydrates and chews up protease inhibitors. So enjoy that bowl of miso soup, but stay away from soy milk, soy powder, soy sprinkles, soy protein and the like. Read those labels.
3. Stop eating yogurt – with a caveat: Those who are sensitive to dairy – and there are a lot of people that fall into that category – shouldn’t consume yogurt anyway, but what about the rest of us? Yogurt is often a carrier for sugar, artificial colors and flavors, and gut-irritating thickeners and gums. To add insult to injury, yogurt is only as good as the cows it comes from. Cows are fed antibiotics and hormones and a high-grain diet, often rich in gluten and genetically modified grains. All of these residues – including gluten – can end up in the milk. We think we are doing such a great job getting our probiotics, calcium and protein in by consuming yogurt, but then we reach for a really inferior product like Activia (added sugars, gums, thickeners and conventionally raised milk).
Solution: If you are not sensitive to dairy products, yogurt can be a good addition to your diet. Aim for a plain yogurt, that has no sugar, flavors or colorings added. The best quality are going to be organic and those from grass-fed cows. This will ensure you are not getting hormone, antibiotic, GMO or gluten residues in your yogurt.
4. Step away from the chia seeds: Chia has an almost rabid following, touting the amazing benefits of those little seeds. I’m here to tell you that chia contains lectins and saponins that exacerbate and can even trigger leaky gut and can be rough on the digestive tract.
Solution: Well, step away from the chia seeds. Utilize hemp seeds instead, and perhaps even flax seeds if you can tolerate them.
5. Temper your sugar intake: Ah, sugar. The original drug. Increased sugar consumption has been lined to virtually all inflammation-driven chronic disease. Sugar can create gas, bloating, indigestion, reflux and diarrhea. High sugar foods damage the lining of the small intestine, harm your normal, friendly gut flora while feeding opportunistic, potentially harmful bacteria and yeast, alter bowel motility and can interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
Solution: I’m not calling you for you to never eat sweets again, or to go ultra low carb, but it may be helpful to be strategic about your sweet eating. Keeping blood sugar stable by eating protein with every meal and finding “cleaned up” versions of your favorite treats will go a long way towards helping you reduce your overall sugar intake. Two of my favorite blogs for healthy dessert (and other!) recipes are Elana’s Pantry and The Spunky Coconut
6. Stop unjudiciously using antibiotics, acid-blocking drugs and other gut-trashing medications: It is estimated that up to 40% of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary or incorrect. Antibiotics destroy not just the bad guys, but instigate collateral damage by killing your good guys, too. This opens a door for opportunistic bacteria and yeast to move in, creating dysbiosis, concurrent infections and potential damage to the small intestine. Drug-resistant bacteria is a looming threat of this generation, and is largely contributed to by overprescription of antibiotics. Acid blocking drugs, used for heartburn and reflux, can quell the symptoms of these things in the short term but do little to treat the cause. Taken long-term, they increase incidence of osteoporosis, pneumonia, antibiotic-associated diarrhea and nutrient malabsorption. Virtually all classes of medication – from benzodiazepenes to steroids to statins – can have some GI side effect.
Solution: Take antibiotics ONLY when absolutely necessary. Antibiotics do not work for viruses (colds, flus, etc). Do not take antibiotics without the confirmation of a bacterial infection. Always take probiotics alongside of antibiotics, or following antibiotic therapy if you are through and didn’t take probiotics when you were on antibiotics.
Acid-blocking drugs were originally only meant to be used for 3-9 months, and I strongly recommend that you don’t use them longer than that. This amount of time should be adequate to get to the underlying cause of heartburn. Educate yourself on the side effects of the drugs you are taking. My favorite website to check these out at is www.drugs.com
7. Stop using surfactants and harsh chemical cleaners: This is especially true for those with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), Celiac, and leaky gut. The surfactants DSS and SLS are used to induce colitis in lab rats and are well established in the literature to worsen inflammation in the digestive tract. Harsh cleansers can prevent the cell differentiation and division that is required to heal an inflamed, irritated GI tract.
Solution: There are many alternative, naturally-slanted cleaning products out there. To start, swap to the “free” versions of the products you use like laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, shampoos, body washes and the like. Companies like Seventh Generation, Method, If You Care and others offer safe, hypoallergenic products. If you are crafty, you can also make your own! It’s amazing what a bit of baking soda and vinegar will do to clean the surfaces of your home and body. There are pages and pages of recipes for homemade cleaning products if you do a Google search.
8. Stop selling yourself short on sleep: The connection between adequate sleep and awesome digestive health may not be intuitively clear at face value, but it’s critically important. During sleep, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system becomes active. This is also called the “rest and digest” branch and it tempers it’s partner, the sympathetic or “fight or flight” branch. During sleep, our digestive system gets signals to work optimally and smoothly. When we miss out on sleep, these precious signals are lost. If it goes on long enough, digestive symptoms we’ve never experienced before may pop up – maybe some heartburn, maybe a bit of belly pain or gas.
Solution: Guard your bedtime. Many of us pride ourselves on being able to function on minimal numbers of snooze time, but we’re not doing our bodies any favors. Have a bedtime routine: unplug from electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, and sleep in a dark, cool room. Your body will thank you.
9. Stop drinking chlorinated water & taking chlorinated showers: Chlorine is added to water as an antimicrobial agent, and as such, it strips our healthy gut flora as well. It combines with compounds in the water to make chloroform and other nasty things that are known carcinogens, so it is a good idea for a lot of reasons to skip the chlorine. The effects are amplified when we shower, as we breathe in the shower steam via the lungs and absorb these compounds through our skin. A recent blog by Food Renegade summarizing studies on the effects on chlorine states that the majority of our chlorine exposure is from showering in chlorinated water, with a 10 minute shower being the equivalent of drinking ten 8-ounces glasses straight from the tap.
Solution: Drink fresh, filtered water and get a filter for your shower too. Many such systems are available. At our house, we have a 5 cylinder whole-house water filtration system that is installed right where the water comes into the house from the city. It cost about $500 for materials and installation and between $100-$200 per year to change the filters. It’s one of the best investments we’ve made.
10. Quit overtraining: Like under sleeping, overtraining creates an imbalance in your nervous system that favors the “fight-or-flight” (aka: stressed) response. This means there is not enough time or resources to optimize healthy digestion. Excessive cardiovascular training (more than one hour 4+ days per week of medium intensity, medium duration activity like jogging, spinning, etc) stimulates cortisol and catecholamines with nothing to offset them, triggering and solidifying a more stressed out physiology which in turn does not foster optimal gastrointestinal function.
Solution: Mix up your training. Swap a couple mega-cardio sessions for leisure walking or shorter, more intense bursts with sprints, plyometrics or weights. This style of training releases hormones like human growth hormone and IL-10 that oppose and offset the effect of cortisol, tempering the overdominance of the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system and thus aiding digestive function. You may also notice that your waistline begins shrinking with this type of training as well 😉
11. Stop wolfing down your food and eating on the run: Did you know that lack of chewing is one of the top causes of gas and bloating? When we bolt down our food and don’t chew, not only are we swallowing excess air, but we are putting an extra burden on the stomach, digestive enzymes, acid and bile to break down food into teeny tiny particles. If we can’t break down food adequately, that leads to gas and bloating from fermentation by the gut bacteria and a revolt by the small intestine that likes everything in really small pieces. When we don’t sit and relax to eat, but eat in our cars, on our feet or while walking to a meeting, that disturbs our nervous system and creates sluggish and disordered digestion.
Solution: Place your fork down in between bites of food and chew until the food is a soft paste. Do your best to sit down while you eat, guarding your meal times as you would sleep time or time for exercise. Slow down while you eat and be mindful of the taste, texture and smell of the food. Interestingly, these very techniques also can prevent us from overeating. I can hear a sigh of relief from your intestines already…