A Beginner's Guide To Gut Health
When you’re making a meal, you’ve probably considered a lot of things before cooking time: the ingredients you’re using, where they come from, how healthy they’ll be, etc.. However, other than knowing what agrees with you and what doesn’t, you probably didn’t consider how your food is impacting your overall digestive health: can your stomach break it down properly? Will you be able to absorb the right amount of nutrients? Is it good for the microbiome of bacteria that reside in your gut?
It's important to think about these things. If you're feeling low in energy, have frequent digestive problems like gas and diarrhea, and are battling inflammation, there's a great chance it's tied to your microflora. Scientists have found correlations between healthy microbiomes and preventing inflammation, mental health conditions, heart disease, and even arthritis![i]
Every system is different, and different digestive systems require different aids, but there’s a general consensus: healthy gut, healthy body. Here’s how different supplements and nutritional aids can help you achieve optimal digestive health!
Digestive enzymes are a great place to start, because after chewing, they’re the first things to get to work! Starting with your saliva, enzymes break down complex foods into smaller bits that allows nutrients to be absorbed into the body. Sometimes, though, your system needs some extra help, like when you’re eating a complex meal with a variety of proteins, fats, and carbs. Your body makes a number of different enzymes throughout the digestive process, but digestive enzyme supplements can help manage discomfort by breaking down the food particles even further.[ii]
Proper digestion means more nutrient absorption and smaller particles making it through to the gut (we’ll discuss what’s breaking these down soon). Our contemporary eating habits – eat on the go, as quickly as possible – and the “foods” we choose to eat can’t always be broken down effectively. On top of that, enzyme production decreases as we age.[iii] This makes digestive enzymes important, especially for older folks!
These products have been chosen because they're both effective and created with your body's natural enzyme production in mind. They also give those with food intolerances a freedom when they go out to eat, just in case some offending ingredients get into the food!
Enzymedica: This brand has a broad spectrum of enzyme combinations that can help people deal with digestive intolerances. For example, GlutenEase lets your body break down gluten and casein, sticky proteins that require certain enzymes that those with allergies or intolerances don’t make.
Genestra Digest Plus: This enzyme formula also has betaine hydrochloride to give your stomach a boost and break down those complex fats, carbs, and proteins. There’s no added wheat, starch yeast, gluten, soy, or artificial colouring or flavouring, so it’s a clean supplement made with natural enzymes.
Believe it or not, your gut is super smart, and it can have a big influence on your mental health. The digestive system contains over 100 million neurons from the esophagus to the anus, which definitely adds a lot of complexity to gut health. This mesh of neurons in the lining of your digestive system give it control of senses and reflexes independent of the brain, letting it take care of the messy processes involved. It’s so in control that scientists call it the “second brain.”
It's not fully independent, though, and the gut's connection to your brain is really important. The trillions of bacteria that live in the digestive system can have an effect on their mental health. The good strains are considered “good” because they don’t give off harmful toxins that get into the bloodstream, causing inflammation; they halt stress signaling, which causes your body to release stress hormones to deal with the signals; and they might even convert tryptophan to serotonin.[iv] Initial testing also shows that probiotics are linked to a reduction in depression and anxiety.[v] In short, your digestive system needs these trillions of bacteria, and it needs healthy populations of strains like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.[vi] This is where probiotics, live bacterial supplements, come in.
The large amount of bacteria in your digestive system explains probiotics come not in millions, but billions of colony forming units (CFUs), and are still only a drop in the bucket compared to your overall bacterial population. These supplements range in strength from around 15 billion CFUs (for general health) to 100 billion CFUs (for restarting your gut flora after antibiotic use). Using probiotics that are specifically formulated to work with different systems is important, and that's why we recommend the following:
Garden of Life: Driven by Dr. David Perlmutter, a world-renowned expert on the human microbiome, Garden of Life’s Dr. Formulated line of probiotics are incredibly varied, so you can take the product that’s right for your body. There are different formulas for men, women, and kids, with different strengths for different situations.
Genuine Health: Their Advanced Gut Health probiotics are perfect for daily care. Coming in 15 and 50 billion CFUs, Genuine Health probiotics are formulated to mimic gut flora, and are gluten free, vegan, and non-GMO. The delay release of the capsules lets the bacteria go in the places your digestive system needs them.
Prebiotics may sound like probiotics – there’s only one letter off – but they’re very different: whereas probiotics are actual bacterial organisms, prebiotics are the fiber they feed on. More specifically, prebiotics are indigestible foods that ferment in the gut and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.[vii] These beneficial bacteria should be the main strains in your gut, and thus feeding them is a great idea.
You can get prebiotic fiber in your diet easily: whole grains and vegetables are good sources. If you’re having trouble incorporating more of them, though, here are some awesome prebiotic-packed supplements and products:
ShaSha Bread Co.: This company is awesome because they make delicious cookies and other snacks that use prebiotics and probiotics. Even their cookies are made with whole wheat and minimal sugar, making them a super healthy treat for your digestive system! If you're trying to give up grain products made with refined ingredients, ShaSha makes it easy to still get important prebiotic fibres.
Prana Chia Seeds: Chia seeds are a super excellent source of prebiotic fiber, but the benefits don’t stop there. They’re a great source of antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins.
There are also many easy, delicious ways you can easily get them in your diet - try making your own energy bars or these indulgent Velvety Chocolate Pots with Chia & Coconut Oil.
Renew Life Clear Fibre: This product is 100% organic acacia fibre, a highly soluble form of fibre that doesn’t cause negative gastrointestinal side effects. If you're in need of renewing your microbiome after gastrointestinal illnesses, Clear Fibre is a great, unobtrusive way to get important prebiotics quickly.
This powder is easily integrated into the diet: two scoops of it just need to be combined with a cup or two of liquid. Side benefits include a curbed appetite and a lower risk of heart disease!
Natural Factors PGX Granules: A convenient way to get prebiotics in food that would otherwise be lacking, PGX Granules are water soluble plant fibres that expand in your digestive system, making you feel fuller and giving your gut healthy fibre on which to thrive. The granules are unflavoured, making them an unobtrusive addition to your diet!
They're not only a great prebiotic, though - they can effectively help you lose weight. Drink lots of water with them to keep them moving through your system!
Fat and Nutrient Absorption
We’ve heard so many negative things about fat that “fat-free” is shorthand for “healthy.” But it’s actually very important to get it in your diet, especially when you’re eating veggies. You might have heard of “fat soluble vitamins”; these are vitamins A, D, E, and K, and your body needs the help of fats to absorb them. A little fat with your meal helps the digestive system absorb nutrients, and going fat-free can actually deprive your body of important vitamins and minerals.
Of course, these fats should be healthy ones. The fat you’d be getting from pastries and fast food will absorb nutrients, too, only it’ll make you fat, practically negating their positive effects in the process. Healthy fats like nuts, seeds, plant based fats, and olive oil are good options, and you don’t need to take a large dose of them, either. Have easy-to-consume forms like nuts, seeds, or the following products on hand and take them with every multivitamin. It’s the best way you’ll guarantee you get the most out of your nutrient supplements!
Udo’s Choice: Their 3-6-9 Blend is an amazing combination of healthy plant-based fats: polyunsaturated fats (omegas 3 and 6) and monounsaturated fats (omega-9) from organic coconut, sesame seed, sunflower seed, and flaxseed oils. You can add it to foods or liquid-y foods like smoothies, yogurt, dips, and salad dressings. It’s easy to take and incredibly comprehensive in the healthy fats it provides – what’s not to love?
MCT Oil: The “MCT” in MCT oil means medium chain triglycerides, and these are a type of fatty acid that doesn’t require energy for absorption, storage, or use. It generally comes from coconut or palm kernel oil, and the almost nonexistent flavour makes it a good addition to liquids like salad dressings or cooking oil (though it’s smoke point is 160 degrees Celsius), letting you the fats you’ll need to absorb vitamins and nutrients.
It is something that needs to slowly be incorporated into the diet, though[viii]: start with a quarter tablespoon several times a day, and build up your tolerance.
Butter Ghee: Ghee is clarified butter that’s been simmered, meaning it’s the liquid fat with a unique aromatic flavour. It’s great for adding (alongside MCT Oil) to coffee, making it an ideal way to add healthy fats to your morning routine. This is especially important if you’re a light breakfast eater and take multivitamins to start your day!
Recipe: Hot Detox Pretty Purple Sauerkraut
A great way to support your digestive health is to eat more fermented foods. Yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and kefir are delicious options, but many of them are big in East Asian and Middle Eastern diets, and not widely available here in Canada. But making the effort to
This incredible recipe comes from Julie Daniluk's Hot Detox.
5 lbs. purple cabbage (1 large head)
3 tbsp. pickling sea salt
- 2 tsp. dill or cumin seeds
- 2 tsp. whole coriander seeds
- 2 whole cloves or 1/8 tsp. ground clove
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 2 bay leaves, crumbled
- 4 cloves of garlic, halved
1. Discard any damaged outer leaves of the cabbage. Quarter the cabbage and remove the hard core. Finely slice the cabbage by hand or with a food processor.
2. Scald four 4-cup wide-mouthed Mason jars in boiling water. Meanwhile, combine cabbage, salt and any boosters in a large bowl until evenly coated (this helps to express the water faster).
3. Divide the cabbage among the jars, tamping firmly with a wooden utensil to remove any hidden air pockets and to bruise the cabbage, making it release juice. Cover each jar with a coffee filter or cheesecloth secured by a rubber band. Let it sit for 2 hours to allow the salt to draw out water from the cabbage. Every 30 minutes, tamp down the cabbage to help draw out the liquid and submerge the cabbage in the brine.
4. After 2 hours, if you still don't have enough natural brine, dissolve 1 teaspoon pickling salt in 1 cup of filtered water, and pour over the cabbage. When it's fully submerged, replace the coffee filter with a small sterile saucer that fits just inside the top of the jar so it rests directly on the submerged cabbage. Add a weight, such as a water-filled 1/2 cup Mason jar, to keep the saucer under the brine.
5. Cover the jars with a clean dishcloth to keep out dusts and insects. Place the jars out of the way, at room temperature for 3 to 4 weeks. Check them daily to skim off any scum that may build up on the top, and top with more brine if necessary. Replace the dishcloth with a clean on each time you remove scum buildup.
Make 4 quarts (16 cups).
It's very important that the cabbage stays submerged in the brine as it ferments so mold doesn't form. After the fermentation is complete, store the jars in the fridge.