Do you live to eat? Or eat to live? For most of the 2 million years of human history, most people spent most of their waking hours seeking and processing food. The miracle that allows us to eat a cow or apple or broccoli and render it down to nutrients that feed our body is the digestive system.
The digestive system is a collection of organs involved in receiving and breaking down food into nutrients for use in powering the body and maintaining good health. The system comprises of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, as well as the pancreas and the liver.
Additionally, the digestive system contains microbiome, a collection of billions of microorganisms which play a part in the digestion process and in maintaining digestive health in general. When the digestive system works well, it ensures that the body receives the nutrients it requires. This leads to a healthy digestive system and a healthy body. A healthy digestive system is essential at every stage of life.
Unfortunately, many things can go wrong and compromise the integrity of the digestive system. The most common signs of digestive issues are abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. These problems are usually caused by what you eat or drink.
Causes of digestive problems?
Digestive problems can occur in a number of ways including the following:
- Ingesting food that is contaminated with harmful microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. This can lead to food poisoning or infection with symptoms like diarrhea and stomach pain. Harmful microorganisms can also cause an imbalance of gut microbiome which can further affect digestion and digestive health. At the far end of danger are parasites in the food supply that can occupy the gut or even infiltrate into the bloodstream and tissue.
- Intolerance to certain foods can cause bloating, gas, heartburn and abdominal cramps.
- A poor diet may contain too much of some nutrients or too little of others. For instance, high fat, low fiber and low water intake can lead to constipation.
- Low levels of digestive juices such as gastric acid can slow down digestion and cause symptoms of indigestion like gas, bloating, abdominal pain and heartburn.
- A lifestyle that involves habits like smoking, excess intake of alcohol and excess stress can lead to digestive issues like peptic ulcers with such symptoms as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Other causes of digestive problems include inflammation, medications side effects, functional and autoimmune issues. For every round of oral antibiotics that is taken it is crucial to reinoculate the gut with probiotics to reestablish a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut.
Improve your digestive system
Some of these digestive system problems can be addressed by observing food hygiene, moderating the amounts of food that you take, avoiding problem foods, taking enough water and fiber and making appropriate lifestyle changes. To this end, you may need to eliminate or at least reduce intake of well-known trouble food items like gluten, over-processed foods, very spicey or deep fried foods, artificial sweeteners and soda. Also consider quitting tobacco smoking, excess alcohol intake and reduce your stress levels.
However, even after addressing these issues, there might still be other digestive problems that compromise your digestive health. You may be tempted to get relief by taking over-the-counter or prescription medications. But in most cases, these will not give you sustainable relief. Besides, their long-term use may compound the problems.
For these reasons, you can opt for natural ways like diet to optimize digestive health.
What to eat for a healthier digestive system
Incorporating certain fruits, mushrooms and spices in your diet can help clear many digestive problems, leading to a healthier digestive system. Here are five foods to eat for a healthier digestive system:
Citrus fruits which include orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime and mandarins, are a great source of the health enhancing vitamin C. They also contain minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and copper. In addition, citrus fruits are a rich source of soluble and insoluble fiber as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. All this goodness makes citrus a natural choice when you want to improve or maintain good health. (1)
Citrus is also good for a healthier digestive system. Lemon in particular is widely used to improve digestion courtesy of the fiber and the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in the fruit. Fiber helps in regularizing bowel movement while the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds reduce oxidation and inflammation in the digestive system.
Note that, in order to maximize benefits of citrus fruit in the digestive system, you need to eat the pulp too, and if you can, the peels too. This is because these parts contain the bulk of fiber and phytonutrients. Citrus fruit juice provides very little digestive support.
Cordyceps are a type of edible mushrooms that also have medicinal properties. Cordiceps have been used in Chinese medicine for hundreds of years to boost energy, decrease fatigue and inflammation. Cordyceps mushrooms contain many active compounds including cordycepic acid, ergosterol, nucleosides and polysaccharides. These compounds give the mushrooms their potency. Cordyceps are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, anti-tumor, anticancer, reparative and antiaging.
In digestive system health, cordyceps offer protection against poisoning and oxidative damage of the gut mucosa. Cordyceps also promote liver function which is necessary for healthy digestion. (2)
Maitake is another type of edible and medicinal mushrooms. Studies have established that maitake mushrooms improve health from different perspectives. They have preventive properties against diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. They also improve heart health and boost immunity.
In addition, maitake have digestion optimizing properties. The active compound in maitake mushrooms is a polysaccharide called D fraction. This compound is responsible for most of this mushroom’s health boosting properties. D fraction improves digestion and absorption of nutrients. This means that the food you eat is better utilized by the body. Ith improved digestion, the liver, for instance gets the fats, vitamins and minerals it needs to process for use in the rest of the body. Improved digestion also reduces instances of indigestion and other problems in the digestive system. It also leads to the improvement of overall health.
Turmeric is a traditional spice from India that has gained wide popularity around the world in recent years. The yellow rhizome from the turmeric plant is mainly used either in its fresh form or as a powder of the dried tuber. But turmeric is more than just another spice. It also has a wide range of health benefits thanks to the active compound it contains known as curcumin. Curcumin is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-proliferative.
Many studies have found that turmeric, and specifically curcumin has powerful disease fighting properties. It has been successfully tested as a form of treatment for various conditions including cancer. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric make it a great aid for digestive system health. Turmeric also has pain relieving properties. It can relieve abdominal pain when it occurs.
Research studies conducted on patients with irritable bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis showed that curcumin reduces the inflammatory conditions significantly. Similar studies on patients with colorectal cancer showed promising results. (3)
Besides working therapeutically, turmeric can be used to prevent various inflammatory conditions of the digestive system and other parts of the body. Curcumin also relaxes the smooth muscles of the digestive system, promotes microbiome balance and liver function.
Our ancestors had to store the harvest without refrigeration or even canning supplies. Drying, salting, and fermenting foods became a common method for storing foods. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, miso and pickles. The acids and friendly bacteria from these foods helps in the digestion process.
One of the more unsung heroes in gut health, vinegar is produced after yeast ferment a carbohydrate food (such as grapes) into wine, then acetobacter bacteria ferment the wine into vinegar. Vinegar is about the same pH as stomach acid, which is good. Many people lose the ability to make adequate stomach acid as we age, which leads to maldigestion. Take 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar in a glass of water with each meal, which not only improves digestion, but also blunts rises in blood glucose.