Q. How can I improve my digestive health?
A. If I had my way, gut health would garner the same amount of attention as heart disease or Alzheimer’s. But that’s not the case—yet. Estimates show that as many as 90 million Americans have gastrointestinal problems. People take their guts for granted. They abuse them and are unaware of how fundamentally important they are to overall health. I’m on a mission to get people back in touch with their guts and on the path to better digestion and ultimately, total wellness.
Most people don’t realize that the gut is a critical and extremely complex organ system. Not only is the gut where nutrients are absorbed, but it also may be the center of the immune system. The fact is that many of the physical and mental disorders that affect millions of Americans—including gastrointestinal illnesses and even some like autism and heart disease—begin quietly under the radar with trouble in the gut. Few of us are even aware of problems brewing until something really starts to go wrong—in other words, long after the difficulty begins.
Signs of Trouble
The most common signs of an unhealthy gut are maldigestion, bloating, gas, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome; however, fatigue, mood swings, depression, and arthritis can also stem from poor gut health. Just because you eat something, doesn’t mean it will be
digested. If you’re not taking in all the nutrients you need because your food doesn’t contain many or your gut is damaged and not able to extract and distribute what nutrients are there, it can affect your health.
Foods to Eschew
We don’t consistently eat the right kinds of foods. For most of pre-modern history, the human gut was perfectly adapted to the fresh fruits, greens, and wild game our ancestors found in abundance. However, in recent times, this type of diet has been replaced with potato chips, microwave dinners, soft drinks, and other processed concoctions—foods pumped full of fat, sugar, salt, and preservatives that offer little nutrition.
Focus on natural, nutritious foods. In my book, I suggest focusing on low-glycemic foods that aren’t packed with diabetes-producing carbohydrates. For example, eat an egg white omelet with fresh vegetables for breakfast instead of sugared cereal. Also important is eliminating foods that trigger allergies and intolerances, which can send your gut into overdrive, hampering its ability to function.
In addition to vitamin D and omega-3 fats, which I think everyone should take, there are two key supplements for restoring gut health:
Digestive enzymes: Your body has only a finite supply of digestive enzymes, and they diminish with age. Enzyme supplements help replenish the gut’s dwindling stores. Take with (or right before) meals—especially when you eat out—to aid your digestion process.
Probiotics: Friendly bacteria really make a difference by repopulating your gut’s magnificent colonies of microflora.
Be aware that continual stress and anxiety, too little sleep, contaminants in the environment, and medications also all take their toll on your gut.
Steven Lamm, MD, is the “house doctor” for ABC’s The View, an internist in New York City, and the author of No Guts, No Glory.