If you’re like most people, you rarely think about your gut. You put all your energy into your workouts and diet and assume your gut will take care of itself.
Unfortunately, surveys show that gut problems are common among both athletes and the general population, indicating that gut function is not optimal. If this is you, you aren’t getting everything possible out of your nutrition or your workouts.
Many things compromise gut health:
Stress does a number on the gut because high cortisol and adrenaline damage the gut’s protective lining.
Poor diet compromises gut function in a number of ways: Sugar, artificial flavorings, and processed fats are all harmful for the gut. Even a seemingly healthy diet high in animal protein will lead to an inflamed gut if it is low in fiber-rich vegetables.
Antibiotics, medications, alcohol, pollution, and caffeine can all have a negative effect on bacteria and permeability of the gut.
Good news is a healthy gut is not out of your reach. All it requires is a few simple steps that will nurture the healthy bacteria in the gut and help maintain integrity of the entire GI tract.
#1: Adopt A Healthy Diet
The first step to a healthy gut is to eat whole foods that have a protective anti-inflammatory effect: Vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, and non-gluten whole grains. High-quality protein is also important—the amino acids in protein are necessary to maintain the lining of the gut—but remember to always eat protein with fibrous vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous veggies) to avoid inflammation in the GI tract.
#2: Remove Processed Foods Especially Sugar
Some foods—sugar, refined carbs, processed foods with artificial additives—are bad news because they are associated with reduced diversity of the microbiota, chronic “low-grade” inflammation and increased intestinal permeability.
#3: Identify & Avoid Foods That Are Harmful To Your Unique Gut
Another way the gut goes wrong is when you eat foods that your digestive system is not able to handle for some reason. Common offenders include eggs, dairy, gluten, animal proteins, yeast, soy, corn, and even non-gluten grains.
#4: Chew Your Proteins
No one wants to have to go vegan to fix their gut, however, you need to be aware that a high-protein intake can easily create an inflamed gut. An easy way to protect against this is to ensure you are chewing your food so that intact proteins do not reach the GI tract, fueling the proliferation of harmful gut bacteria.
#5: Try Intermittent Fasting
When you’re constantly hammering your digestive system with food, it never gets a chance to rest and “clean out” the intestine. Fasting stimulates motility, which is the intestines contracting to maintain a downward flow of food through the intestinal tract. When you hear your stomach grumbling after 4 to 5 hours without food, that’s a function of motility. Both long-term or short-term intermittent fasts in which you skip either breakfast or dinner (fasting for about 18 hours) can give the GI tract a chance to perform “housekeeping” functions to keep it healthy.
#6: Use Probiotics
Probiotics are supplements or food that contain beneficial bacteria. Although probiotic foods like kim chi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, and miso are all the rage right now, if your gut health is subpar, you want to take a high-quality probiotic supplement that is guaranteed through the date of expiration. The problem with probiotic foods is there is no guarantee the bacteria are still alive or that the bacteria strain used to ferment the food has any health benefits.
#7: Eat Prebiotics
Prebiotics are foods that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Many plant foods contain some prebiotics, but the most abundant include asparagus, garlic, onion, leeks, bananas, artichokes, yams, seeds, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage. Another option is to supplement with resistant starch—a type of prebiotic that is found in starchy foods such potatoes and maize. The easiest thing is to buy unmodified potato starch and mix it in a protein shake or smoothie daily.
#8: Ensure Foundation Nutrients—Vitamin D, Zinc, Magnesium & Fish Oil
Certain nutrients that play a role in regulating the microflora in the gut are insufficient in the diet of the average person. For example, vitamin D modulates inflammation in the GI tract and balances gut microflora.
Zinc has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and taking it has been shown to enhance restoration of mucus in the intestines.
Magnesium is another foundational nutrient and studies suggest changes in healthy gut bacteria when there is inflammation in the presence of magnesium deficiency.
Fish oil may be protective for gut health. In one study, patients with inflammatory bowel diseases who supplemented with fish oil had greater mucus production, which protects the gut by helping to keep food proteins and pathogens from passing through the tight junctions that regulate the intestines.
#9: Supplement With Glycine & Glutamine
Glycine and glutamine are two amino acids that help to repair the gut lining for better absorption of nutrients. For example, taking glutamine before exercise can reduce the stress-induced intestinal permeability that occurs when blood is shunted to the muscles, heart, and lungs so that fewer toxins escape into circulation. Additionally, within the GI tract, glycine acts as a metabolic fuel, allowing for the synthesis of necessary biological compounds such as nucleic acids, creatine, and bile.
#10: Take Digestive Enzymes
We talked about the importance of chewing your food so that large food particles don’t reach the intestines, but there’s another reason food may leave the stomach without being completely digested.
Low stomach acid means food is incompletely broken down and it is much more common than people realize because it is caused by aging, stress, and inflammation. Ironically, low stomach acid is often misdiagnosed as too much stomach acid because when partially digested food starts to ferment, it will back up into the esophagus and doctors commonly mislabel this as acid reflux. Taking digestive enzymes can improve stomach acid and for many people this will solve the problem.