Your Digestive System and How it Relates to Autoimmune Disease, Inflammation, & Mental Health
Why Healthy Digestion is Important:
Food is the way that the body receives its nutrients to function properly. It helps us be more productive, creative, increases our energy, and helps regulate our moods. A healthy digestive system breaks down food into nutrients small enough for the body to absorb and use for growth, cellular repair, and energy. Having balanced gut bacteria and an optimally functioning digestive system can help prevent many ailments.
The gut is the root of many health issues. Lack of proper nutrient absorption can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, and leaky gut syndrome and can cause an imbalance in our gastro-intestinal tract. This can have a direct impact on the immune system and metabolic functions of the body. Some results of poor digestive health may be constipation, allergies, fatigue, skin problems, mood swings, bad breath, food intolerances, and autoimmune disease.
How Digestion and Autoimmune Disease are Connected:
Autoimmune disease can be triggered from three factors: genetic susceptibility, antigen exposure, and increased intestinal permeability. Leaky gut is a term that refers to the quality of the intestinal lining and has been directly connected to autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When the intestinal lining is working properly, it creates a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. An unhealthy lining may have cracks or holes, which can allow for partially digested foods, toxins, or bugs to penetrate the lining. This can prompt inflammation and changes to the gut bacteria, leading to problems with the digestive tract and throughout the body.
Researchers are conflicted on whether leaky gut can also cause autoimmune disease in other parts of the body.
Explaining Inflammation and How it can be Prevented or Resolved:
Inflammation is the body’s defense mechanism to anything that takes it out of homeostasis, often presenting as redness or swelling. That’s to say, our body can inflame (both internally and externally) when it’s under attack from disease, injury, stress, or certain foods. Inflammatory responses can manifest in a number of ways including (but not limited to): dermal rash or hives, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, insomnia, and Alzheimer’s.
So, how can we avoid chronic inflammation and make sure we’re caring for our bodies from the inside, out? Recent studies are showing that the best way to prevent inflammation is through diet. To reduce inflammation in the gut, one must remove inflammatory foods, such as alcohol, processed foods, certain medications, and any foods causing allergies or sensitivities. There are many healthy, whole foods that you can eat that help reduce inflammation in your body. Eating a balanced diet high in fiber, and low in sugar and saturated fats can help keep leaky gut and inflammation at bay.
There are also supplements and stress management techniques that can aid in in anti-inflammation. A healthy lifestyle that includes practicing stress-reducing activities such as meditation, yoga, visualization techniques, at least seven hours of sleep per night, and at least four to five days of exercise per week, can help lessen inflammation throughout the body.
Some Examples of Anti-Inflammatory Foods:
Certain foods decrease inflammation and should be eaten as much as possible. These are also foods that help to balance blood sugar to prevent insulin spikes, which can stress the body (thus causing inflammation). Some of the most potent anti-inflammatory foods are:
berries that are high in anti-oxidants (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries)
fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines)
cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale)
dark chocolate (72% cacao or higher)
Foods that Promote Healthy Digestion:
There are many foods that aid in digestion. Whole grains, certain fruits and vegetables, fermented foods, lean proteins, and certain roots and herbs are all excellent to keep the digestive system working optimally. It’s important to try to incorporate some of these foods within each of your daily meals, as well as drinking lots of water to help everything move through your system.
*Whole grains are excellent for the digestive tract. They provide lots of fiber, as well as nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. These molecules aid in proper function of the lining of the colon, where 70% of our immune cells live.
The fiber from whole grains helps add bulk to stools, which can reduce constipation. Additionally, some grain fibers help feed the healthy bacteria in the gut, and also help to balance blood sugar. Some whole grains that are good for digestion: Oats, quinoa, farro, and products made from whole wheat
*Fruits that are lower in fructose, such as berries, melon, and citrus fruits (oranges and grapefruit), make them easier to digest. Papaya contains a digestive enzyme called papain. This can help aid in the digestion of proteins, reducing bloating, and possibly alleviate the symptoms of IBS. Bananas are another fruit that are great for digestion. They can help stop diarrhea and contain a fiber-rich substance called inulin, which stimulates the growth of good gut bacteria. Avocados are also great option, as they are high in fiber and potassium, promoting healthy digestive function.
* Leafy greens and some cruciferous vegetables, such as spinach, kale, other dark leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and beets are great for digestive health. They are high in insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to stools, quickening elimination from the digestive tract. They also contain magnesium, which can help relieve constipation, and feed your good gut bacteria.
*Fermented foods are also an excellent source of probiotics, which improve digestion and promote bowel health. Try adding small amount of kimchi, tempeh, miso, and yogurt to your daily meals to improve digestion.
*Lean proteins are much easier for the body to digest than a hearty steak. Sticking with chicken and fish, specifically salmon which has omega-3s that can reduce inflammation in the gut, will help ensure a healthy digestive system.
*Ginger can help quicken elimination of food through the stomach and is also used to treat nausea.
*Peppermint oil (found in the peppermint leaf) contains menthol, which can help alleviate the bloating and stomach discomfort associates with IBS.
The Gut and The Brain: The Relationship between your Food & your Mood
The Vagus Nerve is the longest cranial nerve running between the brain stem to part of the colon. The brain tells the gut what to do, and the gut tells the brain what it needs to function optimally. This bi-directional relationship between the brain and the digestive tract gives us an idea of just how connected these two parts of the body are. Many of the neurotransmitters in the brain are produced in the gut, such as dopamine, melatonin, and serotonin. Serotonin influences many of our regulatory functions including our mood, and 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. So, maintaining a healthy gut is important for mood regulation, and can help treat depression and other mood disorders.
As you can see, our digestive health directly impacts so many other functions of our bodies. While it may be challenging to change some of your eating habits, two simple things you can do to improve your digestive health are:
(1) Drink lots of water to help keep your system moving.
(2) Chew your food!
(3) Try to eat (at least) one serving of colorful produce with every meal.