The Gut Health Guide: How To Identify Problems & Improve Your Digestion

The Gut Health Guide: How To Identify Problems & Improve Your Digestion
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When it comes to organ function, the gut is a powerhouse that has over 100 million neurons. With more cells than the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system, the gut is delicate and even considered an entity aside from the central nervous system. Because it controls so much of everyday activity, it's important to protect it through mindful eating and healthy habits. With all things considered, this area of the body influences more than just your gut feelings. 

Facts About the Gut and Digestive System

Some people might not think about what happens to breakfast, lunch and dinner once it's consumed. The reality is, there's a complex system of organs and structures that breaks down, digests, absorb and gives out nutrients found in the food. The esophagus, stomach and intestines, the main organs in the gastrointestinal tract, collaborate on one of the most intricate chemical assembly lines. As soon as food goes down the esophagus and into the gastrointestinal tract, it is broken down into its simplest form. Certain nutrients enter the bloodstream to be dispersed to different areas. Healthy bacteria fight off infections and fungi while the gut communicates with the brain to maintain overall health and distribute these nutrients. However, when it comes to digestion, the gut has a mind of its own and doesn't need cerebral cues to do its job. When you urgently need to go to the bathroom, thank your internal alarm system. 

How Anatomy Differs Between Men and Women

Men and women naturally have a different anatomical makeup when it comes to the gut. While each has the same organs, they operate differently. The esophagus and stomach open and close more forcefully in women. They also produce less stomach acid than men which leads to fewer ulcers and less esophageal damage. Food tends to move slower through women's bodies, which makes nausea, bloating and stomach inflammation more common. Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease also occur more frequently for women because they have a longer and slower emptying colon. Chronic constipation, diarrhea and colon cancer tend to affect women more than men. During pregnancy, women also experience digestive changes because of the extra hormone levels and a change in organ placement because of the baby, which can also affect food assimilation. 

Warning Signs of An Unhappy Gut

Though "digestive disease" sounds like an intimidating term, everyone will experience a digestive issue at some point. Food should ideally travel in and out of the body without discomfort or pain, but about 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from digestive diseases. Whether it's with abdominal pain or stomach cramps, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea or vomiting, these symptoms are typically caused by an imbalance of good and bad bacteria. The main sign of an unhealthy gut is usually an upset stomach. Going to the bathroom too much or not enough is a pretty telling sign, while a painful, noisy stomach might also be an indication of something wrong. When all is in order, food is processed and extricated without difficulty. The body produces serotonin, the hormone that affects mood and sleep, in the gut. If there is damage in that area, you might be experiencing poor sleep, disturbances or even insomnia.  Diet, medication mismanagement and antibiotics can affect serotonin levels. Speaking of mood, certain foods may also increase your feelings of happiness and pleasure. Fats and carbohydrates may release dopamine and serotonin, making people more likely to reach for their favorite, unhealthy comfort foods.

Boosting Gut Health

Without investing in expensive powders or supplements, effectively nurturing your gut doesn't have to be difficult. Try these simple meals to give the system a break from processed foods.
  1. Overnight oats - One of the simpler options, oatmeal is a great meal that provides sufficient fiber to keep you full. It's also a carminative, which helps reduce bloating and digestive discomfort. Go for gluten-free rolled oats and add some bananas for a bonus prebiotic. 
  2. Milkshake-replacing smoothie - When making a fruity smoothie drink, don't leave out the kefir. A natural probiotic, kefir has fermented properties that optimize digestive function. Add blueberries, bananas and citrus fruits for an extra boost. 
  3. Grilled chicken and pineapple salsa - Chicken is a great source of protein. The key is the pineapple, which contains vitamins C and B and an enzyme called bromelain which supports digestion. 
  4. Sauteed dandelion greens - A great addition to any plate, steamed dandelion greens are rich in antioxidants and prebiotic fiber, treating constipation and increasing intestinal movement.
  5. Bone broth - Considered a superfood, bone broth is a combination of healthy fats and proteins. The ingredients help food move through your gut, improve sleep because of the glycine levels and can be very healing for "leaky gut."
  6. Vegetable soups - As the weather gets colder, try preparing a soup that contains leeks, mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes and other vegetables. Soups are hydrating and not too heavy, promoting digestive regularity. 

Maintaining a Satisfied System

A natural influencer of mood chemistry, emotions, the immune system and digestive functions, the gut is a pretty big deal. As long as you maintain a healthy diet, stay active and be mindful of what goes in your body, regular digestion should follow. Issues in this area can be identified through changes in appetite or bowel movements. Learn more about the causes, symptoms and how to prevent an unhealthy gut. Author bio: Kara Kash, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Factor — a premium weekly meal delivery service that fuses world-class culinary dishes with the latest in nutrition science to produce fully prepared meals that are as delicious as they are nutritious.