Five gut health tips that have nothing to do with what you eat

When it comes to gut health, food can be a confusing topic. Some foods that are believed to be good for gut health, like garlic, can be triggering for others. Kombucha is good in some instances, but not others. Or, if you eat this and that superfood or supplement, your digestion will be changed forever. Catch my drift?

If we take food out of the equation, there are some simple strategies you can use to improve your gut health that actually have nothing to do with what you eat. Basically, swap out the confusion for some fool-proof methods.

Stop multitasking
Our autonomic nervous system has three states, two of which are the parasympathetic state (“rest and digest”) and the sympathetic state (“fight or flight”). To state the obvious, you want to be in the rest and digest state while you’re eating.

In the rest and digest state, blood flow increases to the digestive tract, and intestinal activity increases. The fight or flight state, on the other hand, is marked by an increase in blood flow to muscles and lungs and a decrease in blood flow to the digestive system.

Your digestive system needs proper blood flow to do its job, but when we’re eating on the go (even if we don’t feel we’re in “fight or flight” mode), we divert that blood flow to other parts of the body, like the muscles that are helping you walk. It’s believed that even distraction or an overload of stimuli can have this effect.

Your solution: sit down and focus on the meal in front of you. If you have a hard time not eating on the go, try scheduling in time to eat your meals. In other words, prioritize eating like you do your meetings and exercise classes.

Lower your stress
And within that same thought process, if we’re constantly in a state of stress - whether that’s work, family, financial, or social - we aren’t doing our digestive system any good. We’re in the fight or flight mode, and blood flow to the digestive system is decreased.

Your solution: Try to pinpoint where the majority of your stress is coming from and look for a solution. While meditating can be helpful for stress, you can’t meditate away a toxic relationship. But this certainly doesn’t discredit intentional stress relief. Stress-relieving methods besides meditation might include yoga, exercise (even if it’s just an afternoon walk), getting enough sleep, catching up with a loved one, or making time for any activity you enjoy and find relaxing.

Chew your food
Surprisingly, this one does not go without saying. Digestion actually starts in your mouth with saliva, which starts breaking down starch and helps food pass smoothly to our stomach by way of your esophagus. The more you chew, the more saliva you produce.

Your solution: Experts say you should chew each bite 32 times. Try having one meal where you do count this so that you know what it feels like to chew that much. On a more regular basis, try to eat more mindfully with minimal distractions. Taking smaller bites might help, too.

Leave time between meals
Your digestive system has something called the migrating motor complex (MMC), which has a “housekeeping” role: it sweeps undigested material through the digestive tract. That grumbling you hear in your stomach isn’t necessarily a sign of hunger - it’s your MMC doing its job!

The MMC happens every 1.5-2 hours, but stops as soon as you eat something. Therefore, when you graze on snacks, you aren’t allowing your digestive system to complete the process before returning to its regular digestive motility. It’s sort of like if you were trying to do a final edit on something and your boss kept coming in with new ideas every 10 minutes.

Your solution: Try to leave two hours between meals and snacks. And as a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to leave 12 hours between dinner and breakfast to give the digestive system an opportunity to do this “final sweep.” This strategy might be different for you if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, have blood glucose dysregulation, or are prone to disordered eating habits. It’s best to talk to your doctor if you have concerns over meal timing.

Digestion starts in your mouth and ends in your...bathroom. When we don’t drink enough water, water is pulled from the food we ingest. This creates stools that are dry and hard, making them harder (and more painful) to pass.

Your solution: As a minimum, take your body weight and divide it in two. This is about how much water you should be drinking in ounces as an absolute minimum. You’ll need more depending on your exercise habits, environment, and even medications. To make water more appetizing, try flavoring it with fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, parsely, and rosemary.

Eating foods that support your gut health (and also that your gut agrees with) is obviously a priority, but it just doesn’t stop here. The way we approach meal times - and eating in general - can have a profound effect on the health of our digestive system.


Emily Smith

PR and Marketing Specialist of Vegetable and Butcher and a self-proclaimed nutrition nerd and sustainability junkie. Emily called DC home for three years before making her way to California. Emily has her master's in Nutrition Education and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist® (CNS®) candidate. She's passionate about helping people learn to use food to fuel their outdoor activities, and in her free time you can find her rock climbing. . You can connect with her on her website and on Instagram.

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