10 Ways To Improve Digestive Health

by Ann Marie Michaels on August 3, 2009

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10 Ways to Improve Digestive Health

Are you plagued by bad digestion? Do you have chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, diarrhea? Do you have acne or other skin issues? Do you have heartburn or gas?

I used to think these issues were all just a normal part of life. I think most people do. In fact, one time I was watching Dr. Oz on Oprah counsel a woman who wrote in to ask how she could resolve her flatulence. He told her it was normal to pass gas. I can’t remember how much (so don’t quote me), but I think I recall him saying it was normal to pass about a liter of gas a day.

Could this really be normal? I don’t think so. But perhaps it has become common in our culture.

It’s also common to see drugstore shelves that look like this:

10 Ways to Improve Digestive Health

I read an interesting article a while back on the Weston A. Price Foundation website. It was about traditional diets in Africa. The people there enjoyed vibrant health and excellent digestion:

In his lectures, Burkitt was fond of pointing out that the typical African stool specimen was large and soft, and that stool transit times were rapid, compared to the puny hard fecal deposits and slow transit times of hapless Europeans. The large amount of fermented food, easy to digest and contributing to the health of intestinal flora, is the most likely explanation for this phenomena — fermented dairy products in European groups and fermented fish among the Eskimos accomplish the same results.

The problem with digestive issues is not just the immediate discomfort. Bad digestion affects everything connected to health. When you don’t properly digest your food, you don’t absorb the nutrients. This can lead to all kinds of health problems. There is also a lot of research being done about the connection between behavior and mood and digestion.

Lastly, restoring the proper balance of intestinal flora helps build immunity. What do good bacteria do? They kill bad bacteria!

I’ve had my own personal journey of recovery in this arena. I’m amazed at how much better I feel now that I eat fermented foods, soak my grains, and eat lots of raw dairy products. It’s not hard to overcome digestive issues, but it can take time. For me, when I was in my twenties, suffering from all kinds of health problems stemming from a candida overgrowth, it took me about two years to correct it. It was so worth it, though. I think I’m as healthy as I am today because I took the time to work on my digestion.

From what I have read, it’s easier for children to recover more quickly. So if you have a child with digestive issues, start now — not later — on the path to recovery.

10 Ways To Improve Digestive Health

1. Eat more fermented foods. Fermented foods are naturally probiotic and help to repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria. There is a tremendously long list of fermented foods from around the world. Some examples include yogurt, cultured butter, creme fraiche, sauerkraut, kimchi, and naturally fermented pickles. Fermented beverages include: kefir, kombucha, kefir soda pop, and beet kvass. Read more about fermented foods in this post. There are lots of good recipes for fermented foods in Sally Fallon-Morell’s book, Nourishing Traditions or Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. Check the listings on my resources page for sources of fermented foods and starter cultures.

2. Drink and cook with filtered water, not tap water. Why is this important? Because tap water is chlorinated. Chlorine kills bacteria — good and bad. If you are working to put good bacteria into your digestive tract, you don’t want to douse chlorine on it. If you swim in a chlorinated pool, try to limit it to once or twice a week.

3. Use bone broth instead of water for your cooking. Bone broths include chicken, beef, and fish stock. Stock can be used to make soup — but it’s not just for soup. I use bone broth instead of water to cook my rice and beans. I make reduction sauces. Not only is cooking with bone broth more nutritious, it’s more flavorful and you get all the health benefits of bone broth. It’s very soothing to the gut lining. See my post on how to make chicken stock.

4. Eat coconut oil and cook with it. According to Jordan Rubin, author of The Maker’s Diet, “Coconut oil is anti-viral, and contains lauric, capric and caprylic acids — recommended to combat candida.” (Source)

5. Eat at least 50% of your food raw (or raw and fermented). Enzymes help you digest your food. When I say “raw”, I don’t just mean raw fruits and vegetables. I mean raw milk, raw cheese and cream, even raw or fermented fish and meats like sushi, ceviche and beef tartare. A good idea is to start meals with a salad. You can also use condiments that are raw fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, salsa, relish and salad dressings. Check the listings on my resources page for sources of raw, fermented foods.

6. Limit fiber. That’s right – I said limit. Decrease, not increase. High fiber foods are very hard on your digestive tract and can damage your gut lining. To learn more about the dangers of a high-fiber diet, check out this informative website: Gutsense.org. If you eat grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, make sure they are properly prepared (see # 7).

7. Soak, sprout or ferment your grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Avoid white flour that has not been naturally leavened with sourdough. Commercial yeast does not properly ferment the grains like traditional sourdough or wild yeasts. Every time I eat white flour — like when we are on vacation — I get constipated. We come back home and we’re eating sourdough and soaked oats and I don’t have that problem anymore. Read this post I wrote about the benefits of naturally fermented sourdough bread. Visit my resources page for sources of sprouted flour and sourdough cultures.

8. Do an elimination diet. If your digestion is very bad or you have other health problems related to digestive issues, and none of the above has worked, try going on an elimination diet. This is not for everyone, but it may solve your problems. It was what I had to do in my twenties to recover from digestive ills.

Elimination diets require you to remove all common allergens from your diet for 3-4 weeks. This includes wheat, dairy, corn, soy, etc. Also you have to avoid all sugar – pathogenic bacteria thrives on sugar and white flour. I personally went off all grains, all dairy, all sugar, and eggs for one month. And you know what — my symptoms disappeared. It took me another couple years to fully heal but that was the beginning for me.

I had a friend at the time who had a bad case of persistent acne. She did an elimination diet and her skin cleared up within a matter of days. She found out dairy was the culprit.

A book that helped me was The Yeast Connection by William Crook. You may want to look into the GAPS Diet. For resources on the GAPS method of digestive health, check out the listings on my Resources page.

9. Consume prebiotics. Prebiotics feed probiotics, or good bacteria. Many foods are prebiotics, including onions, garlic, leeks, apples and bananas, and herbs like chicory root or dandelion root (try drinking Dandy Blend or other coffee alternative — or dandelion root tea). Raw, unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar is also a prebiotic and is said to help w/ heartburn. It has helped me — ever since I got my pregnant with my daughter, I’ve had heartburn for the first time in my life. The apple cider vinegar really has helped. (Source)

10. Take a probiotic supplement. There are some cases where you need to bring on the big guns. The Maker’s Diet author, Jordan Rubin, explains, “Lacto-fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut also provided healthy bacteria in traditional diets and these should be part of the diet of any person suffering from digestive problems. But probiotic formulations can help “jump start” the system in those with serious digestive problems as they will quickly populate the gut with beneficial organisims.” (Source)

However, not all supplements are the same. I have tried all kinds of probiotic supplements and have been disappointed by the run-of-the-mill store-bought variety. They just didn’t work for me. If you’re going to spring for probiotic supplements (and in many situations, I believe it is necessary), make sure you use ones that really work. Check my Resources page for sources of probiotic supplements.

This post is a part of the Natural Cures blog carnival, happening every Tuesday at Hartke is Online.

Photo credit: Pepto Bismol on Flickr

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