Which foods improve digestion?

Optimising digestive health

We all know how important it is to eat well if we want to have a healthy digestive system (particularly as we get older and enzyme levels decrease), but it’s not always clear what you should eat to actively promote optimum digestive health.

Poor digestion

Our digestive tract is a major entry point of toxins into our body; unsurprising when you consider that the average person consumes more than 25 tonnes of food over their lifetime!

To avoid creating toxins internally, it is important that your digestion is efficient.

Digestive enzymes, fruits and vegetables

Every process in the body is driven by enzymes of one kind or another – digestion is no exception.

Digestive enzymes are an essential part of the full and proper digestion of food. Our saliva contains some digestive enzymes (which means that the process of digestion actually begins in the mouth, with chewing). There are also protein digesting enzymes in our stomach. However, as we age, the number of digestive enzymes manufactured by our bodies declines. Similarly, a poor diet (e.g. high in sugar, saturated fats and chemicals) places a strain on the body by forcing it to manufacture additional enzymes to break down these hard-to-digest foods.

Fruit and vegetables naturally contain the specific digestive enzymes required to help break them down in the body and these can also assist with the digestion of other foods (such as meats). It is therefore essential for the health of your digestive system to eat a balanced diet, which contains a wide variety of fresh (preferably organic) fruit and vegetables that are naturally high in vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other nutrients.

Nutritional deficiencies can impair enzyme production. This can lead to abdominal bloating, flatulence, stomach cramps and other IBS symptoms. Most absorption of nutrients occurs in the small intestine, so its lining needs to be healthy for adequate absorption to occur. If there is a lack of digestive enzymes, this can lead to food being only partially digested by the time it reaches the large intestine, where it will ferment and putrefy. This problem can be compounded by a lack of fibre in the diet.

Dietary fibre

Most people are aware that fibre (both soluble and insoluble) can support the digestive process, but few understand precisely how fibre helps and where to find high quality fibre / high-fibre foods.

How fibre helps

Firstly, the main reason that fibre can support the digestive system is because of the fact that it is indigestible by the body – it cannot be broken down. Instead, it passes through unchanged, “mopping up” and keeping our intestines clear of waste matter such as cholesterol and other fats and toxins broken down by the liver, which is then excreted out in bowel motions. If we do not consume enough fibre, toxins and cholesterol can be reabsorbed back into our bloodstream.

High fibre foods

It is important to note that not all fibre is in equal in terms of digestive health support. ‘Added fibre’ is something that we now regularly see added to food packaging. More than likely, this is a reference to bran – the outer coating of the wheat grain removed to make white flour. Although bran is excellent, taken in its original form (as whole grains), cooked or even better, sprouted and eaten raw, extracted bran is highly irritant. While it can achieve a short-term effect on the digestive system, in the long-term it can weaken peristalsis and inflame the delicate membranes of the colon, leaving them vulnerable to leaky gut and colitis.

Naturally-occurring fibre, as part of a whole food (e.g. grains, fruits, vegetables), has several beneficial effects on digestion, as well as general health and well-being:

  • the bulk is helpful in the colon, encouraging natural peristalsis
  • bowel transit time is increased (therefore reducing any tendency towards constipation)
  • it helps to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels by binding with them in the gut, inhibiting their re-absorption
  • it slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, thereby lowering the glycemic index (GI) of eaten food
  • it slows the absorption of fat, helping to keep you full for longer.

Insoluble fibre increases the weight, bulk and softness of the stool. Good sources are whole grains, fruit and vegetables (preferably organic).

Soluble fibre dissolves in water to form a thick, gummy solution. It is particularly good for lowering cholesterol, slowing the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and binding with toxins in the gut. Good sources are seaweed, oats, rice, legumes and pectin in fruit, vegetables and legumes. Psyllium is also rich in soluble fibre.

Fermented foods (probiotic foods)
Lastly, we will take a quick look at a lesser known source of support for digestive health – fermented foods.

Fermentation is, of course, unwanted when it takes place in the gut as a result of incomplete digestion. However, when a more complete fermentation takes place, before eating the food, there are two main benefits:

1.digestion is much easier and more complete
2.these foods and drinks help to re-populate the colon with friendly bacterial flora (such as Lactobacillus), which help to keep the colon clean and healthy.

Examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, rejuvelac, the ripe form of seed sauce, tempeh, tofu, kefir and the list goes on…

Keep that gut happy and healthy!

For suggested products, visit our digestive health supplement shopping page.

Bronwen Pretorius

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