What You Should Know About Nutrition and Gut Health
What You Should Know About Nutrition and Gut Health
Let’s be real – as a woman, how often do you talk about your digestive health? My guess is not often. It can feel too personal to chat about bowel movements and bloating in general conversations with your friends and colleagues. But to get straight to the guts of the issue (pun intended), our digestive systems actually play an immensely important role in not only our physical health, but our mental health as well. So, let’s start talking more openly about our “gut feeling” and how we can help to keep them thriving.
Everybody poops, but women experience more IBS symptoms!
It’s true! Our poop can tell us a lot about how we are feeling, what we are eating, and even what time of the month it is (for women – menstruation often worsens IBS symptoms). Although the exact cause of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is illusive, experts agree that gender-specific hormones--specifically female sex hormones--may play a role. Women are more likely to seek medical attention for IBS, reporting and accessing health care more often than men, and women experience more IBS (constipation) symptoms compared to men who report more IBS (diarrhea) experience.
This is mainly because estrogen and progesterone have an interfering effect with gut motility. The experience of women with IBS often changes during menstruation when hormones fluctuate – leading to increased bloating, abdominal pain, and looser bowel movements. Oh… the struggle is real.
Helping our guts (specifically our gut microbiota)
Taking care of our digestive tract can not only help with digestion, but also mood, mental health, immunity, and decreasing our risk for heart disease and diabetes. Amazing right? It all boils down to good gut health. In fact, our gut is often called our “second brain”. Our gut and brain are in constant communication with each other through the gut-brain axis (GBA). Feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) are produced by the gut microbiota. This means a healthy gut can impact mental health and honestly… I know when my gut is “off” and it definitely impacts my state of mind!
So, what exactly is the gut microbiota and how to we support it?
The gut microbiota is basically a community of bacteria that we develop from birth. We grow this community through our environment, exposure, and experiences! It consists of trillions of bacteria that help advocate for our health by trying to prevent bad bacteria (or opportunistic bacteria) from forming and taking over. These negative microbes can appear and multiply due to many factors, including structural changes in our digestive tract, food poisoning, motility-related issues, our diet, use of antobiotics, or when we experience “dysbiosis” which is an imbalance in good vs. bad bacteria for whatever reason. While there’s no definitive definition of what constitutes a “healthy” microbiota, experts agree that diversity and abundance are key. Lower bacterial diversity has actually been shown in people with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), diabetes, and heart disease. To help strengthen our gut microbiota we want to help our gut bacteria thrive (through food), reduce stress, get enough sleep!
What to eat to for good gut health
In a nutshell, a nice variety of plant-based foods, and enough fibre! With low carbohydrate, high protein diets on the rise, we (especially women) are missing out on fibre, and plants in general. For women, the recommended fibre intake is 25 grams per day, and for men 38 grams per day. For women, this might look like
- 100 grams uncooked whole grains like oatmeal or barley
- 1/2 cup cooked beans or lentils
- A serving of nuts or seeds
- 2-3 servings of fruits
Fibre helps to create, form, and facilitate the passage of poop – which is amazing for feeling comfortable throughout the day, but it also helps provide satiety or a feeling of fullness. So, after a meal or a snack, we’ll reach that feeling of comfortable fullness, which will last a few hours, as we prepare for our next meal.
Fibre also helps to feed our good gut bacteria. Dietary fibres are non-digestible polysaccharides, but in their functional state also known as microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (MACs), otherwise known as “prebiotics”! These complex carbohydrates are found in fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. They are digested by our microbiota and help produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA help to maintain our gut barrier – which is our first line of defence in our immune function. They also help act as anti-inflammatory compounds. Protecting the gut barrier not only means helping absorb essential nutrients, but also protecting us from harmful bacteria. A happy gut is one that has plenty of beneficial bacteria, so the best way to support your gut health is to consume plenty of fibre-rich foods.
Don’t forget to reduce the stress!
Feeling digestively unwell can impact your entire quality of life. Stress plays a major role in our digestive health – remember that gut-brain axis? In addition to what we eat, it’s important to chat about how we eat. I’m a huge fan of intuitive eating. This means focusing on your physical hunger cues, using all your senses in finding satisfaction in your food, and eating in a completely non-judgemental way (no good vs. bad, or healthy vs. unhealthy mindset).
Try slowing down and making the eating experience more pleasurable and intuitive. Digestion starts in the mouth, so chewing your food and experience all those wonderful flavours, will help your gut health too!