Give your gut the right stuff and you’ll feel great – Alessandra Felice investigates the best foods for your digestion…
All of us have experienced a tummy ache, some kind of digestive discomfort or a bit of bloating every now and then. When these symptoms are not caused by serious conditions, there are a few actions we can take to prevent them and to support our digestive system so it can work at its best. The main tool we have is the food we eat. We need to try to include foods that are rich in fibre and water; contain probiotics and prebiotics; promote digestion with bitters; contain herbs and spices and are rich in naturally occurring digestive enzymes.
Dietary fibre is the part of a plant that passes through the body undigested and insoluble fibre helps sweep food through the digestive tract. But fibre can’t function properly without water, so it’s important to have adequate fluid intake through liquids and high water containing foods. Here are a few examples of fibre and water rich foods to include in your diet…
These are a rich source of antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, minerals and soluble fibre. Two tbsp provide about 10g fibre, which supports inflammation reduction, the lowering of cholesterol and helps regulate bowel function. Soluble fibre stimulates the motility of the digestive tract. Drink plenty of water with them.
These are rich in vitamin C and A, folate, potassium, phosphorous and pectin, which supports the increase of good bacteria that help in the proper functioning of the intestinal tract. Most nutrients are contained in the peel, so don’t discard it.
This sweet fruit is great when suffering from diarrhoea, because it helps to restore the amount of electrolytes and potassium that are lost during the episode and is loaded with fibre, which aids good digestion. Nana ice cream got even better!
Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries
All provide good amounts of fibre and vitamin C. And of course they’re also rich in powerful antioxidants, so they benefit your gut, brain and all your cells. Sprinkle them on your breakfast porridge or granola bowl.
Especially when consumed with their skins on, are great for digestion. They provide fibre, complex carbohydrates and manganese. Sweet potatoes have been found helpful in reducing symptoms of both peptic and duodenal ulcers.
This bright green fruit is one of the most fibre-rich fruits available. It’s easily digestible and contains monounsaturated fats, which are beneficial for the health of the digestive tract as well as being involved in the conversion of beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is essential to maintain a healthy mucosal lining in the intestines.
Oats are rich in soluble fibre as well as minerals like selenium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, B vitamins and vitamin E. Their fibre helps waste to move though the digestive tract and the beta-glucans they contain support balanced cholesterol levels.
Legumes are a good source of protein and essential minerals, as well as containing a good amount of dietary fibre. Some people may have trouble digesting legumes and lentils, because the lectins they contain may irritate the digestive tract. Soaking properly and cooking thoroughly should reduce the likelihood of these symptoms.
Due to high fibre content, courgettes help cleanse the digestive tract, preventing toxins sticking to the intestinal walls and stimulating movement through the system. Most nutrients are in the skin, so leave it on when making meals and eat them raw or slightly cooked. Courgette noodles with pesto should definitely be on the menu!
These are rich in fibre, water, folate, calcium and vitamin C. Cucumber and cucumber juice can provides relief from heartburn, stomach acidity, gastritis and peptic ulcer.
Probiotics are essential for a healthy digestive system, but it could be beneficial to eat prebiotic rich foods too. Prebiotics are types of fibre that friendly bacteria in the gut feed on. Examples are chicory root and dandelion greens, containing inulin that nourishes bacteria, improves digestion and helps relieve constipation, as well as having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
These are rich in inulin and have been shown to increase friendly bacteria and help strengthen the immune system.
Garlic, onions and leeks
These come from the same family and all act as prebiotics by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and prevent harmful bacteria from growing. Other prebiotics containing foods are asparagus, fruits like bananas and apples, flaxseeds as well as burdock and jicama roots.
An important addition to support your digestion is fermented vegetables and drinks in your diet. Cultured or fermented foods are rich in the enzymes and probiotics required for healthy gut function. Probiotics help replenish the beneficial flora essential for our immune system. When the flora level is balanced, it helps keep levels of pathogenic bacteria in check, so that the immune system can deal with other issues. By supporting immunity and gut health, probiotic rich foods can help with allergies, skin issues, and digestive disorders. The live enzymes they contain help to break down foods so it’s easier for the body to absorb carbs, fats, proteins and other micronutrients.
Has a rich probiotic content and these days you can find quite a few options made from coconut, cashew or almond milk. Make sure to choose a brand that contains live active cultures and is free of artificial sugars.
This is like yoghurt, except it’s more of a drinkable consistency. Kefir may reduce irritation in the intestines, preventing toxins and other pathogens from getting into the blood. Plus it contains calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes and probiotics.
This is a fizzy beverage made from tea, water, sugar, yeast and bacteria. Thanks to the fermentation process, it develops some probiotics that support our digestion and intestinal flora balance.
This is made from soybeans and a yeast starter that go through a controlled fermentation process to make it a great source of probiotic. It’s also rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, B vitamins and plant based protein.
This is made from cabbage massaged with salt and fermented. As well as being a source of friendly bacteria, it’s high in fibre, B vitamins, vitamin A, C and K, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese and copper. Buy raw sauerkraut or make it yourself with organic cabbage and Himalayan salt. It contains lactobacilli plantarum, which promotes digestive health, helping with IBS type symptoms and bloating.
A variation of sauerkraut is kimchi, which is made from vegetables including cabbage, plus spices and seasoning. If you’re new to fermented vegetables, start with half a cup per day and build up from there. If your gut flora is a bit unbalanced, this injection of good bacteria could cause a bit of discomfort and bloating to occur at the beginning.
Herbs & Spices
An additional way to stimulate and support digestion is through consuming bitters and certain herbs and spices. Bitters are commonly found in tinctures that you can take before meals, but there are also whole foods that are naturally bitter and help to promote digestion. For example, cacao and coffee that contain theobromine, theophylline and caffeine increase bile flow for better digestion as well as greens such as arugula and endive, perfect to add into a salad before a meal to support digestion. Also, dandelion greens and dandelion tea or dill that contains essential oils that relieve gas. And of course, citruses like lemons and grapefruit, which are bitter tasting and can stimulate digestive juices. Many herbs and spices support digestive health and protect against gastrointestinal discomfort too.
This herb has always been used traditionally as a digestive aid. The seeds contain phytonutrients that have antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, great to relieve bloating, gas and cramps. You could chew on fennel seeds post dinner or sip on fennel tea.
This has long been used to assist digestion and stomach discomfort. It can reduce gas or bloating, stimulate the breaking down of food particles and calm nausea. It can be consumed as a spice in cooking or as a tea after meals or during the day.
This plant has a soothing effect on the stomach and intestine, relieving indigestion and some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Whether as a tea or taken in the essential oil form, it will reduce digestive discomfort by relaxing the muscles in your gut.
If you don’t have heartburn or hernias, cayenne can be supportive for digestion. It can activate digestive acids helping food to flow through the digestive system.
This spice is great to eliminate bloating and gas after meals and to stimulate digestion.
Finally, even if your body is able to produce the enzymes needed to digest carbohydrates, protein and fats, you can get some additional digestive enzymes from the foods you eat, especially in their raw state. A few of the richest ones are pineapple and papaya.
Contains papain, a protein-digesting enzyme increasing the absorption of amino acids and other nutrients. Like bromelain it has anti-inflammatory properties.
Rich in bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme that helps digest protein. Taken close to meals, bromelain supports food digestion and can have anti-inflammatory effects.
A few more tips…
- Eat whole foods and reduce packaged, processed foods.
- Incorporate a mix of raw and cooked foods.
- If you are eating real food, but still having digestive issues like bloating, gas and burping or bowel issues, you may have a food allergy or sensitivity. Work with a professional to help find out if some foods or ingredients cause you issues.
- Take time to chew food properly. The more you chew food, the better it gets broken down, which will help with the whole digestive process.
- Don’t eat when you don’t feel relaxed or feel stressed and angry.
- Eat in a stress free environment and just focus on eating. Turn off the television, don’t eat when you are upset or in a bad mood as your brain and your digestive tract are interconnected, so these feelings can impact the effectiveness of your digestive system.
- Adequate levels of stomach acid are necessary for the breakdown and digestion of foods and if you find out your levels are too low, try apple cider vinegar. One to two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar taken in water 20-30 minutes prior to a meal may aid protein digestion in the stomach.
- Supporting the liver to work efficiently and effectively is key to having a healthy digestion. Boost your intake of liver-loving foods such as beetroot, turmeric, leafy greens or bitter herbs such as dandelion and milk thistle.
- Don’t forget to properly hydrate throughout the day. Water is important for digestion as we need water to digest solid food and absorb nutrients properly. You can also include herbal teas like peppermint, ginger, dandelion, fennel and squeeze a bit of lemon juice in your water.
- Most importantly, listen to your body. Don’t follow food trends, the latest diet or random advice on Instagram. Get to know your own body so that you can eat the way that will nourish yourself and support your digestion.
If you start to feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do for the best, then contact a professional that can help you to identify and find solutions for your individual needs. You’re not alone!
Find out more about keeping your gut happy and healthy on a vegan diet here.
Alessandra Felice (ND Dip CNM). Alessandra is a nutritional therapist and medicinal chef, who gained her training from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York and the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London. She also works as a private chef and teaches medicinal cooking classes along with sharing her knowledge of preparing sinful desserts and chocolate. www.yoursweetnutrition.com