Have you ever heard of the gut-brain connection?
Also known as the gut-brain axis, refers to the communication network between your gastrointestinal (GI) tract and your central nervous system. It is rather complex; This means your body responds to the signals and nerves conducted from your GI tract to your brain and vice versa. The enteric (gut) nervous system communicates with the brain about everything happening in your gut! For example, receptors send signals to your brain that you are getting full and to slow down your eating. Are you listening yet? It also controls the muscle movements of how your food travels throughout your GI tract and moderates how quickly the stomach empties.
Research has shown that the gut and the brain communicate with each other through various mechanisms, including the release of hormones, neurotransmitters (Eg. feel good Serotonin), and immune signaling molecules. This connection has been linked to a wide range of health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, depression, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Furthermore, 80% of your immune system resides in your gut! We need to start paying attention to the diverse community of microorganisms (microbiome) that live in your gut, modulating the gut-brain axis and influencing your brain function, behaviour and immune system! In fact, you have more bacteria in your gut than stars in the Milky Way galaxy. You want more good bacteria than bad bacteria in your gut. When the environment is favourable, these tiny guys turn your trash into treasure. But when your diet is not great, you can feel sluggish, moody and experience GI disturbance like bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and/or deal with chronic inflammatory conditions.
Unfortunately our Western diet is full of gut busters from our processed, packaged and fast food supply. Your gut and immune system does not like too many sugars, fat and salt and can result in an unfavourable gut health environment and promoting development of chronic disease.
1. Added Sugars: We consume too much sugar and limits our effort in fighting inflammation. Start by reducing all sugar containing beverages: Substitute pop or iced tea for water. Snack on fruit instead of fruit snacks, candy bars or granola bars, and choose oatmeal or No-added sugar muesli instead of common cereals.
Naturally occurring fructose sugar in apples, pears, cherries, dried fruit, stone fruits and watermelon may affect some people with IBS, and therefore, an Elimination and Challenge FODMAP diet may be initiated with the guidance of a Registered dietitian to see what you tolerate or don’t tolerate. The Low FODMAP diet recommends to restrict fructose, high fructose corn syrup (glucose-fructose), corn syrup and even natural sweeteners such as honey and agave syrup. Furthermore, a class of artificial sweeteners called “polyols” ending in “ol” such as maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. could also aggravate IBS symptoms and these are eliminated in the first phase of the FODMAP diet. 100% fruit juice could also affect people with IBS.
2. Too much saturated and trans fat can result in chronic inflammation, high cholesterol or high triglycerides and harmful changes to your gut microbiota.
Saturated fat is the hard fat at room temperature (butter, lard and the visible fat you see in your meat and skin of your chicken). Industrial produced hydrogenated oils are ‘trans’ fat which are the worst for your heart health. (Eg. Hard stick margarine, edible oil products and Coffee Mate)
Start by reducing your meat portion to 3-4oz of cooked meat, remove the visible fat from your red meat and remove the skin of your poultry. Avoid all ingredients that list “hydrogenated oil” in the product.
Simply substitute anti-inflammatory fish for red meat once or twice a week and slowly introduce legumes to your diet with a lentil soup or beans in your cooking. Keep in mind that in the initial elimination phase, the FODMAP diet recommends to avoid all lentils and beans as they can be triggers. Yet, these high fibre plant proteins are very effective in fermenting and providing food to those good bacteria in your large intestine.
3. Too much sodium: Most of our dietary sodium comes from packaged, processed foods, canned soups, condiments, and baked goods. High salt diets are associated with pro-inflammatory state and reduces the beneficial gut bacteria.
Start being aware of sodium in your diet by reading Nutrition Facts labels. Compare product serving sizes by looking at % Daily Sodium. 5% DV sodium is a little and more than 15% is a lot. Consider more home cooked meals and substituting a packaged snack for unsalted nuts, fruit, or vegetables and hummus.
Fibre and gut health
Fiber is an essential component of living a healthy, anti-inflammatory life and it plays a crucial role in maintaining gut health.
Dietary fiber refers to the undigestible portion of plant-foods from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber is water loving and absorbs water and forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract. This type of fiber is fermented by gut bacteria and produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which provide fuel to the cells that line the colon and promote growth of good gut loving microbes.
Soluble fibre from fruit, oats, barley, rye, and psyillium husk promote feeling of fullness, bowel regularity and can help lower blood cholesterol levels and balance your blood sugar!
Insoluble fiber is the “roughage” that acts like a broom and sweeps the lining of your colon to keep in clean. This type of fibre promotes bowel regularity by adding bulk to stool and facilitating its passage through the digestive tract. Common in vegetables, fruit peels and outer layer of your grain (bran).
Both types of fiber are found in all plant based foods and are essential for maintaining a healthy gut. Fiber promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, which produce essential nutrients, improve immune function, and protect against harmful pathogens.
Furthermore, polyphenols and fibre from plant foods feed your gut friendly bacteria and reduce inflammation in your gut, therefore, reducing the risk of chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diverticular disease, and colorectal cancer.
Consuming a variety of fiber-rich foods can help to maintain a healthy gut and prevent digestive problems. The recommended daily intake of fiber is around 25-30 grams per day for women and 38g per day for men. Just one ½ cup serving of fruit, vegetables and grains like brown rice, quinoa and barley provides 3g fibre per serving.
It is important to Slowly increase your fibre intake so that you avoid feeling gassy, bloated and constipated. Your body will adjust to increasing your dietary fibre along with increasing water intake to move it along efficiently.
Simply switch your breakfast to oatmeal with Chia or ground flax seeds, fast food lunch to homemade soup or Quinoa salad with vegetables and nuts you tolerate or your easy to grab and go snack of a banana or 2 kiwi fruit or a small handful of heart healthy nuts.
You body is an amazing creation. Just understanding how your digestive system works to digest and absorb all your nutrients is mind boggling. Then you combine how your GI tract interacts with your nervous system and immune system is even more complex.
Fibre feeds your gut
It is up to you. The more you understand how your body works, the better you can work with your body to feel more energy, reduce annoying GI symptoms and optimize your immune system.
High Fibre Recipes:
Check out 25 Low FODMAP recipes:
See more on IBS and gut health: https://www.bcdietitians.ca/blog/what-is-irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs-and-how-to-improve-your-gut-health
Nielsen, Desiree. Good for your Gut: A plant based digestive health guide and Nourishing Recipes for Living Well. Penguin Canada, 2022.