You’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed all diseases begin in the gut. More than 2,000 years later, we now know what Hippocrates suspected—your overall health is linked to how and what you eat.
Nick Sharma, M.D., board-certified gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of SW Florida, LLC, understands the importance of a healthy gut. We spoke with him about the practices you can do every day to improve the health of your digestive system.
Here is what he had to say:
What Is Your Gut, and Why Does it Matter So Much?
You may not feel brave, but you definitely have guts. Puns aside, the “gut” is the informal name for what doctors call the gastrointestinal or digestive tract. In the human body, the gut consists of a pathway from your mouth to your anus (where you excrete waste). Gut health also encompasses the entire system between the two. Within these organs are trillions of active microbes that facilitate your body’s consumption and absorption of food, as well as help you excrete anything you can’t digest.
If these delicate organisms don’t function properly, you simply won’t feel your best. There are studies that show the microbiome affects the body’s immune system and your ability to ward off diseases. New research also shows a healthy gut means you’re more likely to have a healthy central nervous system for better brain function. We even call the digestive tract your “second brain” because your head is connected through nerves to the digestive tract. Brain fog and irritability can even stem from a gut that is out of balance.
An unhealthy gut is connected to all kinds of digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and ulcerative colitis. Gastrointestinal issues may also cause you to gain weight.
Given that gut health affects the entire body, what does Dr. Sharma recommend for keeping your digestive tract healthy?
How Can You Keep Your Gut Healthy?
A healthy gut has a balance of bacteria and properly digests and absorbs food nutrients. Dr. Sharma says, “Generally, the diet I refer to as being a healthy gut diet is a diet that’s full of fiber. I’m referring mostly to fruits and vegetables.”
Fiber is composed of non-digestible food carbohydrates. One of the benefits of a high-fiber diet is that it reduces constipation. Fiber can do more than help with constipation, it can help you maintain a healthier weight and reduce your chances of cancer.
Fiber is divided into two groups:
- Insoluble, which increases the movement of foods through the digestive tract
- Soluble, which are foods that dissolve in water
Fiber is found in all kinds of foods, such as fruits, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains. Examples of foods that have insoluble fiber include beans, cauliflower, potatoes, and other vegetables. You can eat soluble fiber in apples, carrots, oats, and peas. How much fiber do you need? Dr. Sharma says, “I tell my patients to eat five helpings of fruits and vegetables a day.”
The latest fiber recommendations include:
- Men 50 and under should have 38 grams of fiber a day
- Women 50 and under should have 25 grams a day
- Men over 50 should have 30 grams a day
- Women over 50 should have 21 grams a day
If you’re worried fiber is missing in your diet, you can also supplement your diet with fiber through over-the-counter additives, but always talk to your doctor before adding supplements to your healthcare routines. Adding too much fiber too fast can promote bloating, cramping, and uncomfortable gas.
What Role Does Water Play in Gut Health?
Eating fiber alone isn’t enough to ensure your gut stays healthy. Dr. Sharma says, “Hydration is very important. I would like everybody to understand that you have to drink a minimum of eight glasses of water a day.”
Your body is made up of 60% water. All of your cells, organs, and tissues use water to keep your body functioning. You lose water from sweating and the digestive process, so you should hydrate regularly to keep everything healthy—especially your gut.
Water begins affecting the digestive process as you chew food. Your saliva includes water, which helps soften food and break it down for the body to absorb. As food moves into the stomach, your gastric juices and the lining of the mucus coating inside your stomach begin digestion—both use and contain water. That mucus keeps the stomach from being eroded by the powerful stomach acids that further break down food.
Water even helps soften your stool, allowing the body to eliminate waste.
Ultimately, water helps you digest all that soluble fiber you’ve been consuming as well as helping your kidneys function. Studies show that people who drink more water also consume fewer calories in the form of cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.
How Does Portion Size Affect Your Digestion?
We know a lot more now about the importance of portion sizes than we did. In fact, the old rule of three meals a day is no longer thought to be good for you. Dr. Sharma says, “I tell my patients to eat small meals three to four times a day.” Why? Because overloading the digestive tract with a lot of food in one sitting can wreak havoc on your delicate intestines, not to mention cause weight gain.
Eating smaller portions more frequently can help you:
- Have better control over your blood sugar levels
- Improve your weight control by curbing cravings
- Improve digestion by avoiding that uncomfortably stuffed stomach feeling after a big meal
If you eat out a lot, you’ll notice that portions seem huge; it’s true, most restaurant portions can equal at least double the recommended serving size for adults. Consider saving money, and your health, by splitting an entree with someone else.
Dr. Sharma also says to avoid eating “two hours before going to bed” to cut down on acid reflux and ease digestion.
Gastroenterology Associates of Southwest Florida understands how your digestive tract affects your entire body. We use specialized treatments and therapies to improve digestive health and treat illnesses like Crohn’s and IBS.
Are you experiencing gastrointestinal issues?
Dr. Sharma and his team are standing by to help you on your journey to health.
Call us today at 239-275-8882.