There is more to healthy digestive function than eating clean whole foods!
As a health-conscious person, you might think that following a nutritious diet should automatically resolve your gut problem. However, it can be baffling and frustrating when you continue to experience digestive issues even after embarking on a healthy eating regimen. Below are seven common reasons why gut problems don't get better even when you're eating healthy foods, as well as practical solutions to determine and overcome the root cause of the problem.
Potential Reasons Why Your Gut Problem Persists:
1. Food Sensitivities and Intolerances:
One of the primary culprits behind persistent gut problems can be hidden food sensitivities or intolerances. While the foods we consume may be considered healthy by general standards, they might not be suitable for our specific digestive system. Lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, or sensitivity to certain vegetables like cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli and cauliflower) are common examples that can cause bloating, gas, and discomfort.
Action: Consider keeping a food journal to identify any patterns between the foods you eat and your digestive symptoms. An elimination diet, under the guidance of a qualified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, can help identify trigger foods. A professional-grade food sensitivity test may also be a helpful tool in learning whether or not a food sensitivity is a root cause of your problem. (Avoid direct-to-consumer tests you can buy online because they do not provide as accurate results as a professional grade test).
2. Imbalances in Gut Microbiota:
The gut is home to trillions of bacteria and other microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiota. A diverse and balanced microbiota is essential for optimal digestive health. Certain healthy foods are good sources of probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, but they may not be sufficient to restore or maintain healthy gut microbial balance. Many factors impact the gut microbiome, such as stress, medications (especially antibiotics), lack of essential nutrients (particularly if eliminating foods from the diet), excessive alcohol intake, or lack of prebiotic foods (such as vegetables and fruit).
Action: Consider incorporating a variety of probiotic-rich foods into your diet and explore prebiotic foods (such as well-tolerated fruits and vegetables) that can nourish the existing beneficial bacteria. Additionally, consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist or other healthcare professional that specializes in gut health about a targeted probiotic supplement if needed. A professional-grade functional stool test that measures bacterial imbalances and other digestive health biomarkers may also be beneficial information to help determine the root cause of your gut problem.
3. Fiber Quantity and Source:
Fiber is an essential component of a healthy diet, promoting regular bowel movements and supporting gut health. However, an excessive intake of fiber, especially if you suddenly increase it, can lead to gastrointestinal distress. Consuming large quantities of fibrous foods, such as whole grains, legumes, and fruits, can overwhelm your gut causing bloating, gas, and potentially loose stools. This may particularly be a problem if the type of carbohydrate and fiber you are eating is easily fermentable by gut bacteria (i.e., high FODMAP foods).
Action: Gradually increase your fiber intake and ensure that you drink plenty of water to aid digestion and promote regular elimination. You may also consider consulting a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist about which foods provide fiber without excessive fermentation that can lead to gas and bloating.
4. How You Eat:
Eating quickly limits the amount of chewing and the exposure of food to saliva, which are the first steps of the digestive process. Larger chunks of food travel to the stomach and intestines where the larger food particles are harder to digest and break down. Bacteria may feed off undigested food and lead to gas and bloating.
Eating large meals may be a problem as well. A high quantity of food consumed in one meal can overwhelm the digestive system leading to negative GI symptoms.
Another issue may be late night meals or snacks which can sit in the gut partially undigested while you sleep. This not only disrupts the digestive process, but also has a negative impact on sleep quality.
Action: Practice mindful eating while slowing down your meal and chewing thoroughly to assist the digestive process. Consume appropriately sized meals for your body size and activity level (i.e., you should feel satisfied at the end of a meal and not "full"). Finish your dinner or evening snack at least 2-3 hours before going to bed.
5. Stress and Digestion:
The impact of stress on our digestive system cannot be underestimated. High stress levels can disrupt the normal functioning of the gut, leading to issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, or leaky gut syndrome even if your diet is on point.
Action: Incorporate stress management techniques into your daily routine, such as meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature. Adequate sleep and regular exercise can also significantly contribute to managing stress levels and improving digestion with a positive impact on the gut microbiome.
6. Your Gut May Require Healing:
Chronic stress, infection, exposure to toxins, or lack of certain nutrients over time may impact your intestinal lining causing tiny gaps, or increased intestinal permeability (a.k.a., leaky gut syndrome). These gaps allow food particles, microbial toxins, and bacteria to get into the bloodstream leading to inflammation, negative GI symptoms (bloating, constipation, diarrhea), food sensitivities, and other health problems (low energy, poor concentration, headaches, skin conditions, mood imbalance, etc.). If leaky gut is present, then digestive problems may not go away until the gut is healed...no matter how healthy your diet is.
Action: Consume gut-friendly foods that are easy to digest while healing the gut. Consider a high quality broad-spectrum probiotic and other gut supportive supplements as needed, such as L-glutamine or a gut mucosal support supplement. Essential vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient protein are also required. A professional grade functional stool test that includes a biomarker measuring the presence of leaky gut may be considered.
7. Underlying Medical Conditions:
Sometimes gut problems persist due to underlying medical conditions that require a physician's diagnosis and treatment. Conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), or gastrointestinal infections might not show immediate improvement with dietary changes alone.
Action: If you continue to experience persistent gut issues despite adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle, consult a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation and proper diagnosis.
The Bottom Line
While adopting a healthy diet is a significant step towards improved gut health, it may not be the only solution for everyone. Identifying and addressing individual triggers, building a balanced microbiome, managing stress, and maintaining good eating habits are all essential components of achieving digestive wellness. Remember, your gut health is a journey, and with patience and persistence, you can uncover the root causes and pave the way to a happier, healthier digestive system.
If you need help with developing and implementing a gut health improvement plan, consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is familiar with this area of research. You may also book an Introductory Call with Kirkman Nutrition to see if our programs/services can help you.
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