The gastrointestinal (GI) tract contains somewhere between 30 and 400 trillion gut microorganisms. We are more bug than human! The microbes that reside in the GI system have coevolved with humans over thousands of years to form a symbiotic relationship. The gut microbiota consists of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa, and chronic imbalance in their ratios can result in disease. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and overalll morbidity and mortality have been associated with alterations in gut microbiota. Genes that regulate immunity, nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, and intestinal barrier function are influenced by these microbes. They place such a huge part in our health and yet research is just scratching the surface of understanding how they work.
It is well known that antibiotic pharmaceuticals negatively affect the balance of microbes in our GI system, but taking a probiotic supplement is not necessarily the best way to reestablish homeostasis. By the time the capsule reaches the gut, much of the contents are destroyed by stomach acid and digestive secretions, and if they are still alive it’s still tricky to achieve the proper balance. We can nourish our bodies by giving the good bacteria the right ingredients to thrive. Prebiotics are fibers that nourish the colonies of beneficial microbiota and include foods such as chia seeds, ground flax seeds, onions, garlic, asparagus, artichokes, beans, apples, dandelion greens, and chicory root. Incorporating prebiotics into one’s daily diet is an easy and effective way to help strengthen in the healthy bacteria.
Fermented foods also have been shown to effectively deliver probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus to the intestines. Ancient cultures used incredible amounts of fermentation with their variety of plant based foods and understood spore based probiotics. The first documented Chinese mianchi and douchi (fermented black beans) were discovered in an ancient tomb in southern China in 200 BC. In 1080 AD the great Samurai Lord Minamoto no Yoshie and his army would wrap their cooked soybeans in rice straw which provided a natural source of Bacillis. Kim chi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and poi are fermented foods full of healthy microbiota, and now there are spore based probiotics for those needing extra support to restore balance in their guts. Be aware that many products touted as fermented foods have MSG and other preservatives.
The parasympathetic nervous system regulates the ability to “rest and digest” and supports digestion through increasing secretion of digestive enzymes and bile to facilitate nutrient absorption. The enteric nervous system has been dubbed the “second brain” and contains over 100 million neurons in the lining of the GI tract. It controls peristalsis, the rhythmic contracts that help propel food through the esophagus and small intestine. When the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) is overactive, the enteric and parasympathetic nervous systems cannot do their jobs. Stressors can be physical (sleep deprivation; extreme exertion), chemical (alcohol, drugs, pollutants), mental (anxiety, worry), emotional (fear, anger), and nutritional (food allergies, nutrient deficiencies). While combating all stress is not practical, we can bring practices into our lives that facilitate resilience and a smoother digestive process. We can nourish our bodies with foods that feed the healthy microbiota, and we can transform the many times that we eat into times of meditation and reflection.
Mindfulness while eating allows the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system to flourish, nurturing our beloved GI. You can start your next meal by involving the senses, noticing what you smell, taste, and feel as you’re preparing your food and as the food enters your mouth. Chewing slowly allows the nutrients in the food to be properly broken down before the food hits the gut. Put your fork down and take deep breaths between bites. Foster a mindful eating environment to help shift your nervous system toward parasympathetic dominance. You can use your favorite glassware and dishes, light a candle, and remove electronic devices from the room. A mindful-eating journal is a great practice to become aware of the relationship between foods and symptoms. Awareness is the first step. Are you hungry yet? Time to enjoy, offer gratitude to the many people and systems in place that brought the food to your plate, and savor all the flavors.