Digestive Health 101: 4 Powerful Tools for Optimizing Digestive Health

The digestive tract, commonly referred to as “the gut”, has become central to many of the conversations surrounding health and performance in recent years. Now more than ever, the health and fitness space is littered with new probiotic supplements, cleanses, and would-be gurus who claim to have the most cutting-edge solutions to optimal health, happiness, and performance by optimizing digestive health.

Whether their methods work, or not, these folks are correct in one thing: digestive health is central to our overall health and performance throughout our entire lifespan. The great thing about digestive health is that we can relatively easily monitor it ourselves via some simple practices:

  • Monitoring stool health
  • Food Hygiene
  • Food Quality
  • Managing Daily Stress

If it’s been a while since you’ve reviewed the digestive process, here’s a great video by TED-Ed on How Your Digestive System Works.

Monitoring Stool Health

Stool, poop, caca, crap…call it what you like. This waste substance excreted at the end of the digestive process can be a good indicator of how our digestive system is working on a daily basis. 

It is normal for a person to have one to three bowel movements per day. A quick glance at each one will provide some insight on the effects your food, stress level, hydration, and exercise routine have on your ability to effectively digest and absorb the nutrients you take in each day.

The chart below illustrates common variants of fecal matter:

Photo Credit: Precision Nutrition

This is a variation of the Bristol Stool Scale, which was developed by Bristol University in an effort to make it easier for patients to talk to their doctors about their stools (PN Poop Health).

According to this chart, we would all ideally pass Type 4 stools, or at least Types 3-5, depending on what we’ve had to eat and drink. Healthy stools are brown, smooth, and easy to pass. They don’t smell overly pungent, and they can either sink (high fiber content) or float (high fat content). Like your body weight, stools can vary a bit each day. Don’t be alarmed if after eating all-you-can-eat hot pot you have a particularly hot Type 6 the next morning, or pass rabbit pellets after a particularly busy day of not eating or drinking many foods or fluids. Stool health is about what you consistently see each day on average over the long-term (PN Poop Health).

If you are consistently seeing Types 3-5 on a daily basis, you’re likely doing great digestion-wise. If you’re seeing more of the fringe types–1-2 or 6-7–your digestive system is likely trying to tell you something, and further investigation is needed. 

If you see blood in your stool, which can be red or black, please talk to your doctor. This can be an indication of something as relatively simple as hemorrhoids, as serious as colon cancer, or something in-between. Blood in the stool is not normal and should be taken seriously. Again, please consult your doctor if you find blood in your stool.

Food Hygiene

“Food Hygiene” is an umbrella phrase that describes the entire process of interacting with the food we consume. From initial washing and preparing to consumption, how we interact with our food has a direct impact on how we digest it. Ultimately, we are trying to create an optimal state for our bodies to receive nourishment.

For optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients, we need our nervous system to be in a parasympathetic (rest, digest, and repair) state. As modern humans, we lead busy, and sometimes, very hectic lives, so some preparation is needed when it’s time to sit down and eat a meal. Being in a sympathetic (fight or flight) state can make it very difficult for the digestive system to do its job. Here are some ideas on incorporating food hygiene and optimizing your nervous system state before each meal:

  • Prepare your own food: 
    • Preparing your own food creates a connection to the meal and the work that went into preparing it.
    • Smelling and seeing the meal you’ve prepared kick-starts digestive processes: saliva, mucus, and other enzymes in the mouth and digestive tract ramp-up in preparation to recieve and break-down the food.
  • Prepare your nervous system:
    • To be effective at digesting food, the body’s central nervous system needs to be in a parasympathetic state.
    • Your breath, intention, and environment are powerful tools you can use to reach a state of downregulation.
    • Taking a few deep breaths before eating can greatly help you calm down, and improve your digestion.
    • Protect your eating time, just as you do with your workouts and sleep. All three areas affect one another.
  • Chew your food:
    • Chewing is essential to the mechanical breakdown of your food.
    • Since your stomach lacks teeth, this is where most of the initial breakdown needs to occur.
    • Aim to chew each bite 20-30 times, or as many as needed to break your food into an easily swallowable paste. (Yum!)
    • Benefits include:
      • More nutrients absorbed by the body through easier digestion
      • Easier to manage weight through better brain/stomach communication
      • Helps keep teeth strong and healthy
      • Enjoy and actually taste your food (Mercola)

Food Hygiene Habits to Try:

  • Take at least 5 deep, slow breaths when you first sit down to eat a meal
  • Smell your food and notice what happens: Do you salivate? Does your stomach growl?
  • Put away screened devices and focus on the task at hand: EAT!
  • Save water for after your meal. If you have to wash down each bite, you are either not chewing effectively, or your bites are too big.
  • Try to cook and eat with friends and family as often as possible. This helps create a positive correlation with food that goes far beyond simple sustenance or body composition/performance goals

If you take one thing away from this section or want one simple first step, set a 15-20 minute timer at each meal and try to use the entire time to finish your meal. This practice is trickier than it sounds, and it will be best to start with one meal at first. After two weeks of consistently completing this practice, try to incorporate a timer with a second meal, and so on. 

It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to notify the brain that it’s full, so slowing down at mealtime can be a great practice in creating awareness around how much food it actually takes to satisfy your hunger. 

Food Quality:

The origins of your food–how it was grown, raised, and whether or not it was processed with chemicals– make a long-term difference in your digestive health. Most of us also live in countries where a fast-food burger is cheaper than an average salad, so eating whole, unprocessed foods can cause budgetary concerns. However, upping your food quality does not have to break the bank.

Buying organic produce, grass-fed meats, and unprocessed whole foods is actually easier than ever. Most big box stores from Safeway to Costco carry these alternatives, along with conventional varieties. Your local farmer’s market is another great place to buy local, organic produce and meat directly from the source. 

Other alternatives that have sprung up in recent years are frozen meat delivery services, like Butcher Box, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes. While options like the above are not the cheapest, they do make obtaining grass-fed meats and local, organic produce simple and convenient.

If you are the type who likes to hand-select your own produce, start by checking this Seasonal Produce Guide. Seasonal produce, typically, does not have to travel as far, so you can get it at a better price than out of season produce. Plus, our digestive system does really well when we feed it a diverse array of vegetables and fruits. Sticking with seasonal produce will help keep your options varied throughout the year.

For those of us whose budgetary margins are on the tighter side, check out this Dirty Dozen List. These are foods that tend to have the most pesticide residues when conventionally farmed. In other words, try to get organically farmed versions of the produce on that list. On the flip side, this Clean Fifteen List details conventionally farmed produce that is, generally, very safe to eat. 

Simplicity Is Key

While it’s best to feed ourselves a diverse spread of proteins, starches, fruits, and vegetables, we don’t have to create highly imaginative tasting menu items for ourselves. The following formula is simple, easy to execute, and allows for as much variety throughout each week as you like. Here’s a general example of a meal:

  • Protein: Lean beef, pork, chicken, whole eggs, fish, game/organ meat, and whole Greek yogurt are great sources. Bone-in and skin-intact meat varieties work, as well. For our vegetarian/vegan friends, tempeh, tofu, or other minimally processed sources work great.
  • Vegetables and Fruit: 1-2 different types, if possible. From leafy greens to tubers, to cruciferous, berries, or melons, try to get to the point where you’re eating the rainbow. Check EC Synkowski’s 800 Gram Challenge for a great way to kick-start this habit. Fermented veggies like kimchi or sauerkraut work for this section, and they’re really good for your gut flora.
  •  Starch: This will no doubt be a point of contention for the low-carb/keto/carnivore crowd, but high-quality grains like wild, brown or white rice, sprouted grain/sourdough bread, oatmeal, and all varieties of potatoes (tuber family) are great options here, especially if your nutrition plan is centered around performance.
  • Fat: Dry roasted nuts, avocados, and single-source cooking oils (olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil) are optimal. If you’ve cooked your protein or vegetables in oil, you likely won’t need to add this. Also, if your protein source is on the fattier side, you likely don’t need to add fat to the meal.

The quantity of calories macronutrient portion for each meal and how many meals one needs to eat each day is highly individualized. However, if you want to get a general idea of that information, give this calculator from our friends at Precision Nutrition a try. It’s the most comprehensive free calculator on the web, and it gives a good breakdown of daily caloric goals, macronutrient ratios, and how that all looks on a plate.

Managing Daily Stress

I recently covered some lifestyle stress-management strategies in a previous article. Here are some common chemical and foods that are known to put stress on your digestive system:

  • NSAID Pain Relievers: Over-the-counter medications like Ibuprophen and Advil. Yes, there are therapeutic uses for these drugs, but understand that they can be highly disruptive to your digestive tract. Check out this article for more details.
  • Alcohol: As we’ve reported in the previous content, alcohol is a poison that can disrupt sleep, promote dehydration, and impair nearly every bodily process, including digestion.
  • High FODMAP Foods: FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo, Di, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols. Whole books can be written on this subject, so here’s a great article that details high FODMAP foods and low FODMAP foods. 

Common behaviors that can put stress on your digestive system include:

  • Lack of movement: It’s important to have a consistent movement practice for a multitude of reasons. Add gut health to the list!
  • Lack of Recovery from Exercise: This can come from simply overreaching/overtraining in your fitness program, not sleeping, or not eating enough. One great way to recover is to do some soft-tissue mobility work before bed. The Ready State, of course, has easy follow-along routines you can try before sleep.
  • Lack of Fiber: Fiber that you get from fruits, vegetables, and high-quality grains feed your gut flora. Make sure those little guys are well-fed each week. You get bonus points for eating a wide variety of colors.
  • Lack of food diversity: Eating a variety of proteins, fruits, starches, fats, and vegetables go a long way in promoting overall health. This diversity is great for keeping a diverse gut flora. Try some different things this week, and keep your meals interesting.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get lost down multiple rabbit holes on this topic. The reality is, the science around digestive health is fairly new and rapidly changing. It’s nearly impossible to give good, individualized advice in a blog article.

However, the four areas outlined in this article can be extremely useful as daily practices to promote long-term digestive health. If you really like challenges, I recommend checking out our friend Marcus Filly’s Gut Check Challenge. It’s based around many of these concepts, and I can personally attest to its effectiveness on positively affecting intention around improving digestive health. 

Give these practices a try and report back with your findings!

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