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Managing Your Gut Health

Digesting the Facts with Andy De Santis, Registered Dietitian

Mediaplanet sat down with Andy De Santis a Registered Dietitian to shed light on optimizing gut health and managing digestion conditions.

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What are the key factors that contribute to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome?

In simple terms we could think of a healthy microbiome as a diverse microbiome, which is to say one that is populated with a sufficient amount and wide array of healthy bacteria from different species.

The reason why this is a good definition of a healthy microbiome is because many conditions ranging from eczema to fatty liver disease and even type 2 diabetes are often characterized by microbiomes that lack overall diversity and tend to have imbalances between good and bad bacteria – a phenomenon referred to as dysbiosis.

A healthy and diverse dietary pattern, ample physical activity and sufficient sleep can all contribute positively to one’s microbiome diversity.

It’s also true that the use of certain drugs and medications, nicotine, smoking and various conditions, illnesses and infections can also contribute negatively to microbiome diversity.

Genetics, of course, also plays a role. 

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How can I improve my digestion and alleviate common digestive issues like bloating, gas, and constipation?

This is a big question that can vary in complexity from person to person.

An otherwise healthy person might experience gas or bloating simply from eating too quickly, chewing inadequately, consuming too many carbonated beverages, or excessively using a straw – all of which bring external air into the digestive tract.

It could also be the case that not adequately spacing out meals and consuming food beyond fullness at a single sitting could contribute to these feelings too.

The reasons for these concerns could also be a bit more complicated, certain individuals may have issues digesting certain types of carbohydrates (like lactose) or other dietary components.

Individuals living with IBS, for example, may experience digestive concerns if they ingest foods containing certain components (known as FODMAPs) that they can’t tolerate in certain amounts.

There is massive individual variation here and getting customized and curated nutrition advice is certainly advisable.

As for constipation, a healthy lifestyle including ample water, dietary fibre and physical activity are good starting points and in certain cases specific supplements like psyllium fibre and probiotics may help – but personalized guidance from a health professional who understands your concerns and characteristics fully may be required to truly conquer it. 

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Are there specific foods or dietary patterns that promote gut health?

Yes absolutely.

There is a massive amount of nuance here which is related to whether or not someone is in good health or living with a specific condition like IBS/IBD but if we look at it from the general perspective there is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that certain foods are generally associated with the flourishing of the gut microbiome and good gut health.

For example, foods high in soluble fibre like oatmeal, quinoa, butternut squash, sweet potato, ground flaxseed, kiwi, orange, strawberries, and raspberries could fairly be considered good for gut health because their water-holding capacity helps food move smoothly through the digestive tract.

Other types of foods high in antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols which are found in various herbs and spices, dark chocolate, all types of nuts and colourful fruit and even green tea are also thought help boost healthy populations of gut bacteria.

This is also true of foods high in what is known as prebiotic fibre which includes options like asparagus, onions, garlic, and all types of legumes (chickpeas, lentils etc.) – however these foods may not be well tolerated by some individuals living with IBS, again speaking to the personalized nature of gut health nutrition.

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How does stress impact gut health, and what strategies can I implement to manage stress for better digestive function?

Stress has a multi-faceted impact on gut health because it affects your digestive tract both directly and indirectly.

Directly, because stress can interfere with the gut-brain connection and the proper movement and digestion of food, potentially even releasing compounds that can irritate the digestive system over time. 

Indirectly because stress can affect both how and what we eat.

We may be more likely to eat beyond comfort, to eat quickly, to not chew thoroughly or to choose options that may be less nutrient dense when are stressed.

While doing this occasionally won’t likely be of consequence, that picture can change if stress is playing too big of a role in one’s life.

Different people will seek different strategies to manage stress, widely available options like meditation (including through smartphone apps or YouTube), breathing exercises, journaling or even relaxation practices like yoga can all contribute significantly.

It’s also true that improving the quality of your diet over time will make you more resilient to stress, which is why we often see that nutrition changes or specific vitamins/minerals or supplements are associated with improved stress management or mental health outcomes. 

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What role does fiber play in gut health, and how can I ensure I’m getting enough in my diet?

Fibre plays a fundamental role in both gut and overall health because it helps move food through the digestive tract while also facilitating the flourishing of our healthy gut bacteria.

In order to ensure you are getting enough fibre you need to first understand the foods it comes from

These include fruits, veggies (including starchy veggies like potato, sweet potato, squash), whole grains (oatmeal, bread, quinoa, whole grain cereals), all types of beans and soy products, nuts, and seeds.

From there, you want to pursue the diverse and varied inclusions in your daily routine – how often can you get at least one food serving from each of these families on a daily basis?

Doing so will put you in a very good position from the dietary fibre perspective. 

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