Optimizing gut health is important for overall health and well being, brain health, mood, energy levels, focus and more! While nutrition is essential, non-dietary interventions for gut health are often important to implement as well. There are also certain times they should be the only focus. For example, if you are experiencing a past or present eating disorder, periods of intense transition and grief, mental and physical illnesses, or eating as becoming a source of stress, it is likely not the appropriate time to focus on food. Luckily, there are MANY things we can do to optimize gut health without affecting diet. These modalities can even be helpful alongside a diet that is working well for you.
If you do want to focus on what to eat for mental health, I wrote about that here.
Here are some of my go-to practices:
Stress hormones can change gut motility, negatively impact the microbiome, and even speed up or slow down digestion.
Focus on reducing overall stress through creating daily practices that are nourishing, calming, and restful. You might need to say no to things and take on less. Slow down your daily pace. Take more time for rest and hobbies. I know this is easier said than done, but if you live with chronic functional GI symptoms, it will be worth it.
Deep Belly Breathing
Deep breathing helps lymphatic flow and digestive movement, and is also helpful for stress management. Breath causes the diaphragm to expand and contract which gently massages the digestive organs, helping to support motility in the intestines. Breath work also helps you to relax, reduce stress, and can reduce symptoms of IBS.
Action: A great way to start is by setting a timer for five minutes, sit comfortably and breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of eight.
Gentle cardiovascular exercise like walking is one of the best things you can do for digestive health. The rhythmic motion of walking helps with gut motility and lymphatic flow. Walking increases the transit of food moving from the stomach into the intestines, can alleviate gas (which often causes abdominal pain), reduces bloating, and can help with heartburn. Weight training on a consistent basis increases insulin sensitivity which optimizes your body’s use of food as fuel. This can help with digestion and is overall great for diversity of the microbiome.
Consistent Daily Rhythm
There is evidence that when you eat can impact digestion as much as what you eat. Leaving space in between meals helps with gut motility, ideally eating three meals per day with at least four hours between meals (and at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast). Meal spacing helps to optimize your hunger hormone grehlin, and the fullness hormone leptin.
Many digestive symptoms can also be reduced by not eating several hours before sleep, so food isn’t hanging out in your belly while your body is trying to sleep. Eating around the same time every day can also be helpful for digestive health. They call it “regular” for a reason!
If you are practicing intuitive eating, spacing meals may not be necessary or appropriate. I recommend working with a trusted healthcare practitioner to figure out the best way to proceed with meal timing and snacks.
Sun exposure can increase diversity of the gut microbiome and support digestive function. Sunshine is important for optimizing vitamin D levels, which can also play a role in creating a healthy gut lining and the immune function of our digestive tract. Aim to get 15-20 minutes of sunshine per day, avoiding the hottest part of the day when skin might be more likely to burn.
The benefits of sleep are too numerous to name. Not getting enough sleep can make digestive symptoms worse, and interferes with the hormones that tell us when we are hungry and full. Sleep deprivation increases inflammatory cytokines associated with pain, making it more likely to have a flare in IBS pain after a night of poor sleep. Adults need on average 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If you are consistently sleeping less than this, meet with a healthcare provider to address potential insomnia.
Drinking water is important for digestive health. This is especially true if you tend towards constipation. Our colon draws water from our food to keep us hydrated. If you have plenty of water in your system, more fluids can stay in the colon making it easier to move. Adding a squeeze of lemon can be great first thing in the morning to stimulate digestion and encourage regular bowel movements.
Hot and cold water interventions can be amazing for gut health. Water can be one of the simplest ways to relax, such as in a hot bath, or to invigorate your nervous system, like in a cold shower. I like using both hot and cold water for digestive health. Try taking a warm bath before bed with epsom salts, starting the day with a 1-2 minute cold shower (not for the faint of heart), or alternating hot and cold (2 minutes hot 1 minute cold for three rounds).
Certain supplements can be helpful for gut health, especially when changing the diet isn’t appropriate. Some of my favorites include:
*Talk to a qualified healthcare practitioner before starting any herbs or supplements to figure out what is right for you
If you are looking to improve your gut health, whether or not you change your diet, consider focusing on non-dietary interventions for gut health since they are foundational to a healthy lifestyle.