Our belly plays a major role in immune health, accounting for 50% of the body’s immune response, along with 25% of the body’s immune cells. Here is some more trivia for you: our gut contains 100 trillion bacteria, with over 400 species of bacteria! There are ten times more intestinal bacteria than human cells. Why is this information so important? Without optimal digestive function, our immunity decreases and our susceptibility to disease increases. Chatting about our colon may cause some to squirm, but gastrointestinal health is a critical component in maintaining wellness and longevity. An unbalanced diet, stress, fatigue, aging and bacteria-contaminated food can wreak havoc on our precious body. My clients often complain about bloating and indigestion, despite eating like rock stars. While we are all biologically unique creatures, the following general tips might provide some relief and insight to help you and your beautiful belly live more peacefully.
- Gone with the Wind
Daily elimination is necessary to remove toxins, undigested food and to maintain a flatter, lighter belly. Adequate water, fiber and daily physical activity facilitate bowel movements to help you keep that bloated feeling at bay. Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains are all excellent sources of fiber. Aim for 25-35 grams of fiber daily. A cup of black beans contains about 20 grams of fiber, while a cup of cooked greens contains about 4 grams. If you want to add more fiber to your diet I suggest you gradually increase your intake by adding a ½ cup of greens or berries to your eating plan. Otherwise, you might risk gastrointestinal discomfort if ingested excessively.
- Sugar-Free Faux Pas
Avoid sugar-free foods that contain sugar alcohols, also known as “polyols.” While sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, you will also find them in multiple diet products, such as sugarless gum. Sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed in the digestive system and eventually ferment. This results in bloating and cramping. Mannitol, xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol are some common polyols found in these products.
- Mouthful of Mindfulness
Remember that digestion begins in your mouth, so chew your food slowly. Rushing through a meal can also take the pleasure out of savoring each bite. Practice mindfulness when eating such as observing the colors, texture, shape and scent. Put all digital devices out of sight and focus on nourishing your body. The more you chew your food, the more you facilitate digestion. Chewing slowly can also prevent overeating, which is a recipe for indigestion.
- Allergy Alert
Food allergies and intolerances are often overlooked as primary causes for gastrointestinal conditions. It is helpful to keep note of any possible reactions in a journal. An elimination diet might also help you identify any culprits of discomfort. Some common allergens include eggs, soy, dairy, wheat, fast food, alcohol and nuts. To start, eliminate one trigger food for 23 days. Antibodies, which are proteins that your immune system produces in reaction to foods, take about three weeks to turn over. On day 24 consume a small portion of the food you eliminated. Wait 48 hours and take note of any unwanted reaction. If you do not have any reaction, consume the same food again and wait another 48 hours. Continue this pattern with every other food until you slowly reintroduce all the foods (if no reaction noted) back into your diet.
- Beware of the Booze
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it flushes water from your body. As a result the body becomes bloated to compensate for any water loss. Alcohol also inhibits the absorption of zinc, thiamin, B12 and folic acid. If you drink alcohol, always wash it down with 8-10 ounces of water.
The bubbles in carbonated drinks can trap gas in your intestines. Drink flat, filtered water instead. If you crave more flavors, add some lemon, berries, cucumber or fresh mint.
- Cruciferous Culprits & Boisterous Beans
Cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts), legumes, and beans are notorious for causing bloating. While they contain a treasure trove of nutrients, they can also cause cramping and discomfort. I suggest steaming the vegetables until they are fork-tender. Start by consuming ½ cup and notice how your body feels for the next few hours. You may also try pureeing these vegetables as a delicious soup, to facilitate digestion. If your belly is a war zone with beans start by adding 1-2 tablespoons to your meal. You may also puree them instead of eating them whole, and pay attention to any discomfort.
- Shake off the Salt
Limit sodium because it causes water retention and contributes to bloating. Use sea salt sparingly and get accustomed to cooking with herbs and spices to flavor foods. Remember that most commercially produced food products contain excess amounts of sodium. Look for “sodium-free” on labels and aim for no more than 5% sodium per serving on the nutrition facts label.
- Get Cultured
Our gut contains a beautiful garden of flora (bacteria) that acts like an ecosystem to maintain homeostasis. Probiotics (friendly bacteria) found in fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, miso, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi might help this garden flourish properly. Beware of sweetened probiotic drinks, cereals, juices and frozen yogurts that claim to contain these friendly bacteria.
Perform your own research before taking any supplements, and speak with your healthcare practitioner to discuss possible side effects. Use probiotics with quality clinical evidence behind them such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. In addition to displaying the term “clinically proven,” the product label should contain the strain(s) of bacteria (at the same levels as those used in published research), the colony forming units (CFUs), serving size, proper storage conditions and corporate contact information. Taking the inappropriate supplement may actually create more gastrointestinal upset.
- Love Your Belly
Give your belly some tender loving care with a massage. Start by placing your hands on top of one another on the lower left hand side of your hipbone. Apply very little pressure and start with slow clockwise circular motions, across your lower abdomen as you move towards the right. Once you reach your right hipbone, continue the circular motion upwards until you reach your lower rib cage. Continue massaging across your upper abdominal area moving towards the left. Once you reach the left side move all the way down to your starting position by your left hipbone. Repeat this massage several times. It will help to move any trapped gas bubbles as well as stimulate a bowel movement.
- Tame the Tension
Why does any stressful situation trigger such powerful sensations in our belly? Our vagus nerve connects our enteric and central nervous system, which creates a strong brain-gut connection. This explains why we feel those beautiful butterflies flapping their wings during challenging moments. Stress decreases nutrient absorption, blood flow, oxygen and enzymatic activity in our gut. While a stress-free life is almost inevitable, we certainly can help release some of it. Moving or still meditation, creativity and engaging in other healthy physical activity can ease tension and make for a smoother ride in life.
- Eat Outside the Box!
Food additives and preservatives can disrupt our hormones, as well as digestion. While I don’t have the luxury of raising my own grass-fed, free-roaming animals and pesticide-free plants, I do my best to eat local and organic foods. If that option is not available for you, try to limit consumption of highly processed foods.
Belly Soothing Homemade Fennel Tea
Fennel is one of my favorite herbs and is often used in the culinary traditions of the Mediterranean. I love fennel for its licorice-like flavor and for its belly-loving healing properties. As a carminative, fennel is also used to alleviate gastrointestinal discomfort, which is why you might try making this simple, belly-soothing tea. The volatile compounds found in fennel can aid digestion and soothe a belligerent belly.
Start by steeping 1-2 tablespoons of crushed fennel seeds in hot water for about 8-10 minutes. Strain the tea into a mug, sip slowly and enjoy!
Wishing you all Healthy Cravings & Blessings!
Photos by Dina Divine (dinaturetsky.com)