Got good digestion? If you’re suffering from migraines, allergies or chronic disease, the answer may be “no.” Digestion— the process by which your body breaks down food into nutrients, absorbs those nutrients and eliminates the rest—isn’t just about simple mechanics. Recent research has homed in on the digestive system’s most abundant inhabitants: trillions of beneficial bacteria that colonize the GI tract starting from the moment we’re born. These “good bugs” support digestion itself (by manufacturing certain vitamins and aiding peristalsis) and affect health in myriad other ways, starting with our immunity.
“Many people don’t realize that the lining of our intestines is one of the biggest parts of our immune system,” says Boston-based naturopathic doctor Cathy Wong, N.D. Indeed, with its massive surface area—if stretched out, it’s actually the size of a football field—the GI tract is continually under attack by harmful bacteria and viruses present in the food we eat and the air we breathe. When the good bugs are plentiful, they keep the bad ones at bay; healthy flora release acid, making the environment inhospitable to harmful microbes. Plus, researchers are still uncovering more ways in which our inner ecosystem affects our health, with studies linking bacterial imbalance in the gut to everything from allergies to obesity to heart disease.
Optimizing both your gut health—its ratio of “good” to “bad” bacteria—and the digestive process are two of the best things you can do for your body. To start, eat a plant-based diet with plenty of fiber and healthy fats, fermented foods like yogurt and miso, and minimal sugar and processed foods. And try to relax, because the body’s stress response inhibits digestion. “Stress can change the bacterial balance in the gut, giving harmful bacteria the upper hand,” says Wong. Beyond the basics, you can help your gut get healthy by giving the following supplements a go.
How they work: Antibiotic use, excessive sugar and stress can alter the bacterial balance in the gut. Taking a supplement of “good bugs” (officially known as probiotics) can help restore this bacterial balance, strengthening immunity and potentially preventing or treating a wide range of health issues, including yeast infections. “There’s good data that probiotics improve symptoms of allergies, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), eczema and colic,” says Patrick Hanaway, M.D., an integrative family physician in Asheville, N.C. Preliminary research has also shown that probiotics activate an immune response in mucous membranes, which helps prevent colds and flus, notes Wong.
How to take it: Look for a mixed-strain product that includes Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillis, and follow package directions.
How it works: According to Ayurveda, ginger increases agni, or digestive fire, the body’s most essential “ingredient” for good health, says Kate Gilday, an herbalist and Ayurvedic consultant in Cold Brook, N.Y. Impaired agni (caused by overeating, eating the wrong foods for your constitution, or eating while stressed or upset) can lead to impaired metabolism and immunity, over time putting you on a slope toward chronic illness.
How to take it: Before meals, try either a cup of ginger tea or a thin slice of ginger with a squeeze of lime juice and a pinch of sea salt. Note: People with heartburn should avoid ginger because the herb aggravates the condition.
How it works: Normally, only nutrients pass through the intestinal lining. But if the lining is compromised (often due to improper diet or flora imbalance), food particles can pass through the lining into the bloodstream; this is known as intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome. When this happens, immune cells may react to these unwanted proteins and chemicals, causing inflammation, food allergies or an immune disorder. L-glutamine, an amino acid found naturally in the GI tract, “promotes the growth of intestinal cells, repairing the lining of the gut,” says Wong.
How to take it: If you have leaky gut syndrome, supplement with L-glutamine under the guidance of a health care practitioner. The usual dose is mixing 2 grams of the powder in 6 to 8 ounces of any fluid. Drink on an empty stomach once a day.
How it works: Ground flaxseed is a prebiotic, a nondigestible nutrient that serves as “food” for good bacteria in the gut, helping them grow and flourish. What’s more, it’s high in fiber, which means it helps digested food move through your system—and that can help prevent (and even treat) a range of GI issues, including IBS and leaky gut syndrome. (When stool sits in the colon, the bile acids become more concentrated, irritating the lining of the colon and triggering these conditions.)
How to take it: Store ground flaxseed in the refrigerator or freezer (it’s prone to rancidity). Mix 2 tablespoons into yogurt or sprinkle on cereal daily.