We know that a healthy diet can lead to shinier hair, clearer skin, and loads more energy. But, it’s possible that even if your food diary is clean, you still may not be seeing results. According to nutritionists and holistic health experts, one of the most common—but still fairly unknown—reasons health-obsessed women don’t enjoy all the benefits of their superfood-packed diet is because they have hidden gut health issues preventing those powerful (and expensive) ingredients from being absorbed.
Nutritionist, food blogger, and best-selling author Jessica Sepel explains that, contrary to popular belief, you aren’t what you eat—instead you’re what you absorb—and there are a number of signs that suggest you might not be fully absorbing all those $8 green smoothies. “The purpose of good digestion is to turn the food you eat into fuel for your body’s cells,” she explained, adding, “many people I meet have digestion issues [that can make] you feel fatigued, foggy, bloated, experience flatulence, endure nutritional deficiencies, constipation, diarrhea, reflux, weight gain and an inability to lose weight, cravings, low immune function, and hormonal imbalances.”
The link between gut issues and those common symptoms aren’t always obvious, so we’re breaking down some of the most obvious signs of poor gut health and how to address them.
1. You've Been Feeling Down Lately.
By now we know there is a strong link between the gut and the brain. Have you ever felt upset, anxious, or stressed about something and symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea and bloating come along as well? Lee Holmes, author and nutrition coach says we now know gut issues could come first. “Researchers are learning that it can come the other way around and that the gut issues may also be causing those emotional feelings.” To wit: Recent research suggests the microbiome directly influences neurotransmitters in the brain, impacting the way that we think and feel.
One study found that taking prebiotics—a supplement that boosts healthy bacteria in the gut—may have an antianxiety effect. In fact, subjects who took prebiotics in the study had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone associated with both anxiety and depression. Even more: Our bodies also make serotonin, a hormone linked with happy emotions, in our gut, which Sepel says “could explain why many people with gut problems struggle with low moods and even depression.”
2. You Get Sick Often.
“The immune system lies in the gut!” Sepel explained, and research proves she’s right: A huge proportion (around 70-80%) of the immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract, and certain cells in your gut excrete huge amounts of illness-fighting antibodies into the body. Put simply: Having a healthy gut makes it less likely that you will develop an autoimmune condition or inflammation-related illness.
3. You Are Suddenly Sensitive to Certain Foods.
People with leaky gut become unwittingly more sensitive to certain foods. “Sometimes allergies or sensitivities can signify a leaky gut, meaning that your intestinal permeability is compromised and undigested food particles can make their way through the small holes and into the bloodstream,” Holmes told Byrdie. At this stage, your immune system will mark these particles as foreign invaders and set off an immune response. If you keep eating these foods, your body will continue to react accordingly—which can be painful.
4. You're Bloated All the Time.
According to Holmes, belly bloat is often caused by “excessive gas in the intestines.” Basically, this happens because your body is struggling to digest certain food areas, such as protein and carbohydrates which leads to “fermentation, excess gas, and an imbalance in gut flora can lead to symptoms of bloating.” It could also signal an underlying condition, so it’s worth chatting to a doctor if you’re worried about constant bloating.
Here are some tips for taking control of your gut health.
1. Reduce Your Stress Levels.
Meditate, take a bath, sleep more, stop over-exercising—whatever you need to do in order to reduce your stress levels, do it. “The gut basically freezes when you are stressed,” Sepel warned. Research shows that stress also can make the gut more permeable, allowing more bacteria to cross what is known as the epithelial barrier (which has the important function of protecting the body from damage and dehydration), totally messing up the composition of your microbiome. This means stress can lead to inflammation-causing leaky gut, slow absorption of certain foods, and trigger other serious health issues. You don’t want this, so make an effort to curb stress.
2. Eat Probiotic-Rich Foods.
Now more than ever we know about the impact probiotics can have on our overall mental and physical health. Your body contains trillions of bacteria, and the type and quantity of these micro-organisms in your gut can either prevent or encourage the development of different diseases. It can even alter your mood. To keep the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria tipped in your favor, take probiotic supplements and eat more probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods. “Sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir can found at most health food stores,” Sepel suggests. Prebiotic foods like onions, garlic, dandelion greens, artichokes, and bananas are like food for good bacteria in your gut.
3. Start Each Meal With Something Raw.
Eating something raw—even a celery stick or some carrots—can help fire up the digestive enzymes to help break down the rest of your meal. When you go out for dinner, try starting the meal with a raw salad.
4. Add Apple Cider Vinegar to Your Diet.
Simply adding one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to your diet daily can help stimulate hydrochloric acid in your stomach for digestion. Try mixing a little in cold or warm water or pour over salads as a dressing.
5. Avoid Raw Nuts.
Adding nutrient-dense nuts to your diet is normally a great idea. However, Holmes recommends avoiding raw nuts, particularly if you suspect digestion issues. “Raw nuts can be harder to digest because of their tannin and phytate content. These compounds help protect the nut but can make them harder for us to digest, so err on the side of caution,” she told Byrdie.
6. Soak Nuts, Seeds, and Grains Before Eating.
Soaking some foods before eating can make them easier to digest and for your body to absorb the good stuff. “Nuts, seeds, and grains are covered in phytic acid, which makes them difficult to break down and digest,” Holmes explained. “I recommend soaking nuts, seeds, and grains before consumption. Or if you’re a little pressed for time (or just can’t really be bothered), you can opt for nuts and seeds that are already activated.” The soaking process breaks down the phytic acid and allows them to become more “bioavailable,” which basically means they become easier to absorb.