Healthy gut, happy you All about digestion: how to keep everything working properly

If there’s something up with your digestion you soon know about it…

How to keep your digestive system in proper working order

Burping, belching, flatulence, constipation and bloating are all evidence of a less-than-happy gut.

Sometimes the digestive problems are more severe and a medical diagnosis might reveal a condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or coeliac disease.

But an unhealthy gut can have much wider-reaching consequences. Its condition plays a key role in your health, influencing things from energy levels to the risk of developing cancer.

The state of your gut can contribute to:

  • the severity of atopic eczema, food allergiesand rheumatoid arthritis
  • hormonal balancecholesterol levels and the frequency of infections
  • the risk of developing diseases including cancer

More than 70% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract so if your digestion is suffering, your immune system is probably struggling as well.

And the condition of your gut can impact your moods too. The feel-good hormone serotonin – often reduced in depression – is produced in the digestive tract as well as the nervous system.

Keeping your gut as healthy as possible makes a lot of sense!

What does ‘gut’ mean?

The digestive tract including the stomach, small intestine and large intestine, or colon.

Food is normally:
– in the stomach for 1 to 3 hours
– in the small intestine for 3 to 8 hours
– in the colon for 14 hours plus

Ideally, the total transit time should be less than 48 hours.



If you have any digestive disturbances, particularly if there is a change in bowel habit, black stools or blood in your stools, it’s important that you talk to your GP.

How your body processes food

• Brain

Digestion begins with the brain. It tells your body to prepare for that tasty meal by producingsaliva, which contains enzymes to help to break down the food.

So looking forward to your meal, smelling it and seeing it presented attractively, is actually a vital part of digestion.

• Mouth

Chewing breaks down the food more. When you swallow, food passes down through your oesophagus into your stomach.

• Stomach

The stomach is a little bag which expands when food come in. It churns the food with enzymes and stomach acid to break everything down – especially the proteins – into a liquid-like substance.

What can go wrong?
Your body needs zinc and vitamin B6 to produce stomach acid. When levels of stomach acid are too low it can cause burping, indigestion and harmful bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.

Improperly digested food and unwanted intruders, which are normally stopped by the high acid levels, can pass into the intestine.

• Small intestine

All about digestion: how to keep everything working properly

From the stomach, food moves into the small intestine where it is further broken down for absorption into the body. The liver, which releases bile via the gall bladder, and the pancreas are key players in this process.

What can go wrong?
The small intestine is a coiled tube around 7 metres long and lined with ‘fingers’ called villi which release enzymes and help the body absorb nutrients. Absorption is impaired if the villi are damaged, as they are in coeliac disease by the protein found in gluten.

If we don’t produce enough digestive enzymes, or if the gut wall is damaged and ‘leaky’, larger protein fragments can cross the intestinal barrier, leading to problems including food allergies and eczema.

Steroids, aspirin, ibuprofen, caffeine and alcohol can all contribute to poor performance in the small intestine.

• Large intestine

Anything not digested in the small intestine moves into the large intestine or colon.

This is where most of our gut flora set up home. The gut contains more than 400 different types of bacteria – around 100 trillion of them, weighing about 4lbs.

The good bugs in the colon make vitamin K and some B vitamins and waste matter is compacted into faeces.

Top tips for a healthy gut

1. Take a pew to chew

If you’re eating on the move – while walking for instance – your body isn’t fully focused on dealing with the food. Make time to sit down and look forward to your meal so your saliva and digestive enzymes know they need to start work.

Next, you need to chew – properly. A couple of quick bites and a gulp isn’t enough. Try chewing 30 times before swallowing so your stomach has an easier job to do.

2. Chill out

Your body is programmed to figure that if it’s under stress it won’t be required to digest food at the same time.

To your body, stress means ‘fight or flight’ so it concentrates all its resources on being able to do one of those – and that means it isn’t producing the enzymes needed for digestion.

In addition, stress reduces secretory IgA (sIgA) which is found in large quantities in the gut and acts as part of our immune system as first line of defence against nasty bugs.When functioning properly, sIgA ‘tags’ foods to let us know they are OK and we don’t need to mount an allergic response to them. It also prevents nasties from sticking to the gut wall.

3. Boost fibre

Fibre feeds the good gut bugs and also helps get the waste out of your body more quickly. That’s important because if you have a long transit time between eating and eliminating the food waste, toxins, hormones – such as cholesterol – and other nasties can be re-absorbed.

All about digestion: how to keep everything working properly

So eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, including brown rice, oats and barley. Don’t overdo wheat-based fibre though because it can irritate sensitive guts, plus the phytates in it reduce the absorption of minerals.

Be aware that constipation doesn’t always mean hard stools. You might have a bowel movement every day but it may be waste matter from several days ago rather than the previous or same day.

Slow digestion of food can lead to:
– excessive fermentation – bloating and gas
– encouragement of the ‘wrong’ gut bugs
– at its worst, cancerous cell changes

A good way to see how quickly your body digests food is to eat some sweet corn or beetroot. Corn will re-emerge mostly intact in your stools and beetroot will turn them purple.

With fibre, you need water to keep the stools soft and to help them pass through the colon so aim for about 1.5 litres a day. It’s one of the simplest ways to tackle constipation.

4. Drink water!

5. Eat less meat

There are now clear studies linking a higher red and processed meat intake to bowel cancer. So keep meat to a minimum in your diet and up the fish and vegetarian options instead.

6. Skip the sugar

Sugar feeds bad bugs and also encourages the growth of yeast known as Candida albicans, which can contribute to a ‘leaky’ gut as well as myriad symptoms extending beyond the gut. Thrush is caused by Candida albicans.

7. Boost the probiotics

Good bugs in the gut are known as probiotics and research suggests they are vital to health.

The most well known and prolific good bugs are known as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, which set up home in our colon. There are hundreds of other strains however, many of which are added to the ever-increasing probiotic food and drinks on the market. Some strains are only temporary visitors so they do their work and then leave.

Probiotics help prevent disease by:
– Colonising the gut wall, making it harder for nasty bugs to find a place to take up residence.
– Producing compounds to attack unwanted intruders.
– Boosting production of SIgA and other immune supportive cells.
– Producing lactic acid that alters the acidity of the colon so that nasties are less likely to survive.

The bugs live by feeding off fibre in the colon and they also help to produce substances that fuel, nourish and repair the colon.

And as if all that isn’t enough, these good microbes also produce vitamin K and B vitamins in the colon. If you’re not eating enough of these nutrients, the good bugs can help make up the shortfall.

As well as supporting general health, if you have a tummy bug or travellers’ diarrhoea, a probiotic supplement can overwhelm the bad bugs and halve your recovery time. Take some with you as a supplement next time you travel abroad.

8. Act after antibiotics

All about digestion: how to keep everything working properly

Antibiotics wipe out the good bugs along with the bad that they’re targeting.

Antibiotic use is the most common cause of alterations in gut flora, leading to the wrong bugs and fungi taking hold in your gut afterwards. So load up on probiotic foods such as live yogurt or take a supplement after your course of antibiotics to help repair the damage.

9. Boost the probiotics

Probiotics are non-digestible, fibrous foods that help probiotics grow and flourish in the colon. They have been the subject of much research and play a really important role in gut health.

What to eat for a healthy gut

• Foods rich in B6 and zinc for stomach acid production.

  • Wholegrains
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Eggs
  • Lean meat

• Prebiotics

  • Asparagus
  • Leek
  • Garlic
  • Artichoke
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Banana
  • Chicory root

• Probiotics

  • Natural, live yogurt (keffir if you can find it)
  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso and tempeh (tofu).

• Emmental cheese encourages growth of the good bugs.

• Fibre – build up slowly and avoid wheat if your gut is irritated:

  • Wholegrains
  • Legumes
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Vegetables

• Ground linseeds (flax), soaked in water for constipation, or psyillium husk

• Pineapple and papaya for their beneficial enzymes

• Herbs and spices – avoid chilli if your gut is irritated – including:

  • Aniseed
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Fenugreek

• Liver-supportive foods such as:

  • Apples
  • Beetroot
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Garlic
  • Leek
  • Lemon
  • Pears
  • Rocket
  • Spices

• Essential Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats (EPADHA and GLA) that support healing and reduced inflammation in the gut. They are found in:

  • Oily fish
  • Nuts
  • Seeds


• Keep to a minimum:

  • Excessively fatty foods
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Carbonated drinks


Sensitive gut?

If you have a sensitive gut and the GP can’t find anything wrong, you could try this for a short period:

  • Eat soothing foods such as gently cooked (instead of raw) fruit and vegetables, rice, plain fish, plain meat.
  • Avoid wheat, yeast, dairy, sugar, tomatoes, peppers, onions, caffeine, alcohol.

Some people find that eating like this for a while can calm the gut down.


Did you know?

  • Our guts are sterile when we’re born. Breast-fed babies and babies born vaginally have different bacteria in their guts from those who are bottle fed and arrive in the world by Caesarean section. It’s only when babies start to eat solid food that their gut bacteria begins to resemble that of an adult.
  • More than 70% of people stop producing the enzyme lactase after the age of 4. Lactase digests the lactose in dairy products so this explains why so many people experience digestive symptoms after drinking large quantities of milk. Fermented products, such as yogurt, keffir and probiotics, regularly consumed may improve digestion of lactose.

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