9 Dangers to Digestion
The health of your gut is intrinsically linked to your overall physical and emotional well-being.
And when your gut is unhealthy, it can take a toll on the rest of your body.
Because everyone is unique and bio-individual, there’s no one “perfect” approach to diet or lifestyle that promotes gut health.
However, studies have shown that there are certain universal “dangers” to digestion that are harmful to all of us, regardless of our current state of health or individual microbial composition.
These dangers range from things like a poor diet to lack of exercise, to environmental toxins.
In this blog I’ll break down nine evidence backed dangers to digestion. Limiting these gut irritants is an important first step toward improving digestive health, creating a strong and diverse microbiome, and setting the stage for optimal health.
While antibiotics are necessary at times and have an important place in medical treatment, overuse of antibiotics, including recurring use and high dosages, can cause significant damage the gut.
In recent years, antibiotics have been prescribed much more liberally to wipe out harmful bacteria that cause infections, without taking time to explore other viable solutions.
This is particularly prevalent in hospitals and other urgent care settings, where immediate, short-term treatment of a symptom is prioritized over the long term health impact of antibiotic usage.
The problem is that antibiotics do not just target pathogenic bacteria- they kill off the good bacteria as well, creating an unhealthy imbalance in the gut microbiome.
Additionally, too much antibiotic use can cause bacteria to become resistant, requiring additional medication or treatment.
I personally feel antibiotics should never be the first response but rather the last resort, and only taken when absolutely necessary.
The body is actually quite capable at fighting off many infections on its own, if given the time, the proper environment, and adequate resources to heal.
While herbal remedies shouldn’t necessarily be used in lieu of a doctor’s care, they can be great for prevention, early intervention, and complementary support.
Health coaches or functional medicine doctors may be able to recommend antimicrobial supplements containing natural ingredients as an alternative to fighting certain infections, rather than resorting to traditional antibiotics.
BOTTOM LINE: To help preserve the health of your gut, it’s best to view antibiotics as a last resort, and to only take them when absolutely necessary.
Alcohol is inflammatory.
It doesn’t really matter how you spin it, drinking - even moderately- irritates the gut and compromises the health and function of your liver.
Heavy alcohol use over time can create intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which can allow toxins and undigested food particles to pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream.
Chronic alcohol consumption may also result in bacterial overgrowth, dysbiosis and negatively impact the overall composition of the gut microbiome. By damaging the cells in the gut, alcohol can also impair nutrient absorption, which can contribute to various vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
In the small intestine and in the colon alcohol causes depletion of bacteria with anti-inflammatory activity, eventually resulting in intestinal damage. The absence of these important anti inflammatory bacteria leaves you more susceptible to pathogens and unwanted invaders.
In the stomach, alcohol can interfere with HCL (stomach acid) decreasing its effectiveness at breaking down food and killing off potentially harmful pathogens. The residual partially digested food can often cause excessive fermentation in your gut (gas and bloating) and cause shifts in bowel consistency and frequency (loose or hard stool, diarrhea or constipation)
Once alcohol passes through the bloodstream and into the body, it can damage the liver and large intestine.
Damage to the liver is particularly concerning as the primary (and crucial) function of the liver is to detox the body.
Alcohol can also alter the state and diversity of the gut microbiome, which aids in vitamin and mineral production as well as immunity and can heavily influence mental and physical health.
BOTTOM LINE: I‘m aware some people are vehemently opposed to giving up their beer or wine, but I do think it’s important to understand the impact alcohol has on the body so you can make decisions about how often, and much you drink, accordingly.
The microbiome is constantly shifting, and bacteria can recover, so if you’ve been drinking excessively, and stomach problems are becoming an issue, cutting down on your alcohol consumption can allow the “good” bacteria in your gut a chance to replenish and improve your health.
Staying hydrated is one of the simplest and most overlooked ways to keep your
Ask any one of my clients how often I tell them to “drink water”’or “stay hydrated” and they’ll tell you- ALL THE TIME.
Drinking an adequate amount of water has been shown to improve the mucosal lining of the intestines as well as improve the gut microbiome.
Water also cleanses the body and helps in the detoxification process.
Additionally, water is necessary for the proper formation of stool. In fact water comprises about 75% of stool.
While there is often a focus on increasing fiber to help with regular bowel movements, this should ALWAYS be accompanied by a focus on maintaining an adequate water intake.
The combination of fiber and water allows the stool to form optimally and pass through the body easily. Fiber in the absence of adequate water intake results in gas, bloating, and dry or hard stool that’s difficult to pass.
In fact one of - if not- the most common contributors to constipation I notice in my coaching practice is a severe lack of hydrating fluids in someone’s diet.
BOTTOM LINE: Bring awareness as to how much water you drink a day. To determine if you are at all dehydrated look at your urine. It should be colorless or a very pale yellow. As you become dehydrated, your urine will turn a darker golden shade and have a thick consistency. If you’re experiencing this, you need to increase your water intake.
And don’t wait to drink until you’re thirsty. If you’re feeling thirsty, it is because you are already mildly dehydrated!
For tips on how you can stay on top of your water intake CLICK HERE.
4. ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS
The gut microbiome is very susceptible to what you put in -and on - your body. This includes more than just the food you eat.
Environmental toxins can be found in plastics, beauty and household products, and even the air you breathe.
Toxins contain endocrine disruptors and cancer-causing chemicals and can negatively impact the gut microbiome.
Some common environmental toxins are:
• Triclosan: an antibacterial agent found in deodorant, toothpaste, and soap
• Fluoride: a mineral found in toothpaste and unfortunately in a lot of water!
• Phthalates: synthetic fragrant chemicals that provide scent to household, health, and body products
• Pesticides: substances used to kill, repel, or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are sprayed on nonorganically grown produce and crops
• Bisphenol-A: a synthetic compound found in plastics and the lining of canned foods
BOTTOM LINE: Don’t think that just because you’re not eating it, it doesn’t impact your gastrointestinal health.
For example we didn’t absorb through the skin, a nicotine patch wouldnt work. If we didn’t absorb through inhalation air borne illness would be nonexistent.
Trust me, drinking from plastic, and slathering your body with the wrong lotions and beauty products, over time, can have a very negative impact on your digestive health
You can reduce exposure to these types of environmental toxins by investing in natural, nontoxic products for your body and home. You can also opt to make your own home cleaning products, invest in sulfate free and paraben free beauty products, and start to pay more attention to product labels on common items you buy.
5. LACK OF EXERCISE
The amazing thing about movement and exercise is it that it has far reaching benefits on whole body wellness, including gut health.
One major study actually showed exercise can positively affect the type of bacteria living in your gut microbiome.
A 2011 study in China found that increased physical activity improved gastrointestinal symptoms in IBS, and advised exercise be used as a primary treatment modality.
In 2018, a study of 683 patients from 14 randomized controlled trials found that exercise interventions like yoga, walking, and resistance training had significant benefits for those with IBS
A common cause of slowed motility or constipation is often inactivity or lack of movement. And research has shown that the microbiome improves after six weeks of regular physical exercise.
While there is no one specific form of exercise that works for everyone, physical movement is essential for gut health.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s important to remember that not all movement needs to be vigorous or strenuous.
Or even require a gym!
Stretching, yoga, taking a walk outside, even gardening, playing with your pet or your kids, or choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator are great ways to incorporate more physical activity into your life on a regular basis.
Aim to move your body a little bit, in some way, daily!
6. LACK OF SLEEP
Lack of sleep can negatively impact the quality of the microbiome and, consequently, lead to larger health issues.
Deep sleep is one of the few times when the body can completely relax and rejuvenate. Balance is restored during this time; information and food are processed, organs recharge, and the microbiome can reset.
Much like sleep, the gut microbiome operates on a circadian rhythm, and when that rhythm is disrupted, it impacts the health of the microbiome and its ability to protect immunity.
Poor sleep has been found to impact microbial diversity. In other words the LESS sleep you get the less diverse your microbiome is and microbial diversity is an indicator of good gut health.
This study even associated sleep deprivation with an increase in the presence of pathogenic microorganisms and their toxins in tissues!
THE BOTTOM LINE: Adults need 7-8 hours of a sleep a night so that’s a good goal to begin with. If that goal seems daunting consider how you can work your way towards that goal in steps. Can you head to bed 5 minutes earlier? 10? A little becomes a lot, and over time, can be impactful!
The Standard American Diet (the diet most
Americans typically consume) is low in dietary fiber, high in processed foods and fats, and high in added sugar.
This study directly linked the typical western diet to alterations in gut fungi and metabolism. The study, conducted on mice found that these alterations in the fungal community correlated with changes in the way the animals’ bodies metabolized their food.
Many processed foods also contain artificial ingredients, including color or flavoring, preservatives, food additives, emulsifiers (which keep liquids from separating naturally), added fats and sugar for taste, and other unhealthy chemicals, many of which can hurt the health and balance of your gut.
Whatever you ingest will feed your microbiome, for better or worse.
Just as dietary fiber and probiotics feed the commensal bacteria, eating an abundance of processed foods can feed the pathogenic or opportunistic bacteria, which can cause dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria) and poor overall health.
Processed foods, including sugar and artificial chemicals, can also cause inflammation, damaging the gut walls and increasing the likelihood of intestinal permeability.
When your gut thrives, you thrive and the gut thrives on a variety of whole foods.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The diversity and balance of the gut microbiome is linked extensively to increased health and immunity.
You can help cultivate this diversity by eating a variety of whole, fiber rich, natural and unprocessed foods.
Fiber not only feeds your good gut microbes, it also helps lower cholesterol, keeps you fuller longer, helps control blood sugar, and helps keep things moving so you can eliminate toxins regularly.
When it comes to diet, bio-individuality is the determining factor. It’s all about context. There’s no “one way” to eat for gut health. But the following general suggestions can help get you started.
The best sources of fiber can be found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Including healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, and fish is also important for feeding your microbiome.
When it comes to determining if a food is “whole” or “processed” ask yourself, “Could I have picked this off a plant or tree?”
This clarifies that while almonds are a whole food, almond cookies are not.
Similarly, chicken is a whole food; however frozen chicken nuggets that come in a box and have a long list of ingredients would be considered processed.
Bear in mind not all processing is bad!
For example, peanut butter doesn’t grow on trees nor does olive oil. Peanuts have to be pressed and grinded to be turned into a butter. Olives need to be pressed to extract the oil.
Just aim to choose foods in their most natural form or foods that are minimally processed, with as few added ingredients as possible.
Another way to keep the gut healthy is by incorporating foods that are rich in probiotics and prebiotics (the fiber that feeds probiotics). They are an excellent way to enhance your good gut microbes and add diversity.
Probiotic-rich foods include fermented foods, such as kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Foods that contain prebiotics include unripe bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, and onions.
By now we’ve all heard that smoking is dangerous and how it can negatively impact the body – the digestive system is no exception.
Smoking has specifically been linked to microbiome dysbiosis.
Like alcohol, smoking can contribute to changes in the stomach and affect H pylori-related disorders including the risk of gastric cancer.
Smoking can increase the risk of cancer in the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and pancreas and has been linked to Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease, both autoimmune conditions of the gut.
Smoking can also cause and worsen ulcers, heartburn, and GERD (chronic acid reflux) .
Smoking has also been linked to pancreatitis, colon polyps, gallstones, and liver disease. In short, there is continual mounting evidence that demonstrates the harmful effects of smoking on every digestive organ, which inhibits optimal digestion, nutrient absorption, and healthy elimination.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you ever needed a good reason to quit smoking- while there are many- the damage it causes to your body’s digestive system is one!
Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to digest a meal when you are upset or stressed?
This is because stress has a direct impact on digestion.
For some, it slows motility and can cause constipation.
For others, it increases peristalsis and can speed up transit time, resulting in diarrhea or loose stools.
Stress can manifest in many physical ways – irritability, forgetfulness, brain fog, disrupted appetite, racing heart, and sweating, etc.
Whether the stress is acute or chronic, it sends signals to your brain to go into “fight or flight” mode. The brain prepares and sends all your energy reserves to the parts of your body that need it most: The eyes get wide to take in more light, blood rushes to the limbs to run, and your heart rate goes up.
When this happens, other body systems, including the digestive system, shut down as they’re considered “non- essential” during times of fight or flight.
This happens regardless to the source of the stressor.
Just as the digestive system reacts to stress, so does the microbiome. Chronic stress in particular can actually change the balance of your microbiome over time.
This has yet to be “confirmed” in human studies but animal studies do note shifts in gut microbes in response to stress.
Stress has also been linked to leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability. This permeability allows inflammatory compounds to come into the intestines, which can lead to a cascade of negative health symptoms as leaky gut leads to systemic inflammation.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Managing stress is key to maintaining good digestive health. However you choose to de-stress and prioritize self-care, it’s an essential component in allowing the body to function properly.
Managing stress regularly allows the body to be in a relaxed state, known as “rest and digest,” the opposite of fight or flight.
A great way to manage stress is deep breathing, which engages the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. Try closing your eyes and taking 5-10 very deep inhales through your nose and exhales through your mouth.
Another way to bring your body into a “gut friendly” state prior to meals is to practice mindful eating. Pause for a moment before you begin a meal. Bring awareness into the moment. Sit down to eat, be present. Thoroughly chew your food and aim to take about 20 minutes to eat your meals.