Our digestive systems are amazing pieces of kit. Including the stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and small and large intestines, there is an awful lot of hard work that goes into keeping us fit and healthy.
At certain times of the year, we can put an extraordinary burden on our digestive system, so it is always worth knowing how to provide year-round support and extra help when needed!
What the Digestive System Does
One of the primary roles of the digestive system is to break down food, absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins. This is not a simple process - it is a real team effort starting with saliva in the mouth and ending with the gut bacteria in your large intestine.
While it starts with chewing and saliva, stomach acid is one of the most crucial components to digestion. Besides its role in digestion, it also signals to the gall bladder and pancreas to get working on the rest of the digestive process. Stomach acid is often depleted by stress (and old age), so often needs support to ensure that the rest of the digestive process proceeds smoothly.
The stomach, liver, gallbladder and pancreas all play essential roles in making sure we digest our food properly and, if all is working well, avoid feelings of bloating, reflux and diarrhoea. The liver and gallbladder also comprise our major detoxification and recycling systems. They help to process external toxins like caffeine, painkillers, alcohol, sugar and environmental pollutants, as well as endotoxins (internal) like lipopolysaccharide (LPS), used up hormones and other metabolites.
The small intestine is where most of our nutrients are assimilated (unless compromised by conditions like SIBO), and the large intestine is responsible for absorbing water and elimination. But that's not all...
It's About More than Food
Like the liver, the organs of the digestive system also have other important roles. Stomach acid, for example, is part of the immune system's first line of defence. It not only enables us to digest protein and absorb vitamin B12, but also acts to kill pathogens taken in via food.
The large intestine is also home to our microbiome, arguably one of the most important 'organs' in our body. The microbiome is where most of our immune system resides. It is also the place where 80% of serotonin is produced. So a happy microbiome = happy mood.
In addition to all the wonderful detoxification work, the liver is also essential for thyroid hormone conversion and plays a role in energy metabolism.
Modern Life Takes its Toll on the Digestive System
The organs of our digestive systems are well-equipped to do the work, but sometimes, they can get overwhelmed or under-nourished.
Some of the things that impair healthy digestion include:
Chronic stress (this is a big one!)
Diets high in sugar, processed foods, alcohol and trans fats
Diets low in fibre, fresh produce and certain nutrients (e.g. zinc)
Some medications e.g. antibiotics, PPIs and NSAIDs
Chronic infection e.g. SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), parasites, fungal infections or low level viral infections
Eating too fast and not chewing properly (eating on the run)
Top Tips to Support Digestive Health
Get on top of stress. Stress more or less stalls the digestive system and can kick off a cascade of digestive dysfunction.
Support your liver. The liver and gallbladder do such important work, they need the right fuel! The phases of liver detoxification and the production of healthy bile depend on specific nutrients. Check out the food list below for tips.
Nurture your microbiome. Eat plenty of pre-biotic foods as well as probiotic foods (see below).
Limit sugar, caffeine, alcohol and fried foods. These all negatively impact liver health and the microbiome.
Include regular exercise and prioritise sleep - these are both essential for a well-functioning digestive system.
The Best Food Choices for Healthy Digestion
Getting a variety of foods is essential for all aspects of health, but the digestive system need quite specific foods - luckily you can easily incorporate them into your daily diet:
Brassica vegetables - broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts - essential for liver health
Bitter foods - these help to stimulate healthy bile: chicory, rye, olive oil, rocket, citrus peel and dandelion root coffee.
Antioxidants from green tea, turmeric, ginger, berries and leafy greens
Beetroot, artichoke hearts and eggs are particularly beneficial for liver health
Sulphurous foods like leeks, onions, and garlic - prebiotic AND support phase 2 liver detoxification
Include prebiotic foods daily: leeks, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke and wholegrains.
Probiotic foods most days will keep your microbiome topped up with beneficial bacteria. The best sources include fermented dairy (e.g. kefir, natural yoghurt), sauerkraut and kombucha.
Plenty of fresh water (ideally bottled) and herbal teas
Foods rich in zinc - essential for the production of stomach acid, often missing in modern diets (especially vegan/vegetarian) and depleted by stress. Good sources include pumpkin seeds, oysters, crab, poultry (dark meat) and liver.
Your digestive system keeps you happy and healthy - from moods, to immunity and everything inbetween! Nurture your digestive system organs daily with the right foods and lifestyle habits.
If you know you will be overindulging, make special effort to eat and drink as healthily as possible in the days before and after. For big occasions, you may want to consider a milk thistle supplement that also includes choline, artichoke and dandelion for extra support.