Do you want to improve your gut health? Whether you have IBS and want to control your flares, or you would like to prevent functional gut disorders like IBS altogether, there’s a lot you can do.
And if you’re someone who wants to avoid the pharmaceutical drug roller coaster most people take, you’re in luck: Changing behavior has large effects in both instances. Furthermore, adopting behaviors that promote gut health improve other areas of health as well.
Now, some of these behaviors are things many people simply don’t want to do, like exercise. And unfortunately, some people who want to exercise can’t because it causes their symptoms to flare. Other behaviors are pretty simple to implement if you approach them in the right way.
Any way you cut it, adopting the 5 behaviors below will improve your gut health and overall quality of life. After all, our motto here at Hack your Gut is Live Healthy, Be Happy!
So let’s get cracking and talk about the global behaviors that can help you improve your health and happiness!
1) Prioritize your sleep
Sleep is incredibly important for proper digestion. Poor sleep the previous night is associated with greater reflux symptoms in people with GERD. Furthermore, poor sleep led to greater stomach acidity in the same study.
Sleep disturbances also negatively impact metabolic health, which we previously covered here. We’ve also discussed the evidence in mice and humans indicating hyperglycemia may cause leaky gut.
There’s also a bi-directional relationship between sleep and the microbiome. One study found that shorter sleep duration, <4hrs/night, altered the microbiome in humans. Another found diversity of the microbiome is positively associated with sleep efficiency and time.
Many people have terrible habits centered around sleep. They have an irregular sleep schedule, pay no attention to their light exposure, and often eat late at night. As a result, their sleep isn’t as good as it should be.
Though, it’s important to say it’s best to change your sleep times gradually. Our belief here at HYG is that the early bird lifestyle is generally better for most. But we like to point out a couple of things:
- There will be outliers
- Whether you should shift earlier depends on your job, health and preferences
- Changing your bedtime should be done gradually
- Whatever your bedtime, it should be consistent 7 days/wk
Regardless, begin paying attention to factors that affect your sleep. Then, measure how it changes health metrics such as heart rate variability or blood glucose regulation. The best part is most of the other factors we discuss play a role in improving sleep.
2)Manage your stress
As anyone with IBS will tell you, stress wreaks havoc on your digestion. It makes perfect sense: The autonomic nervous system controls processes outside of our control including digestion and our stress response.
When exposed to stress, the sympathetic nervous system swings in to action increasing heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, and muscle activation. This is great when you’re trying to flee a predator, but it suppresses the digestive process.
When we sit down in a calm environment and eat, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. This causes blood to flow to the organs of digestion, promoting GI motility and enzyme secretion.
As it turns out, stress may also increase the permeability of your gut. A recent study found that couples who fought more had an increased amount of gut-derived bacteria in their blood. In addition, stress is known to increase blood glucose levels, which, as mentioned above, also increases leaky gut.
Notice the wording here: Manage your stress. You don’t want to completely eliminate stress as exposure to stress can build stress resistance. So build behaviors that promote stress resistance.
3)Work on your breathing
It’s probably odd to hear, but people don’t know how to breathe…at least not properly. Normal, healthy breathing occurs through the work of a muscle called the diaphragm, as seen below.
When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and flattens, increasing pressure in the abdominal cavity. This decreases pressure in the chest cavity, causing the lungs to fill.
When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up towards the the heart. This decreases pressure in the abdomen while increasing it in the chest cavity, causing the lungs to release their air to the environment.
As you can see from the image, the diaphragm is essentially the roof of the abdominal cavity. This up and down motion during breathing massages the intestines while the changes in pressure also aid in motility.
During disordered breathing, people use their chest and shoulder muscles to raise their rib cage. This decreases pressure in the chest cavity and causes air to enter the lungs, but results in incomplete breathing and low or no movement of the diaphragm. This reduces the massaging action and pressure changes in the abdominal cavity.
Another benefit of diaphragmatic breathing is that it reduces sympathetic nervous system activity. So in addition to the mechanical effects, there are neurological effects as well.
For more on proper breathing, check out this blog/podcast with Jon Haas.
4)Optimize your circadian rhythms
Circadian rhythms are variations in physiological processes that follow an approximately 24 hour rhythm. Most automatic processes such as digestion, immune function, and cardiovascular functions follow a circadian rhythm controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
The great thing about circadian rhythms is that they generate anticipatory responses. This means that, for example, if you get up every morning at 7am, you’ll continue to do so. For digestion, circadian rhythms cause anticipatory responses in digestive enzyme and hormone secretion.
Circadian rhythms also create variations in motility, with greater motility during the day vs the night. But circadian rhythms don’t just happen, they depend on your exposure to environmental cues called zeitgebers, or time givers.
Exposure to zeitgebers at the appropriate time optimizes our digestive function. There are a core set of exposures that include:
- Light exposure-Get adequate light during the day and reduce your exposure at night. Using blue blockers during night is also useful
- Feeding/fasting cycle-Develop an eating schedule where you spend at least the same amount of time fasting as feeding
- Increase physical activity
These should function as the foundation of your daily routine for optimizing circadian rhythms. We covered the basics in a Facebook Live video you can check out here.
There are several other factors that are important for developing your ideal circadian schedule. How these exposures are layered throughout your day can help you build strong, robust circadian rhythms.
5)Exercise to improve your gut health
We saved this one for last because, well, many people don’t really like exercise all that much. It’s an inconvenience for many, particularly those who never built it as a habit. But there is strong evidence for the importance of exercise.
First, exercise increases the thermic effect of food. What is that? When we eat, we burn calories to support the energetic needs of digestion, motility, and so on. This is known as the thermic effect of food.
Exercise training increases the thermic effect of food substantially. This creates more energy to fulfill the processes that improve digestion. Furthermore cardiorespiratory fitness, an important measure of health that reflects current exercise exposure, correlates to greater diversity in the microbiome.
Exercise also has a generally beneficial effect on metabolic health. Muscle used to power higher intensity physical activity uses glucose as the predominant form of energy.
Exercise training that uses these muscles increases the amount of glucose they store as glycogen. It also uses that glucose so that when you eat, the glucose derived from your meal doesn’t stay in the bloodstream too long.
Finally, exercise increases body temperature which has 2 generally beneficial effects on digestion. First, increased body temperature helps synchronize the circadian clock in all the peripheral clocks in the body. Second, the enzymes that break down your food generally have greater activity at higher temperatures.
A good, comprehensive exercise program includes flexibility, strength training, and cardiovascular exercise.
Changing behavior is an underrated approach for improving your digestion. The reason addressing behavior is so useful is because when you change a bad habit, in addition to adopting something that is beneficial for your gut, you are dropping something that’s bad for it. And most people are unaware of the importance of behavior for gut health.
Ultimately, anything that improves digestion will improve overall health. In addition, a healthy gut is dependent on metabolic health. So if you have type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, or obesity, correcting these problems will generally improve your gut health.
So give these habits a try and send us an email telling us how it goes. We love to hear it when people see benefits from adopting our strategies!