[Sticky] Lifestyle factors that are the foundaton of healthy digestion
Most people pay no mind to the substantial effect that their lifestyle has on the health and function of their gut. Typically, at the first sign of GI distress, people reach for supplements, medications, or digestive aids such as Tums. Though many eventually begin to buy in to the importance of diet, there are a lot more things that go on in our day to day that we can use to improve gut function.
The importance of diet aside, lifestyle factors that play a role in gut health and digestion include:
- Circadian rhythms
- Physical activity & exercise
- Dietary patterns(When we eat, how many times we eat, etc...)
- Stress management
The effects circadian rhythms play center around the fact that digestion and gut health are under circadian control. There are several reviews covering the link between gut disorders with circadian disruption. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Physical activity and exercise also play a considerable role in optimizing digestion. Interestingly, gut function is reduced during periods of physical activity via activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Though this may seem like a bad thing, it can actually improve digestion by allowing greater contact time between enzymes and the macronutrients they break down.
On top of that, physical activity increases body temperature, which increases enzymatic activity. But it's important to point out that there's a sweet spot in regards to exercise. Being sedentary is generally considered bad, and training at a volume and intensity that a marathon runner trains can have some negative consequences including intestinal permeability and diarrhea.
Dietary patterns are also important. How much we eat, the number of meals we eat, and how late at night we eat are all thing that impact digestion. As humans, our digestion is much better during the day than at night. Colonic motility also follows the same pattern, which is why we don't normally have to wake in the middle of the night to go #2.
Interestingly, a recent study looked at the effect of eating the same diet over 2 or 5 meals a day in obese and lean men. They found that intestinal permeability was greater in both groups during the 5 meal condition than during the 2 meal condition. (5) This effect may be partially mediated by interruption of the migrating motor complex with frequent meals, leading to greater bacterial load and translocation from the gut to the blood.
Stress has also been shown to have an impact on digestion, as anyone with IBS can attest to. On top of that, a study recently found that couples who argue more have higher levels of LPS in their blood. (6) LPS is a component of the bacterial cell wall, and having it in the blood is a marker for leaky gut.
Finally, getting adequate high quality sleep is a critically important factor for gut health. A recent study found that poor sleep is associated with gut symtptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and acid reflux. (7) And a recent review discussed how sleep dysfunction predisposes to gut dysfunction: By impairing autonomic nervous system function, increasing inflammation, and impairing motility to name a few. (8)
Developing a lifestyle plan that factors in all of these important behavioral drivers of gut function and health should form the base of any treatment plan to address gut disorders. Furthermore, they should function as the foundation for maintaining a healthy gut throughout life.