Certainly it is important to take care of your body, and of course everyone does what they can to maintain optimal health by exercising, dieting and visiting a physician regularly. Unfortunately, one of the most overlooked aspects of our physical health is that of our gut; often we scarf food down and just assume that our body will take care of the rest.
Sadly, it is not true – our full digestive tract requires just as much care and attention as the rest of our bodies to stay fit. Thankfully, it is easy to maintain – all you need is to eat the correct foods. Here are some edible panaceas to ensure you have a healthy stomach, intestine and a clean colon:
1. Spinach: Popeye Was Spot On
The cartoon Popeye would have you believe that the leafy green spinach can give you almost superhuman strength, but perhaps a lesser known benefit of spinach is its role regulating your digestive tract.
Your stomach lining is covered with mucus, and though it sounds unpleasant, the thick lining it provides plays a vital role in ensuring you do not develop ulcers. Ulcers are sores that develop within your stomach and can lead to nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, unwanted weight loss, or heartburn.
Spinach develops the mucus lining of your stomach to ensure that ulcers never form, thus keeping your digestive tract healthy. The vegetable can also help with constipation in addition to its ability to flush your system of toxins, ensuring a healthy digestive tract for the future, and a healthy colon.
If that’s not enough to convince you to drizzle a little olive oil over your greens – What, you though the cartoon character’s name was coincidental? -Spinach also contains a high concentration of iron, which increases your overall energy level and makes you primed and ready to beat back any bad guys.
Interestingly, spinach is actually healthier for you if eaten cooked rather than raw. This is because the cellular structure of spinach makes it difficult for your body to digest it in its entirety. Eaten raw, much of the nutritional value of the vegetable can pass through your system unprocessed. Cooking helps break down the cell walls, however, allowing easier absorption of all those life preserving vitamins and minerals.
Cooked spinach can yield nearly three times the nutritional value of raw spinach, thanks to a compound called oxalic acid which prevents absorption of calcium and iron by the body, but can be countered by quickly wilting your spinach over high heat. If you add an additional acid such as lemon juice and a healthy, simple fat like olive oil, there are few foods that are better for your digestive tract – or your overall health!
2. Alfalfa: Not the Old Time Television Character
No, we are not talking about the funniest member of The Little Rascals television show from years gone by. A member of the pea family, alfalfa has been used for hundreds of years as a treatment for digestive issues. Civilizations as far back as the ancient Chinese and early Romans have used alfalfa to combat digestive problems, and for good reason. Modern research has shown that the inclusion of chlorophyll into your diet can help improve your digestive health in a number of ways.
Chlorophyll can repair the digestive tract of the woes waged upon it throughout day-to-day living, patching up damaged tissues and easing any existing pains. Additionally, chlorophyll is capable of drawing out any toxins that attempt to damage the belly and colon, and it also helps the blood to absorb more oxygen, which is of course vital to cell respiration and function.
It just so happens that alfalfa contains a high amount of chlorophyll and thus is a suitable remedy for whatever ails you or your belly. Alfalfa can be used as a delicious garnish to any salad recipe to add a bit of crunch or can be eaten alone if you want to savor its green, crisp flavor.
3. Chia Seeds: No Ceramics Necessary
Many think that chia seeds are only good for planting atop comically shaped ceramics to be kept around the house as decorations. In reality, the seeds are edible – and great for you.
Chia seeds are a form of fiber, which is vital for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Specifically, they have insoluble fiber, and thus serve to flush the bowels of any toxins that may have been ingested, such as salmonella or e. coli. The regular removal of toxins from your system is essential; it will help to alleviate many stomach cramps and pains, prevent or alleviate constipation, and can even reduce the risk of colon cancer.
But chia doesn’t have only insoluble fiber; it also possesses soluble fiber which, among other health benefits, helps to remove harmful cholesterol buildup from the body. Additionally, chia seeds are low in calories and high in protein, making them a “super food” that will keep your body running optimally.
Eating the seeds can be a bit more challenging for those unfamiliar with the ingredient. Consuming the seeds in their raw, unprocessed form is not recommended – instead, place the seeds in water. The water will help pull many of the nutritive properties out of the seeds, making them easier for the body to process and digest. The resultant mixture will be slightly gelatinous, not unlike oatmeal or grits, and can be eaten alone or mixed with other healthy ingredients to overall promote bowel health.
Regular consumption of chia seeds is recommended to keep your stomach healthy – but do be careful. If you are unaccustomed to eating them – and chances are, you are not – don’t simply fill up a bowl with chia and water and dig in. Like any new food introduced into your daily diet, you should start slow. Work the chia seeds gradually into your regular rotation and mix them with foods your body is acclimated to digesting. Once you have eaten the seeds regularly for a period of time, you can be a bit more liberal with your chia consumption.
4. Beets: A Powerful Scarlet Root Vegetable
Another overlooked source of insoluble fiber are beets, which are likewise a food that cannot only improve your digestive wellness, but that of your entire body. Like chia seeds, beets excel at scrubbing the interior parts of your gut, brushing away wastes and preventing the likelihood of developing constipation.
Additionally, insoluble fiber can prevent the likelihood of diverticular disease, an illness that affects the intestinal walls and causes inflammation and general stomach pain. The disease is most often diagnosed in patients who have diets low in fiber, a problem that the regular consumption of beets can help repair. Partly the reason for this is that beets contain a nutrient called betaine, which helps reduce the risk of cellular inflammation dramatically.
Beets and beetroot extract have also been found to be effective at reducing the risk of many types of cancers including pancreatic and prostate cancers thanks to the phytonutrients that help give the roots their deep hue. Among other health benefits that beets bring, they can help to lower your blood pressure as well as boost your overall stamina.
Oh, and don’t just throw away the leafy greens at the tops of your beets either – they are good for your body and are a rich source of many vital nutrients and vitamins including potassium, zinc, iron, and of course more of that gut-cleansing fiber. The greens can be eaten raw or gently steamed or sautéed, much like spinach.
5. Flaxseeds: Made for Your Digestion
Another great source of both nutrients and fiber, flaxseed, sometimes called linseed, can drastically improve your digestive wellness by sweeping your belly clean of those pesky toxins that can cause stomach pain or illness.
It does this because that same fiber has the ability to increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They are referred to as beneficial bacteria because they produce their own form of antibiotics that seek out and destroy any harmful microbes within your gut. Another benefit of these bacteria is that many researchers believe that an abundance of healthy bacteria in the stomach is a great way to prevent colon cancer.
Additionally, fiber has the ability to retain water in the colon, which helps to soften stool and prevents constipation. Flaxseeds can lower the risk of diabetes, can combat various forms of cancer, and, like most foods high in fiber, are great for your heart as well, thanks to the cholesterol cleansing properties of fiber.
Flaxseeds are, by and large, indigestible by the human body. The seeds contain a hard, strong outer shell that your stomach acid does not have time to fully dissolve before the seeds are whisked along through your system. This means that, should you wish to reap the plentiful health benefits, you will need to process the seeds in some way.
You can purchase pre-ground flaxseed from your local mart or health food store. You can also buy them whole and grind them yourself using a mortar and pestle before adding them to your meals. The seeds themselves do not have a particularly strong flavor, so you can grind and sprinkle them over nearly any dish to add a dash of healthful benefits to whatever you are eating.
Weightlifters and health aficionados will often add ground flaxseed to their workout shakes without affecting the flavor. Another option that is available is flaxseed oil, which, as its name suggests, is made from the liquid the seeds emit when they are ground up. A caution, however. Unlike its ground-up counterpart, flaxseed oil does have a strong, bitter taste.
The advantage of using the oil, however, is that it is easy to mix into a healthy drink. The ground variety will not dissolve completely in liquid, and often leaves a drink with a slightly grainy texture. Flaxseed oil can fix that, but at the cost of both flavor and the loss of the beneficial fiber the seeds naturally provide.
6. Sauerkraut: A Sour Treat for Your Body
A German favorite, sauerkraut and other fermented foods, such as kimchi or miso are great at maintaining the balance of good microbes within the gut. Unbeknownst to many people, your stomach is actually a complex ecosystem that harbors 100 trillion different microbes.
These microbes are responsible for your digestive health, your likeliness to be allergic to given foods, and can affect your body at large. After all, with that many microbes living inside you, they almost certainly have a tremendous impact on your overall health. So are these microbes helpful?
Yes and no. Many of them are helpful and are necessary to the upkeep of our daily lives; others, like salmonella or e. coli are less so, and can make us violently ill if there are too many present in our stomach. Sauerkraut helps to ensure that our stomach maintains the appropriate number of the good microbes by being what is called a probiotic.
As its name suggests, probiotics are foods that promote the growth of living organisms or introduce new microbes into your stomach and intestinal walls. Generally speaking, the more diverse the flora of your gut, the better for you. People with excessive amounts of allergies have been shown to have a reduced amount of diversity within their intestinal ecosystem.
Consuming sauerkraut is a great way to promote digestive wellness, not to mention its abundance of fiber, and a multitude of important vitamins and protein. Sauerkraut has relatively few calories and provides a bevy of health benefits.
There is one caveat, however, particularly if you are consuming sauerkraut for its probiotic properties. The microbes that you are trying to introduce into your system are not well adapted to surviving high temperatures, so if you want to get the most nutritive bang for your buck, you will need to eat your sauerkraut raw.
Of course, the flavor profile of sauerkraut can be a bit much for some eaters, particularly when taken raw, but not to worry. If kraut is not your thing, there are plenty of other probiotics that exist in nature to help your stomach flora.
7. Yogurt: A Yummy Way to Nourish Your Gut
Yogurt is one of the few probiotics that many people are familiar with, in part due to its ubiquity in many cuisines, particularly those of the Mediterranean. Like sauerkraut, yogurt of all kinds contains a healthy amount of probiotics to keep your belly healthy and well-balanced. This is of course in addition to the large amounts of healthy proteins that the creamy treat can provide.
When you are purchasing your yogurt make sure that the package or carton has the phrase, “Contains live cultures” or something similar on the packaging. This will let you know that the microbes within the yogurt are still alive, and thus will be able to make the trip into your stomach and intestinal walls. Any package that does not have this phrase implies that the cultures are either missing, or they could not guarantee that the cultures survived the trip to the store – something not overly desirable.
Perhaps one of the best uses of yogurt is that it can be used as a canvas of sorts. You can mix oats and other foods that promote digestive and overall wellness into your yogurt for double the effectiveness. Since yogurt has a mild flavor in its natural state, it can pair well with nearly any ingredient, both sweet and savory.
Like sauerkraut, however, the probiotics in yogurt cannot sustain heat, and so it will be necessary to avoid any recipes that call for yogurt to be used as a marinade for cooking meat – but only if you are eating it solely for its probiotic properties. Even cooked, yogurt can yield nutrients and a high amount of protein.
Finally, even though yogurt is made from milk, if you are lactose intolerant, there is still a good chance you can consume yogurt because of its relatively low lactose content.
8. Cayenne Peppers: Hot for Your Health
Ground or whole, cayenne peppers are a type of superfood in their own right. Famous for adding a spicy wallop to foods, cayenne also possesses the ability to add in your digestive wellness. The old wives’ tale that spicy foods will upset your stomach is precisely that – a tale.
Evidence suggests that spicy foods including cayenne actually have the opposite effect by breaking up any excessive mucus within the stomach and helping to balance the amount of acid to mucous ratio within the belly.
Your stomach is a food churning machine, but cannot work properly if it is too saturated with the mucous that keeps your stomach acid from dissolving the lining of your belly. Cayenne peppers keep the balance between the two; too much acid results in ulcers, but too much mucous results in an inability for your body to easily digest foods, resulting in stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhea and other issues.
Easing your digestion woes is only part of the role that cayenne plays in your body’s overall wellness; the fruit also contains anti-fungal properties that can, much like probiotics, help to balance the flora within your stomach. Cayenne can break down many of the “bad” microbes living within your belly to ensure that the delicate balance of microbial variety is exactly where it should be, thus also making the pepper an anti-allergen.
Cayenne within your system also stimulates intestinal peristaltic motion, or, to put it more simply, it helps to alleviate intestinal gas buildup. These are but a few of the health benefits cayenne can provide; if you can stand the heat, it is recommended that you add a little cayenne pepper to nearly any savory dish you can concoct.
9. Herbs to Your Digestive Rescue
Saying that herbs are good for you is a bit of a broad statement and is perhaps not overly helpful, but nearly every green herb provides some kind of health benefit for your digestive tract.
To start with, many herbs contain a large amount of fiber, much like the leafy greens of beets, and are excellent for regulating toxic buildup within your body. They also contain chlorophyll, which, as mentioned above, is great at repairing any damage to your intestinal walls, helps ease digestion, and increases overall oxygen intake.
Many herbs, such as peppermint, have been used as digestive aids for centuries; there is a reason that many restaurants offer mints on the way out the door. Peppermint soothes the belly and helps to balance the mucous to acid ratio during digestion. Dill can serve as an antibiotic of sorts, and helps to kill harmful intestinal bacteria, parsley can relieve a bloated stomach, ginger can cure nausea, and basil works like peppermint.
In short, there are few herbs out there that do not help improve your overall digestive wellness in some way. Herbs can be eaten raw or lightly cooked for optimal health benefits.
10. Bananas: Not Just for Monkeys
Not just for monkeys, bananas are some of nature’s best regulators for your stomach. They are rich in fiber, which, as you’ve probably realized by this part of the article, is a good thing for your digestive health.
Specifically, bananas naturally produce pectin, a soluble fiber that is great at reducing digestive pain and helps to move stool through the intestines, as well as swab your body clean of any built up cholesterol. Bananas are also, like sauerkraut and yogurt, great for stimulating the growth of helpful bacteria in your body.
They serve as a natural antacid, which can help soothe annoying heartburn or relieve pain caused by stomach ulcers. Indeed, bananas are the only naturally occurring fruit that can be eaten raw without having a negative reaction on ulcers. They replace the mucous lining of the stomach to ensure that the acid does not further inflame current ulcers or create new ones.
They are even useful for replacing lost electrolytes and other nutrients if your stomach reacts poorly to something else you’ve eaten and you have the unfortunate side effect of diarrhea. In short, bananas are a fantastic food for your belly.