The Gastrointestinal System
The gastrointestinal (GI) system is extremely complex and there is a LOT happening between the time you eat something, and the time it is eliminated. We definitely don’t want to minimize any type of uncomfortable digestive symptom you may be experiencing because that is 100% real and 100% frustrating.
But, unfortunately, it’s not usually one food, one pill, or one supplement that will magically make these uncomfortable symptoms disappear, despite what our culture says.
Often, chronic dieting, chaotic eating, restriction, binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, stress, disordered eating and eating disorders disrupt our body’s normal digestion and can lead to uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as: heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal distention, nausea and feeling full quickly. So, before you jump to eliminating another food or food group, hear us out! These topics could all be posts of their own, but we’ll briefly touch on them here.
Stress and the Gut
Stress and the brain (the gut-brain axis): you have probably heard the gut referred to as the “second brain.” This is because stress (and your mindset in general) can directly impact the gut. The vagus nerve is a long cranial nerve that travels from the brain to the intestines, connecting them. This is one reason why you may experience nausea or other GI issues if you’re really nervous about something or about to give a huge presentation! The brain and the gut are physically linked.
Not only that, but the emotional stress that often accompanies disordered eating, chaotic eating, restrictive eating and irregular eating patterns can all contribute to GI issues. If you are experiencing stress in your brain, you will likely experience stress in your gut. Finding some stress management techniques that work for you can be extremely helpful. It’s not always about eliminating stress in your life (because that’s probably impossible), but it’s about balancing those stressful life situations with restful ones.
“Normal Eating” and the Gut
Eating regular, “normal” sized meals and the gastrocolic reflex: keeping your body on a relatively regular eating schedule can actually benefit your gut health. The gut loves routine, which is why it can be extremely beneficial to include regular meals and (maybe) snacks throughout the day. By eating regularly, and also tuning into your hunger-fullness signals, you can help regulate your GI system. It’s important to consume enough food at meals to help stimulate what is known as the gastrocolic reflex… stay with us! This is activated when food enters the stomach and causes the stomach muscles to stretch and contract, continuing the process of breaking down the food you’ve eaten. This action simultaneously stimulates contractions in the colon, which could possibly lead to a bowel movement. It’s basically the stomach telling the colon to make room for more food coming through!
Elimination Diets and the Gut
Don’t get us wrong – medically supervised elimination diets for a relatively short amount of time can help with managing certain GI conditions. It can be so frustrating to experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms, which can make eliminating certain foods so tempting! If only you could discover that one food that is causing all of your digestive trouble, eliminate that food, and watch your GI issues magically disappear. For some, like those with Celiac disease or diagnosed food allergies, it may be medically necessary to eliminate a specific food that is causing a dangerous autoimmune response. That is super important! But, for those of us without diagnosed allergies, elimination diets can wreak more havoc on the gut in the long-run.
The gut microbiome is complex and we are just beginning to scratch the surface with research in this area. It does seem that diversity of bacteria and microbes in the gut are important for a properly functioning GI system. Think about it this way… there are certain bacteria in your gut that feed off of specific foods that you eat, and that’s a good thing! When you eliminate certain foods, you are also cutting off the food supply for those specific bacteria, causing them to die off. Is this a problem? It could be.
Because often, what people find is that after an elimination diet, as they are beginning to add in more variety again, they are sensitive to even MORE foods than before they started the diet.
This is likely because some of their gut bacteria have died off. It can take time for the gut to get used to these foods again, and you will likely experience some uncomfortable GI side effects during this process. But that’s okay, and in the long run, extremely beneficial! Variety and diversity is key, so ultimately, the goal for almost everyone should be to include as many different foods in the diet as possible. This will keep the diversity of the bacteria in the gut thriving! Diversity in the diet can lead to diversity in the gut microbiome. So, before you start an elimination diet, consider that there may be reasons behind your GI issues that are unrelated to food.
Because the GI system is complex, it can be beneficial to get some individualized guidance when walking through digestive issues. A non-diet Registered Dietitian can be helpful and supportive through this process, so we encourage you to seek support if you feel you need it.