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Intestinal Health: How to Improve Yours and Help Fight Diabetes

SALT LAKE CITY – November is National Diabetes Month, a month in which Americans across the country meet to raise awareness about diabetes.

Learning more about diabetes, its risk factors and treatments is the key to preventing as well as improving outcomes. The American Diabetes Association lists many risk factors for diabetes – such as diet, lifestyle, genetics and the environment – but what about your gut health? Let’s look at what the research says, plus learn how to improve your gut health.

Good health 101

Intestinal health refers to how well your gut performs the various aspects of digestion. From the first bite of food to the emptying of the intestines, and everything in between, digestion involves simple processes, such as chewing, as well as other more complex processes.

When you talk about gut health, you will often hear the term “gut microbiome.”

; This simply refers to trillions of microorganisms and bacteria that call your gut home. These beneficial bacteria help your body with many different functions, including digestion and absorption of nutrients, supporting your body’s immune system, protecting against pathogens you may have ingested, producing vitamins and other compounds, and eliminating waste products.

Studies, like this 2019 study from South Korea, have shown that when the number of bad bacteria outweighs the number of good bacteria in the gut, these complicated processes suffer. Inflammation is often introduced followed by a number of possible health problems.

Prebiotics and probiotics

Prebiotics are components of indigestible fiber (a carbohydrate) that are found naturally in many plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Sometimes they are also added to processed foods.

Prebiotics pass through the digestive system without being digested. As they move through your digestive tract, they promote the growth and activity of “good” bacteria. In a nutshell, they are food for probiotics.

Probiotics are the “friendly” or “good” bacteria in your digestive system. These are live bacterial cultures found in certain foods or supplements, such as yogurt with live cultures, aged cheeses and fermented foods. They live in your gut and, as mentioned earlier, perform specific functions to help keep your gut healthy and functioning properly.

In addition, some of your gut bacteria produce vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids are the main source of nutrition for the cells located along the colon. They build a strong intestinal barrier that helps keep out harmful bacteria, viruses and other substances. Research published by MDPI in 2011 shows that this process also reduces inflammation, and an article in 2020 in the journal Current Medicinal Chemistry says it may reduce the risk of colon cancer.

What does research say about intestinal health and diabetes?

When beneficial bacteria are lacking in the gut, there is less fermentation of dietary fiber, resulting in reduced production of short-chain fatty acids. A 2018 study published in the March issue of the journal Science examined the link between short-chain fatty acid production and type 2 diabetes. Chinese researchers randomized patients with type 2 diabetes to receive either traditional patient education and dietary recommendations (control group) or a high-fiber diet consisting of whole grains, traditional Chinese medicinal foods, and prebiotics (test group).

Researchers found that in the high-fiber test group, there were more bacteria that produced short-chain fatty acids through fiber digestion, resulting in better improvement in blood sugar levels compared to the control group. These results suggest that reduction in short-chain fatty acids in the gut may be associated with type 2 diabetes.

In addition, 2017 studies from the Finnish Diabetes Prevention Study found that people who had more fiber in their diets had more anti-inflammatory markers in their blood made from gut bacteria. They also had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

While these findings suggest possible links between gut health and diabetes, much research remains to be done in this area. Several large, high-quality studies are needed to determine how and why diabetes is affected by the intestinal microbiome.

Tips for improving bowel health

Eat a healthy, varied diet

It’s really true that you are what you eat, or at least your gut health is what you eat. Consuming a variety of prebiotic and probiotic rich foods helps your gut bacteria thrive so they can better perform their daily digestive functions.

Prebiotics are found naturally in many plant-based foods, including asparagus, chicory root, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, dandelion vegetables and onions. Other sources include bananas, apples, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, flaxseed, oats, wheat bran, whole wheat and cocoa. Sugar alcohols – such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol – can also act as prebiotics.

Probiotics are found in cultivated yogurt, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha tea, kefir (both dairy and non-dairy) and non-pasteurized pickled vegetables. There are many different probiotic supplements available. However, there are many different strains and not enough specific research done on each. With that said, a few specific strains of probiotic bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have been shown to be beneficial and effective for overall gut health.

2. Get hydrated

Being hydrated is a simple way to support a healthy gut. Water is drawn into the colon by fibers to create softer, more extensive stools so things can move smoothly together. Get hydrated by drinking plenty of water every day and avoid too much soda, sports drinks, punch and other sugary drinks.

3. Enjoy meaningful movement

Finding some form of physical activity that you enjoy can have a beneficial effect on your gut health. Physical activity helps food move along our digestive tract, leading to more regular bowel movements. Exercise can also help deal with symptoms of an irritable bowel, such as constipation and bloating.

4. Reduce stress

This is easier said than done, but taking steps to lower your stress level will go a long way in improving your gut health. In an article from the December 2015 issue of Nutrition in Clinical Practice, Cleveland Clinics Gail Cresci explains how stress has been linked to irritable bowel symptoms and generally reduced bowel health.

Explore and find ways to deal with your stress and practice them regularly. Some ideas include meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, exercise, journaling or talking to a good friend.

5. Get enough sleep

Getting seven to nine hours of good quality sleep each night helps improve mood, cognition and gut health. A study from 2019 showed that better sleep quality was associated with higher proportions of the intestinal microbiota.

If you are not getting enough quality sleep, start by setting up a routine for going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Putting away cell phones and turning off the TV at least an hour before bedtime can also help your body get ready for sleep.

Brittany Poulson

About the Author: Brittany Poulson

Brittany Poulson is a dietitian and registered dietitian in Utah. She shares her passion for health, food and nutrition on her blog, www.yourchoicenutrition.com, where she encourages you to live a healthy life in your unique way.

Editor’s note: Everything in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended for or should be construed as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition; Any opinions, statements, services, offers or other information or content expressed or made available are those of the respective author (s) or distributor (s) and not of KSL. KSL does not endorse and is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of any opinion, information or statement made in this article. KSL expressly disclaims any responsibility for actions taken or not taken on the basis of the content of this article.

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