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Gut Health 101: Digestive Health Basics

Gut Health 101: Digestive Health Basics

Gut Health 101: Digestive Health Basics

By: Maude Morin, Registered Dietitian, Reviewed & Edited by JM Nutrition Team


In this post:


  • Gut health 101
  • Overview of the digestive system and its functions

  • Diet and lifestyle basics for good gut health

  • Effects of certain foods on the digestive system

  • Troubleshooting common digestive issues


In the post Gut Health 101, JM Nutrition’s registered dietitian, Maude Morin, examines the basics of digestive health for those suffering from digestive distress. Because the journey to the root cause begins with a single step, it is important to address these fundamentals.  


Gut Health 101: The Basics of Digestive Health

Why is it important to have good digestive processes? Let’s take a closer look.

Primary Roles and Benefits of the Digestive System

The digestive system has a number of primary roles and benefits. These include:

  • Ensures adequate absorption of nutrients from food.
  • Maintains energy levels.
  • Supports the immune system.
  • Promotes mental health.

The digestive system also has additional jobs and benefits that we cannot overlook. These are:

  • Waste removal
  • Skin health
  • Maintenance of a healthy weight
  • Production of neurotransmitters or chemical messengers

These functions are not only significant but indispensable to the overall health and well-being of every person. 

Related: How Long Does It Take To Digest Food?


The Organs of the Digestive System

1. The Mouth

Digestion begins in the mouth. Mechanical digestion, otherwise known as chewing, and mixing food with saliva and enzymes are the first steps in digestion.

Function: Chewing breaks down food to prepare it for the stomach.

How do you know if you’ve chewed food enough?

Saliva moistens food for easier swallowing. It also contains the enzyme amylase, which starts to break down carbohydrates.

Eating too quickly, and not chewing food properly is a huge contributing factor to bloating. Chew food to mush, or consistency of applesauce.


2. The Esophagus  

Essentially, the esophagus connects the mouth to the stomach. It has a strong sphincter at the bottom that prevents acid reflux. Heartburn is an irritation at this connection, when acid comes up the esophagus. 


3. The Stomach

Overview of the stomach and its functions:

  • The stomach is an acidic environment.
  • It’s also a strong muscle that churns food.
  • Stomach cells release digestive enzymes into the mix.
  • Intrinsic factor (This is a special protein released by the stomach lining that helps you to absorb vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 must be broken away from the proteins to which it is bound. A deficiency in intrinsic factor, low stomach acid, or taking antacid medications can cause low blood B12 levels. This is arguably the stomach’s most important job!)
  • Furthermore, the stomach physically expands and communicates fullness to the brain.

The stomach is a fascinating digestive system organ. It can expand to hold up to 4L of foods and fluids. That’s 75x more volume than your stomach empty and at rest. Just because it can, doesn’t mean it should, as this can be quite uncomfortable. 

Supporting Organs and Their Functions:

a) Liver:

  • The liver is responsible for bile production. 

b) Pancreas:

  • Digestive enzymes.
  • Hunger-regulating hormones.

c) Gallbladder:

  • Bile storage and release into the small intestine.


4. Small Intestine

The primary role of the small intestine is the absorption of nutrients and some fluids. The bacteria in the small intestine produce digestive enzymes. The small intestine is where the breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins and fats takes place.


5. Large Intestine

Overview of the large intestine and its functions:

  • It is here that the bacteria further breakdown food.
  • Vitamin K is produced.
  • Water is also reabsorbed to form stools.
  • In addition, gas is produced.


6. Enteric Nervous System

Overview of the enteric nervous system and its functions:

  • Essentially, the enteric nervous system is the “nervous system of the intestinal tract”.
  • It also controls the movement of foods and fluids through the gut.
  • Additionally, it regulates production and release of some digestive hormones and enzymes.


7. Vagus Nerve

Overview of the vagus nerve and its functions:

  • The vagus nerve is the main connection between the enteric nervous system and the brain.
  • It’s responsible for digestion, including saliva production and taste.
  • The vagus nerve is also involved in regulating mood. 


Gut Health 101: Nutrition and Gut Health

1. Nutritional Basics for Good Gut Health

No gut health 101 post would be complete without touching upon these digestive health basics and simple tips:

  • Eat enough fruits and vegetables.
  • Include plant-based proteins.
  • Choose whole grains most often. 

Next we need to address dietary fibres as they play an important role in digestion. 


2. Dietary Fibres

There are 2 types of fibre: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fibre and its functions:

  • Soluble fibre absorbs water and forms a gel-like matrix.
  • It also helps eliminate fats and hormones.
  • Additionally, soluble fibre prevents both constipation and diarrhea.

Insoluble fibre and its functions:

  • Insoluble fibres are indigestible fibres from produce and grains.
  • Insoluble fibre also forms the bulk of bowel movements.
  • In addition, it can be fermented by our gut microbes.

What protocol should you follow?

We strongly recommend following the balanced plate model as often as possible. 

Food sources of soluble fibre:
  • avocado
  • sweet potato
  • Brussels sprouts
  • oats
  • black, kidney and lima beans
  • citrus fruits
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • apples
  • guavas


Food sources of insoluble fibre:
  • wheat bran
  • green beans
  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • kale
  • legumes
  • grapes
  • kiwi
  • strawberries
  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • quinoa
  • peanuts
  • almond
  • pumpkin seeds

Dietary fibre daily recommended intake

The current adult recommendations for dietary fibre is 21-38 grams per day. It’s important to include a mix of soluble and insoluble, and aim for at least 10 grams of soluble fibre per day.


3. The Gut Microbiome

Overview of the gut microbiome and its functions:

  • The gut microbiome has both healthful and harmful bacteria.
  • Insufficient healthful or overall bacteria can be referred to as dysbiosis.
  • The gut microbiome is shaped by your delivery at birth, diet as an infant, diet as an adult, and history with antibiotics.
  • It is also affected by the water you drink. This is why we sometimes have digestive distress with safe water in foreign countries, as even non-harmful gut-microbes can stir things up.

Does sugar play a role here?

Sugar is thought to disrupt the balance of good bacteria to harmful bacteria. It could also affect overall immunity. In addition, reducing sugar in the diet could potentially help reduce the risk of developing IBD and digestive cancers. That said, however, we don’t have definitive evidence as there’s still a good deal about the gut microbiome that we don’t know. 


4. Digestive Health Basics: Prebiotics & Probiotics

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are dietary fibres that fuel gut microbes. 

Learn more about prebiotics.

Prebiotics Foods

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Apples
  • Cocoa 
  • And more

What are probiotics?

Probiotics, on the other hand, are healthful, living gut microbes that help your digestive system function optimally. 

Learn more about probiotics.

Probiotics Foods

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Yogurt
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • And more

What protocol should you follow?

We strongly encourage you to include fermented foods daily. 


Gut Health 101: Lifestyle Basics For Good Gut Health

1. Hydration

Hydration plays an important role in gut health, so it cannot be overlooked. As such, it’s no doubt one of the crucial digestive health basics.

Roles of hydration:

  • Hydration is an important part of gastric juices.
  • It also helps with nutrient absorption.
  • Additionally, it softens stool to prevent constipation. 

What protocol should you follow?

Ensure you meet your daily recommended fluid intake needs: Men: 3.7L (~15.5 cups) and Women: 2.7L (~11.5 cups). 

Learn more about the importance of drinking water


2. Physical Activity

When it comes to Gut Health 101, physical activity is sometimes overlooked. Nevertheless, it is a crucial component of digestive health. 

Roles of physical activity:

  • Physical activity improves motility.
  • It also moves gases through the gut.
  • And stronger pelvic floor muscles. 

What protocol should you follow?

Because we cannot underestimate the importance of exercise, we encourage you to add gentle movement to your daily routine. For example, walk 15-20 minutes or do 30 minutes of yoga. 


3. Stress Management

A digestive health basics would not be complete if we didn’t mention stress management. Stress can and does affect every aspect of our lives.

Learn more about the connection between nutrition and stress.

Stress also plays an integral role in gut health.

Roles of stress management:

  • It prevents stress-induced irritable bowel symptoms. Learn more about IBS management.
  • Effective stress management reduces likelihood of heartburn and indigestion.
  • It’s also important in preventing overeating. 

What protocol should you follow?

Be intentional about stress reduction. For example, conduct 3-5 minutes of deep belly breathing, spend time in nature, exercise, meditation, and more. 


4. Reduce or eliminate alcohol, caffeine and smoking

Unquestionably, these are three critical digestive health basics.

Why reduce alcohol?

  • Alcohol can cause heartburn via delayed stomach emptying.
  • It can also damage stomach cells.
  • In addition, it accelerates intestinal transit. Rapid transit time leads to poor nutrient and fluid absorption by the gut.

Why reduce caffeine?

  • Caffeine stimulates intestinal muscles to contract.
  • It can also lead to loose stools.

Why reduce smoking cigarettes?

  • Smoking is a leading risk factor for GERD. Learn more about GERD management with a dietitian.
  • It also poses an increased risk of developing Crohn’s Disease. Learn more about working with a dietitian for Crohn’s.
  • In addition, it leads to an increased risk of developing stomach ulcers.


5. Toilet Habits

What do normal toilet habits look like?

Simply put, you can keep a healthy bowel with these actions:

What protocol should you follow?

To ensure correct bowel movement position follow the squatty potty position, elbows to knees and lean forward. It’s as simple as that. 

Related: What Kind of Poop Do I Have?


Gut Health 101: Common Digestive Health Problems

As digestive health dietitians, we hear a wide variety of digestive distress complaints. Below are just a handful of them.

  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

Let’s now to turn to some fundamental troubleshooting tips and strategies for digestively “healthy” individuals. 


Digestive Health Basics: Troubleshooting Digestive Problems

1. Heartburn

Potential Causes:

  • Very high fat foods
  • Lying down while eating or right after eating
  • Alcohol or coffee on an empty stomach
  • Too many acidic foods
  • Too long between meals

Simple Solutions:

  • Eat slowly, in an upright position
  • Note any triggers for you and reduce these
  • Limit fried foods
  • Talk to your care team about antacids or natural remedies 


2. Indigestion

Potential Causes:

  • Too much coffee or alcohol
  • Eating too quickly
  • High stress levels
  • Spicy and greasy foods
  • Antibiotic treatments
  • Digestive problems 

Simple Solutions:

  • A more active lifestyle
  • Smaller, more frequent meals
  • Manage stress well
  • Ginger tea (fresh is best)
  • Avoid trigger foods 


3. Bloating

Potential Causes:

  • Too many gas-forming foods
  • Eating too quickly
  • Constipation
  • Stress
  • Smoothies 

Simple Solutions:

  • Chew thoroughly
  • Sip smoothies slowly
  • Reduce your intake of gas-forming foods such as insoluble fibres
  • Go for a walk


4. Gas

Potential Causes:

  • Swallowing too much air
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Too many gas-forming foods
  • Constipation
  • Adding fibre too quickly

Simple Solutions:

  • Chew slowly, with mouth closed
  • Limit bubbly drinks
  • Avoid overeating at meal times
  • Abdominal massage and wind-relieving yoga poses
  • Try Beano (digestive enzyme) 

What are some gas-forming foods? 

Gas-forming foods include: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans and lentils, Brussels sprouts, onions, garlic, potentially dairy and others.

Learn more about gas-forming foods.


5. Soft Stools

Potential Causes:

  • Diet rich in polyols
  • Too many diet (no sugar) snacks or drinks
  • Too much coffee or caffeine
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Magnesium supplements

Simple Solutions:

  • Be mindful of sugar alcohols on labels and in foods
  • Reduce your caffeine intake
  • Increase soluble fibre intake (psyllium, flax or chia)
  • Assess vitamin & mineral supplements


6. Constipation or Hard Stools

Potential Causes:

  • Not enough water
  • Sedentary behaviour
  • High insoluble fibre
  • Stress
  • Travel
  • Iron supplements
  • Keto diet

Related: Pros and Cons of the Keto Diet

Simple Solutions:

  • Hydrate properly
  • Go for a walk to stimulate bowel
  • Consider polyol-rich foods (prunes, pears or their juice)
  • Soluble fibre (psyllium, flax or chia) 



There you have it: Gut Health 101, in a nutshell. We hope that this is a good starting place for those looking to discover more about digestive health basics and troubleshooting common digestive problems. For a personalized nutritional assessment with a digestive health dietitian, book a free consultation or contact us for an appointment


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Maude Morin is a registered dietitian who provides nutritional counselling in a wide variety of areas, including IBS support, SIBO management, FODMAP elimination diets, GERD management, Crohn’s Disease and more.

JM Nutrition’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2021 & 2022 and one of the Top Canadian Nutrition Blogs by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe below to both the newsletter that includes latest blog posts. 

JM Nutrition is a nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with locations across Ontario and Nova Scotia.