By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Digestive health plays a major role in our overall state of health. As we learn more about inflammation, we better understand the interconnectedness of our various bodily systems…
Our hearts and guts are closely affiliated, especially when manifesting symptoms of disease. Such a link may explain why consuming plenty of fiber and water, and exercising regularly are some essential lifestyle practices which significant impact cardiovascular, as well as, digestive health.
The alimentary canal, the 30 foot tube or digestive system, begins at the mouth and ends at the rectum. From our forks or spoons, we start digesting our foods of choice while they’re still in our mouths, as chewing stimulates the flow of saliva and the secretion of gastric juices. The food is further broken down by enzymes, acids, and bacteria in our stomachs, as well as in our small and large intestines, until what is used and unused is finally eliminated at the very end.
The rate at which food travels from our mouths through our digestive tracts, or transit time, can impact our health. While 30 hours is generally a healthy transit time, those who suffer from constipation often wait 48 hours or more before eliminating waste from their bodies. Food that sits in the digestive tract for a long time becomes more difficult to expel, and can result in the accumulation of toxins, harmful bacteria, and carcinogens. The faster we digest food and expel waste products, the healthier we are, as elimination is a major detoxification pathway. With a longer transit time, carcinogens can form as the result of bacterial and chemical activity in the bowel; excessive proteins can putrefy in the gut and too many carbs will ferment.
So how do we get food through us within a healthy transit time? Plenty of fiber, water, and exercise. “Eating our hearts out” can actually improve our health when it comes to a high-fiber, low-glycemic foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, which are low-calorie, nutrient-rich, and cleansing.
What are Low-Glycemic Foods?
Low glycemic foods are those that our bodies require less insulin to digest. As such, eating them helps prevent excess insulin release which, when chronic, can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity. Generally, low glycemic foods are still in their natural states by the time they reach our plates (think “roughage”), and may include most fresh vegetables and many fresh fruits, whole grains such as oats, quinoa, bran, and barley, and nuts. High glycemic foods, which have high concentrations of sugar and require more insulin to digest, are generally processed, and include candies, breads (especially white bread), bagels, pasta, pastries, and alcohol, to name a few.
What About High Fiber?
Fiber is more than the all-bran cereal that’s been sitting in the cabinet for longer than you can remember. Complex carbohydrates, which usually have low-to-moderate glycemic indexes, are great sources of fiber, and include whole grains, nuts, seeds, and especially fresh fruits and vegetables, and legumes. Fiber is the part of plant foods that passes through our systems unchanged because we lack the necessary enzymes to digest it.
Although fiber can be soluble or insoluble, most complex carbohydrates contain both kinds. Insoluble fiber, found in most fruits and vegetables, slows the rate of digestion while increasing the speed of transit through the intestines. Insoluble fiber is essentially the supportive skeleton of plants, and may be referred to as cellulose, heavy cellulose, and lignin. Soluble fiber, which comprises the intercellular cement of plants, includes pectins, gums, and mucilages. Soluble fiber promotes health by inhibiting cholesterol and LDL absorption, as well as reducing blood glucose levels.
Fiber and water walk hand-in-hand for health. Fiber soaks up water and expands, and helps muscles in the intestinal walls contract by providing substance and texture. In addition to softening stool, fiber acts as a natural laxative. As such, drinking plenty of water and eating a high-fiber diet can help us eliminate toxins, reduce inflammation and cholesterol, enhance mineral absorption, and nourish beneficial bacteria in our intestines.
Looking Deeper for Symptoms of Disease
As I mentioned earlier, a high-glycemic diet can lead to insulin resistance, then diabetes and obesity, and possibly subsequent cardiovascular problems. A lack of fiber coupled with a high-glycemic diet increases risk of disease by allowing toxins to accumulate in the bowels and cause inflammation.
Consider this: during autopsies, coroners often discover colons that are almost 80% congested with fecal matter. As one of the major detoxification pathways in the body, the intestines need to keep waste matter moving through. Inflammation and toxicity of the bowel are linked with colon ailments such as abdominal pain, bloating, inflammatory bowel disease, divertoculitis, and even colon cancer. Additionally, inflammation generates a cycle of immune response which can cause inflammatory mediators and other toxic chemicals to travel from the bowel through the bloodstream to affect other parts of the body, such as the heart.
Most conventionally educated cardiologists simply aren’t trained to look for a connection between the heart and the digestive tract. If a patient’s heartbeat is irregular, or skips every third or fourth beat, a cardiologist probably will perform an echocardiogram, test blood and check the patient’s thyroid. However, in the absence of obesity or diabetes, the physician may overlook diet as a cause of an irregular heartbeat.
I first noticed the connection between an irregular heartbeat and irritable bowel symptoms such as constipation and excess gas in one of my patients; when this patient stopped eating particular foods that caused digestive issues, his heart condition improved. Also, many of my elderly heart patients voiced concerns about constipation, leading me to believe that prevention of constipation through lifestyle modification could also benefit the heart. When these patients switched to a high-fiber diet and added physical activity to their daily routines, the constipation problems abated along with the many symptoms of their heart disease, such as fatigue, angina, and shortness of breath. When I added water to the protocol, I saw even better results among these patients.
High-Fiber Health Benefits
There are many cardiovascular health benefits associated with a high-fiber diet. Consumption of dietary fiber has been correlated with lesser occurrences of stroke and ischemic heart disease in studies. Other studies have demonstrated lower incidence of coronary artery disease, colorectal cancer, diverticulosis, gallbladder disease, high cholesterol, and constipation in populations which consume mostly high fiber diets, such as those in some African nations who eat mostly roots, yams, corn, rice, and other grains.
Conversely, researchers have discovered that people who consume the traditional Western diet high in meats, animal fats, sugars and other simple carbohydrates experience greater incidence of the abovementioned ailments. We have learned that adding a regular excess of high-glycemic foods to that mix leads to diabetes, gallstones, hernia, and obesity. We also know that a high-fat diet can increase the risk of colon cancer, while a high-fiber diet can lower that risk. In this fast food age, where convenience and cost factor into our choices, we need to know how to make the best choices about what we eat.
Eating meat and other animal products is not an across-the-board bad habit, as many animal proteins contain essential nutrients such as coenzyme Q10 and carnitine that are difficult to obtain elsewhere. Excessive meat, fat, and sugar consumption, however, can trigger inflammation, and are especially dangerous in the absence of fiber to help reduce inflammation. In generating cyclic immune response, chronic inflammation can lead to the migration of inflammatory mediators and other toxic chemicals; from the intestines they may travel through the bloodstream to affect other parts of the body, such as the heart.
Sinatra Solution for the Digestive Tract
Consuming plenty of high-fiber foods, especially to accompany the “problem foods,” can help reduce inflammation and prevent associated health complications. Plus, more high-fiber foods eaten means less appetite left for unhealthy goodies. Eating low-glycemic, high-fiber foods is also a great way to achieve a healthy weight. These foods improve blood sugar levels by providing a continuous supply of energy, as opposed to a quick energy burst obtained from sugar, and are generally low calorie.
Most people in the U.S. who eat either a “meat and potatoes” diet or fast food regularly are probably fiber deficient. Consuming 20-30 grams of fiber per day, especially with plenty of water, can help reduce inflammation associated with digestive conditions and diseases. Adding regular, moderate exercise to the mix will also facilitate bowel movements in addition to improving cardiovascular health and overall well being.
I generally recommend ingesting more than 40 grams of fiber per day for optimum health. To get 20+ grams at breakfast alone, try enhancing steel cut or coarse oatmeal with plenty of fresh, organic blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries. Add to that bowl one tablespoon of chia seed or ground flaxseed and one teaspoon of chopped walnuts and/or sunflower, pumpkin, or sesame seeds.
As we live in a world of convenience which seems to have not yet caught up with the natural foods movement, eating healthy can often prove challenging. It’s never all or nothing; some steps toward health are always better than none. Bringing (and eating) fresh fruits and veggie snacks to work, for example, can help balance the cheeseburgers we might eat for lunch if we don’t have time to prepare and bring healthier foods. Choosing Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or Vietnamese cuisines over fast food also affords us more options, as those cuisines generally offer many dishes full of high-fiber, low-glycemic vegetables. Avoid the spare ribs, egg rolls, and chicken fingers, though.
By giving up some convenience, like taking the stairs rather than the elevator or parking the car further away from work (if not walking there) we give ourselves the added exercise without even thinking about it. Thinking about changes we can make in everyday life can help us get on paths toward health without giving up everything we know and enjoy.
For more information, read The Healing Kitchen, Reverse Heart Disease Now, Lower Your Blood Pressure in Eight Weeks, and Optimum Health: A Lifesaving Prescription for Your Body and Mind.
Additional References and Resources:
- Glycemic Index of Foods Web Site
- Mozzafarian D, et al. Cereal, Fruit, and Vegetable Fiber Intake and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Elderly Individuals. JAMA. 2003;289:1659-1666.
- National Cancer Institute Web site
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