Our Registered Dietitians field all sorts of questions about nutrition, but one area they hear a lot of confusion around is the role hormones play in digestion.
Nutrition can be confusing.
It’s definitely a science, but applying the basic principles to your own unique situation can feel more like an art. And once you move beyond the 101-level concepts, like eating plenty of plants and staying hydrated, it gets harder to recognize misleading information or one-off anecdotes presented as proof. This is particularly true when delving into elements of nutrition you can’t see, like digestion, and in particular, the role hormones play in it.
Both digestion and hormones are — for better or worse — having a moment in the wellness influencer online ecosystem right now. You know all those Instagram posts that claim to reveal the miracle cure for bloating — which apparently is now supposed to be every health-conscious individual’s number one concern? Some of them are incredibly convincing, so it can be tricky for even well-informed people to separate the snake oil from the safe and sane salves.
But never fear! Our team of stellar Registered Dietitians put together this quick run-down, so that next time that weird disembodied TikTok voice yells “nobody is talking about this digestion hack” at you, you can scroll past with confidence.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical substances produced by endocrine cells. Once they’re released, hormones hit the bloodstream and are transported to where they’ll get to action.
And how do hormones affect my digestion?
Gut-specific hormones work as a part of the gut’s extensive nervous system (known as the “enteric nervous system”) and play a role in appetite control, digestion, the regulation of energy balance, and maintaining blood glucose levels.
Via hormones, the gut continuously lets your brain know about the quality and quantity of the food that you’ve consumed.
Some hormones act directly on the gut.
Ghrelin tells the brain that the body has to be fed by ramping up appetite.
Meanwhile, gastrin stimulates secretion of gastric juice in the stomach as a response to the presence of food, stimulating digestion.
Other hormones, like sex hormones, also factor into digestion.
Estrogen and progesterone can impact gastrointestinal tract motility (how well food moves through your gastrointestinal tract), which may cause common — and commonly discussed — issues like bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
For instance, in menopausal women, reduced levels of estrogen and progesterone can lead to food traveling slower through the gut, predisposing them to constipation, gas and bloating. Other women, on the contrary, may experience diarrhea due to increased gastric motility.
And then there are stress hormones...
...like cortisol and serotonin. When we’re stressed, our brain sends signals for chemicals like these to be released, which can cause adverse reactions.
Cortisol causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. It's your natural “flight or fight” response that has kept humans alive for thousands of years. But if your cause of stress isn’t, say, a hungry bear, this response being triggered can just make you feel tense and on-edge.
Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood and contributes to feelings of well-being (there’s a reason it’s called the “happy” hormone). This hormone is produced in the gut and brain, and impacts your entire body. It also aids with sleeping, eating, and digestion.
Stress can negatively affect the digestive system in many ways:
It can cause a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach, resulting in cramping and disturbed digestion
It can result in an imbalance in the gut bacteria
It can lead to inflammation
Over time, these symptoms can develop into full-fledged GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), stomach ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Tips for better digestion
There isn’t an instant and magical solution for digestive issues. Yup, sorry about that: no single food, tea, supplement or exercise regimen has been proven to ‘fix bloating’ or related symptoms. That’s hardly surprising, since the behavior of your digestive system is governed by such a complex interplay of different factors, including hormones. However, you can take action to give your digestive system the best chance of running smoothly. These four simple tips can help a lot.
1. Eat high-fiber foods
A diet rich in fiber is absolutely essential for proper digestion. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are the only sources of fiber in a diet, so including plenty of these is necessary to stay regular.
Probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, fermented vegetables, kimchi, and kombucha are important for laying the groundwork for the growth of a healthy gut microbiome. Prebiotic foods are also important as they feed the good bacteria already existing in the gut — learn all about high-fiber foods, prebiotic and probiotic foods here.
2. Stay hydrated
Fluid intake is crucial for proper digestion. Aim for eight eight-ounce cups daily (that’s 64 fluid ounces for those keeping score at home) and consume plenty of water-rich fruits and vegetables to help your digestive system work properly. Learn all about why hydration matters here.
3. Manage stress
We know, we know: easier said than done, right? But even within the most hectic schedules, there are several things you can do to reduce stress and improve gut health. (We wrote about a few here.) Practicing stress-management techniques such as these, staying physically active, socializing regularly, and getting enough rest can greatly minimize your levels of stress.
4. Move your body
Regular physical activity (nothing drastic - start with about 30 minutes of movement, five days per-week) can enhance bowel function and reduce bloating and gas. Any type of movement can be helpful for proper digestion, so even if the gym isn’t in the cards, aim for long walks, dancing, riding a bike, or any other activity you enjoy that involves a little movement.
Best smoothies for gut health
Looking to give your digestive system a helping hand? Our reds and spicy tomatoes smoothies each have 4g fiber per packet - more than you find in a cup of brown rice. corals, greens and reds all contain ginger - its anti-inflammatory properties may help to calm an upset stomach and soothe the digestive tract. Fruits and veggies particularly high in prebiotic fiber include raspberries, blueberries, bananas and apples - so look out for those smoothie ingredients if you want to feed your friendly bacteria! Each pack of kencko gumdrops also contains 3.5g of prebiotic fiber, derived from organic agave and chicory.