From a young age, we’re taught to always eat our fruits and vegetables. Packed with the vital nutrients that your body depends on to function properly, the research is clear: integrating whole, healthy foods into your diet on a regular basis can seriously benefit your well-being.
But even if you eat all the right things and take your vitamins religiously, you might not feel any healthier if these nutrients aren’t being properly absorbed by your body. And, did you know that there are specific factors that could be negatively influencing your nutrient absorption?
It’s true. Everything from your age, diet, stress levels, and even your gut bacteria can affect the amount of vitamins and minerals that your body actually absorbs.
In fact, a recent study from the Washington University School of Medicine indicates that gut bacteria may play a larger role than we initially thought in our body’s ability to be well-nourished. This study fed two groups of mice the same healthy diet. Group A was given the gut bacteria of malnourished children and Group B that of healthy children. The mice with the subpar bacteria had significant growth and development issues, including size, body mass, and skeletal features. The conclusion, even with an excellent diet, the right bacteria is necessary for proper nutrition and growth.
But how exactly does nutrient absorption work?
Digestive bacteria and enzymes work to breakdown your food (and other things you consume) into molecules. The majority of these molecules travel into your upper small intestine, where they enter the bloodstream and make their way throughout your body to benefit you as a whole.
Keeping an eye on nutrient absorption is important because:
Nutrient absorption can vary. The amount of nutrients that your body absorbs (from food) can range from 10% to 90%. Because your body depends on scores of nutrients to function at an an optimal level, making sure that you’re absorbing nutrients properly is a key influencer when it comes to overall well-being. And when you’re not absorbing nutrients properly over a prolonged period of time, you’ll definitely begin to notice and it may not be pretty.
Labels don’t give you the full story. Food labels are great, and you should read them carefully as often as you can, but they don’t always tell the whole story about the nutrition facts associated with the food you’re eating.
Sometimes the serving sizes are not applicable to your diet, or the way the data is compiled might not accurately reflect what you’re eating at that moment.
For example, although bananas are said (in some literature) to have 422 mg of potassium, that number may actually be an average based on 14 different banana samples, which had a range of potassium between 364 mg and 502 mg. Paired with the modern lifestyle, it’s not exactly crystal clear how to tell how much you’re absorbing (or should expect to absorb) at a given meal.
Basically, unless you are a scientist with an advanced lab in your home, figuring out the exact amount of nutrient absorption that takes place in our bodies can be quite the guessing game.
The good news is that even if there aren’t exact figures for the amount of nutrients your body absorbs, there are steps you can take to take charge and optimize nutrient absorption from the foods you’re eating.
Here are a few areas where you can make some conscious shifts to make sure you’re getting the most from your daily intake.
Consider Your Lifestyle
We live in stressful, modern times and there are certain aspects of our lifestyles that can have detrimental effects on our ability to absorb dietary nutrients. Take control where you can by eating a whole food, high-fiber diet, avoiding harmful substances, and exercising regularly.
Exercise is an excellent way to de-stress which is crucial in many ways. When you’re stressed, changes in the levels of your circulating hormones tend to fluctuate which can directly affect your metabolism, nutritional balance, and even mental clarity.
If you regularly consume alcohol, caffeine, and/or tobacco products - you might consider eating your meals/taking your supplements at least 4 hours from the time you indulge in your recreational activities. These specific elements tend to decrease the absorption of nutrients by stirring up temporary inflammation of the intestinal lining, negatively impacting digestive enzymes and more.
Keep in mind that while there are some lifestyle factors that can play a major role in nutrient absorption, you don’t have to overhaul your life overnight! You can make subtle shifts in your daily routine to help encourage an overall healthy lifestyle and more positively impact nutrition.
Experiment with taking an evening walk after work, getting outdoors more often or consuming foods like raspberries or asparagus which have been shown to reduce cortisol levels (that pesky stress hormone), and even make your skin glow.
Try Food Combining
While we won’t dive into all of the amazingly healthy whole foods you should be eating that grow directly from the ground (there are so many), there are things you can do improve the way your body extracts nutrients from those nutritious goodies that you choose to add to your diet.
According to board-certified, licensed nutritionist and a professionally-trained chef Monica Reinagel, strategically combining certain foods can actually influence how effectively your body is absorbing the nutrients.
Did you know eating raw or partially cooked vegetables with healthy fats like olive oil or avocado can enhance the absorption of fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E, and K? Food combining is a great way to streamline the digestive process and ensure you’re efficiently and effectively getting what you need from the foods you’re eating.
Additionally, as vegetables are cooked, they can lose nutrients, and blending or juicing can actually make some nutrients more bioavailable and easy to absorb.
Have a Gut Check
Without a doubt, your gut health is at the helm when it comes to how your body absorbs nutrients. Your gut environment is home to 100 trillion bacteria (about three pounds worth) living within and comprising your intestinal tract. Although you might feel alarmed when you hear that you have such a gigantic amount of bacteria living within you, the majority of it truly works on your behalf - keeping you well and keeping the bad guys at bay.
With more than 80% of the human immune system cells living within the intestines, naturally-occurring gut microflora have a direct effect on your immune response and play an integral role in how you feel each day. While we’re still learning more about the bacteria that reside in the gut, we do know that gut flora are implicated in a variety of human functions from the the way we metabolize medicine to how we synthesize micronutrients from our food.
Mounting evidence suggests that gut microorganisms also play a crucial role in the harvest, storage and output of energy obtained from what we consume each day.
According to researchers at Southern Illinois University, your colon hosts about one billion bacteria per gram of stool. The majority of these bacteria are members of several helpful genera including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These bacteria help stimulate digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.
Unfortunately, our beneficial microbes are under daily attack from things like the overuse of antimicrobials and antibiotics, frequent consumption of processed and unhealthy foods, exposure to toxins in our environment and other lifestyle habits. While we often go the extra mile to ensure we’re protected from microbial threats, many of our modern choices can wipe out the beneficial bacteria necessary for prolonged health and wellness.
A high quality probiotic supplement like Hyperbiotics PRO-15 can help populate the beneficial bacteria that’s naturally found in the gut, supporting digestive and immune health but also helping to ensure that your body is properly absorbing the nutrients it’s extracting from your food.
Proper nutrient absorption will maximize the impact of any vitamins, supplements and even medications you’re taking - which will save you money and may even allow you to decrease the dosage! In short, probiotics are one of the best supplements you can take to make sure all of the other beneficial foods and supplements in your life are effective.
Since your health scenario is unique and personal to you and your lifestyle, it's key to reflect on your overall picture and begin making improvements where you see fit. By limiting your stress levels, taking excellent care of your system, maintaining a wholesome diet high in plant-based foods and supplementing with a high quality probiotic, you can improve your nutrient absorption and set your body on a path to optimal health and wellness.
Julie Hays is the Communications Director here at Hyperbiotics. Health writer and mama of two little girls, Julie's on a mission to empower others to live lives free of the microbial depletion many of us face today. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.