Yes, your gut is glorious, and you want to keep it that way. One way to enhance your digestive health is to get more fiber in your diet.
Fiber is a natural, healthy carbohydrate. When you look at nutrition labels, you may see fiber labeled as soluble or insoluble. Soluble fiber (found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, peas and some fruits and vegetables) absorbs water, which transforms it into a gel-like substance that slows digestion. In contrast, insoluble fiber speeds digestion by adding bulk to the stool; it's found in whole grains, wheat bran and some types of vegetables. It also feeds the good kind of bacteria in your colon to produce short chain fatty acids, one of which is butyrate.
Most plants (which is where fiber comes from) have both types, and both types of fiber are healthy. A fiber-rich diet makes you feel full faster, so it helps you maintain a healthy weight. It's also been linked with easier weight loss and lower risk of diabetes.
Fiber helps reduce your risk of colon cancer. People who eat a lot of fiber had a 35 percent lower risk of colon cancer, according to the four-year U.S. Polyp Prevention Trial. Researchers believe the reduced cancer risk is because fiber moves food more quickly through the digestive system, minimizing cellular exposure to potential carcinogens as it removes waste more efficiently.
"Another cancer-fighting benefit linked to fiber consumption is production of a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, created when bacteria in the colon break down fiber," said Merin Kinikini, Intermountain Medical Center Nurse Practitioner. "Butyrate protects against growth of tumors of the colon and rectum and also helps control inflammation in the gut; a symptom that increases the risk of developing colon cancer by about 500 times."
Fiber lowers breast cancer risk - particularly when young women eat a fiber-rich diet. Scientists have long been aware that eating plenty of fiber helps lower women's risk of developing breast cancer, in part by binding to estrogen; a hormone known to cause breast cancer developments. Additionally, a recent study from Harvard found that the risk of breast cancer goes down by 13 percent for every additional 10 grams of dietary fiber eaten daily by women in adolescence and young adulthood.
Fiber helps you breathe easier - and helps lower your risk of developing lung cancer. "Fiber also promotes lung health in several important ways, including reduction of inflammation and promoting healthy levels of gut bacteria," said Kinikini. "It improves lung health overall, as well as promotes respiratory function and reduces risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease."
Eating plenty of fiber during pregnancy helps protect your child from asthma. Inflammation and healthy gut bacteria help during pregnancy, too. A new study found lower rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses in the first years of life in the offspring of women who ate healthy amounts of dietary fiber. (Plus, many pregnant women complain about constipation and fiber helps with that, too!)
Fiber promotes heart health - and lowers the risk of a second cardiac event in patients who've already had a heart attack. The anti-inflammatory benefits of eating fiber are good for the heart too - both in keeping a strong heart healthy and in improving health after a heart attack. Researchers have found eating fiber from cereal reduced risk of death in the nine years following a heart attack by 25 percent, with higher survival linked to higher rates of dietary fiber from cereal.
Though this is far from a complete list of the health benefits of eating fiber, we thought sleep might be a good one to end with - given that research reports 30 percent of Americans are sleep-deprived.
Fiber helps you sleep more deeply! A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine compared the effects of different foods on slow-wave sleep (also called deep sleep). They found when study participants ate the recommended diet, which included high-fiber foods low in saturated fat and sugar, they fell asleep faster and had longer periods of deeply restful sleep.
So, there you have it. A healthy amount of fiber in your diet is a no-brainer!