Digestive issues are some of the most common health complaints out there. Gas, bloating, cramping, abdominal distension, acid reflux, fatigue, food allergies, constipation, diarrhea, the list goes on. Stomach acid blockers and over-the-counter stomach acid neutralizers are some of the biggest money makers for the pharmaceutical industry. Digestive issues can be debilitating. I know, I’ve been there.
Proper digestion is critical for overall health and wellness. One of Hippocrates’ most well known quotes is “all disease begins in the gut”. There is a lot of truth to this statement.
Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food, which is ultimately used to provide energy and nutrients to every single cell in our bodies. If there are compromises in this breakdown process the vitality of the body will be negatively impacted, possibly resulting in disease if not addressed.
When you were little some parental figure probably told you that “you are what you eat” in order to get you to eat something healthy. Well, in reality, you are what you absorb. Yes, eating a nutrient-dense, properly-prepared, whole foods diet is half the battle, but the other half is making sure your body is actually absorbing the nutrients that you are ingesting. You could be eating the healthiest diet out there, but without optimal digestion, you may not be getting adequate levels of vital nutrients. Luckily, there are a few simple things all of us can do today to improve our digestion.
Stop and take a moment before you eat. Look at your food, smell it, take in the sight of it. You will notice that this experience will cause you to begin salivating. The process of digestion actually begins in the brain when we take in the site and smell of our food. The brain triggers the salivary glands to start producing saliva and notifies the stomach that food will be coming shortly.
Take five deep breaths before eating. Our autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts, the sympathetic nervous system, known as “fight or flight”, and parasympathetic nervous system, which is known as “rest and digest”. We cannot digest food properly unless we are in a parasympathetic state. So take some time to ensure that you are calm and relaxed prior to your meal. Don’t eat in the car in traffic, don’t shove food in your mouth as you run out the door, don’t eat on the run, and don’t just shove food in your mouth as you scroll on Facebook. Relax and enjoy your meal.
Chew your food thoroughly. As I mentioned before, digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food. Chewing is the mechanical piece of that definition. The chemical digestion that takes place in our stomach and small intestine will go a lot smoother if our food is broken down into mush before we swallow. Saliva also contains digestive enzymes. Salivary amylase is an enzyme in saliva that begins the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates cannot be properly broken down if salivary amylase is not allowed to do it’s job first.
Don’t be scared of stomach acid. An acidic environment in the stomach is necessary for proper digestion and for the chemical breakdown of proteins. It also helps to kill any unwanted bacteria that may have gotten into the body via our food. Our stomachs should have a pH of 1.5-3, which is extremely acidic. The entire cascade of digestion that happens after our food leaves the stomach is dependent on this acidity. If you have acid reflux issues, it is most likely because you have too little stomach acid, but that is another post for another day. Bottom line is respect the acid of your stomach and don’t neutralize it with medication, you aren’t doing your body any favors.
Make sure you eat plenty of healthy fats. This includes saturated fats from butter and grass fed beef, pasture-raised chickens (with the skin!), olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, and fatty cold water fish such as salmon (to name a few examples). Our livers produce bile, which is stored in the gallbladder and released during digestion. Bile is necessary for proper breakdown of fats, which are critical to the health of all of our cells. Low-fat diets do not stimulate the release of bile, which causes it to get old and viscous. The gallbladder tries to contract but is unable to release viscous bile. If there is no bile, fats will not be properly digested and absorbed.
If you struggle with digestive issues, taking these five tips into account every time you eat may make a big difference in how you digest and absorb food, and how you feel afterwards.