By Nicole Symons
Digestion isn’t the first thing we think of when we talk about nutrition. However, proper digestion is necessary for the absorption and use of nutrients found in foods. The digestive process is the link between the food we eat and that food becoming the fuel and building blocks for our bodies. If the process is not working optimally, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies, malfunction in the body, and disease.
How do you know if your digestion needs some support? Here are some signs: acid reflux or heartburn, burping, gas, bloating especially after eating, cramping in the stomach or abdomen, fatigue especially around or after meals, constipation, and diarrhea. There are also some less immediate symptoms of poor digestion, such as fat malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, skin issues, weight gain, inflammation, food cravings, and hormonal imbalances.
Below are a few basic steps you can take to improve your digestion. Most of these require very little work and can be done by everyone. If you can adapt all of these steps, great! If it’s too much all at once, just start with number 1 for one week and add a step each week.
Relax before eating
Our brains control a lot when it comes to eating food. Being calm and relaxed enables your nervous system to shift into a parasympathetic state (or a restful, relaxed, restorative state) which is optimal for digestion. If we are in a sympathetic state (fight or flight state) our bodies prioritize survival over digestion.
How to transition to a parasympathetic state and relax while eating:
Sit down while eating. Don’t eat at the countertop or in front of the fridge or pantry
Take a moment to take a few deep, relaxing breaths
Focus on the foods in front of you
Pay attention to the flavors and textures of what you are eating
Be thankful for the nourishment this food will provide to your body
Avoid driving, walking around, arguing, or working while eating. These things can keep your body in a stressed state and compromise the digestive process.
Chew your food
Chewing your food sends signals to your brain and then to your stomach to begin producing gastric juices (like stomach acid) in preparation for the food that is coming. By chewing your food you are also mixing it with saliva. Saliva moistens food, but it also contains enzymes that break down carbohydrates and begin the digestive process.
How to chew your food:
Chew your solids until they are nearly liquid in your mouth. Chewing only once or twice leaves our food in larger pieces. This shifts the burden of breaking down our food onto the stomach and the rest of the digestive system.
Chew any liquids that are not water. That includes smoothies or green drinks. A smoothie can be full of veggies, fruits and nuts, but if we aren’t chewing it we are not signaling our stomach to prepare for food. To help you chew your smoothies, include some crunchy ingredients or consume them with other foods. Of course, make sure to be sitting down and relaxing even when eating a smoothie.
Digestion requires a lot of water. The production of saliva, gastric juices, mucus membranes, bile and the elimination process all require water to work optimally. When we are in a constant state of dehydration we make the digestive process less efficient and we can become deficient in nutrients.
How to stay hydrated:
Drink half your body weight in ounces each day (up to 100 ounces). For example, a person who weighs 140 lb. needs to drink around 70 ounces of pure water per day. This number may increase depending on the number of diuretic beverage the person consumes and their activity levels, but this is a great place to start.
Drink most of your daily water between meals. Avoid drinking a lot of water or other beverages during a meal because it can dilute gastric juices making it harder to digest food.
Start your day by drinking a couple glasses of water first thing in the morning at least 30 minutes before you eat breakfast, that way you will be rehydrating your body from the previous night.
Avoid diuretic or dehydrating beverages, such as teas, coffee, juices, sodas and alcohol.
Support stomach acid production
We break down the majority of our protein in the stomach, and to do this we need stomach acid. Not only does stomach acid (or hydrochloric acid) digest our foods, it also protects our bodies by killing any parasites, bacteria, or pathogens trying to catch a ride on our food and enables the absorption of minerals and vitamins.
Here are a few easy ways to stimulate stomach acid production (please be aware that if you have stomach ulcers, things like apple cider vinegar may cause irritation and should be avoided):
Lemon juice in half a glass of lukewarm water before a meal
1-2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar diluted in a half glass of lukewarm water before a meal (you can also drink it straight)
Bitters. These are made from bitter herbs and plants and are used to naturally stimulate the production of saliva, gastric juices and bile.
Avoid processed foods, industrial seed oils, alcohol, smoking, dairy, refined sugars and refined flours. These can cause nutrient depletion, inflammation, and a weakening in the cellular structure, therefore disrupting digestion and our body’s production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
Improving your digestion, by focusing on these four steps, is a great place to start if you want to make some changes to your overall health.
These statements are not a replacement for medical advice. Nutritional Therapists do not diagnose, treat or cure diseases. A Nutritional Therapist may work alongside other healthcare professionals involved in the clients care to support overall health through dietary changes.