Bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort, IBS, and an uncomfortable sense of fullness are all far from optimal health. Yet many of us suffer from these on a daily basis and in some cases we are so familiar with those symptoms that we don’t realize just how bad they really are. What you may not know is that symptoms like food allergies, seasonal allergies, asthma, feeling shaky before meals, inflammation, pain in our bones/joints, chronic colds, and hormonal imbalances are all influenced by our digestive system and are exacerbated when our digestion is not optimal.
I know, because I’ve been there. I suffered these symptoms and was often in pain many times after meals; writing it off as just how I was “built”. I never even considered that there might be a relationship between my symptoms and the foods I ate. That was until about two years ago when I changed my diet – eating real food (no processed crap) – that I saw a big change in my digestion and overall health. My after meal symptoms started to get better and even go away!
“Digestion is incredibly important to our health! Every cell that makes up every tissue that makes up every organ, depends on the body’s digestive system to provide the nutrients it needs to keep on functioning.”
What is digestion?
Before we can truly understand and realize the impact that proper digestion has on our health, let’s get a little nerdy and break down the science of it.
Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food. The goal of digestion is to reduce food to molecules so small, that the nutrients can be absorbed and used by the cells.
The big three organs from a nutritional standpoint that are important to digestion are: the gallbladder, the pancreas and the stomach. Your GPS!
How does it work?
Digestion is a north to south process and it starts in the BRAIN!
When we see or smell food our brain receives the signal to begin the digestive process. Saliva production is also triggered at this time.
In our mouth, this is where we begin the chemical and mechanical breakdown of food. Your salivary glands produce an enzyme that begins digesting the carbohydrates from food into smaller molecules.
Swallowed food travels down the esophagus and into the stomach.
The stomach has three jobs: storing swallowed food and liquid; breaking down the food and liquid and mixing it with digestive juices (aka stomach acid); and emptying the contents into the small intestine.
Food passes from the stomach to the small intestine, which is where 90% of our nutrients are absorbed and passed into the blood stream for use across the body.
Anything that can’t be absorbed is passed to the large intestine. The large intestine captures any lost nutrients and converts them to vitamins and butyric acid. And it forms and expels the waste.
Three things that can go wrong
1.Not Chewing Your Food
If you don’t chew your food thoroughly, your brain does not get the signal to begin the digestive processes. When you swallow food in big chunks this places a burden on your stomach to work harder to break down your food.
Your stomach doesn’t have teeth so why make it do all the work?!
This might be familiar to those who eat while driving or who eat at their desk while working. When you eat and multi-task it’s likely you are not chewing your food thoroughly. We complicate digestion whenever we eat on the run or gulp down our food.
Slow down, savor your food and chew it up!
2.Not Enough Stomach Acid
If you don’t have enough stomach acid, your stomach will keep the food longer trying to break it down. As the food stays longer, carbs begin to ferment, proteins begin to putrefy and fats begin to rancidify. This causes bubbling, gas, and bloating.
And the worst of all, this maldigested food causes reflux back into the esophagus which creates the burning (aka heartburn) sensation.
If you want to know more about why low-stomach acid is the likely cause of heart burn, see The More You Know section.
All undigested food impacts the lining (the villi and microvilli) of the small intestine. The lining becomes leaky – selectivity as to what passes through the lining is lost. With that lost selectivity, you now have leaky gut syndrome.
This allows the undigested food to pass through the gut in inappropriate sizes, which overwhelms the immune system. This is how food allergies are developed! And, even more devastating you are not able to absorb the nutrients in the foods you are eating.
The More You Know
This book debunks the myth that the only way to treat heartburn or other symptoms of gastric upset is by suppressing acid secretion. It shares over a century’s worth of data that this isn’t so. What has come to be called “acid indigestion” is almost always associated, not with too much stomach acid, but with too little. In this book, you will also learn of a natural program that uses a variety of safe, natural, inexpensive substances that work with the body – not against it.
I would also suggest checking out the blog post, Why you want more stomach acid, not less from Diane Sanfilippo.
Tips to Improve Digestion
Digestion is the #1 place you should begin when looking to improve your health. Here are 10 tips that you can implement today that will improve your digestion and overall health.
- Reduce Stress. Digestion is a parasympathetic process meaning it is responsible for our bodies “rest and digest” function. We may all be more familiar with the counter process which is the sympathetic state or the “fight or flight” state. When in the “fight or flight” state, the body speeds up and becomes more alert. Our blood flow is focused on going to the heart, lungs, and muscles. Exactly where we would need it in order to escape an attacker. Functions that are not essential for survival (digestion) are shut down. When you eat on the run, stressed, trying to get to the next thing, you are setting yourself up for a poor digestive experience – bloating, excess fullness, etc. To induce a more “rest and digest” state try taking time for gratitude before your meal, sitting on the floor to eat (think Wednesday Picnic Day’s), or taking 5 deep breaths to relax. Check out my blog Everyone Needs a Happy Place for more information on the impact of stress and how to manage it.
- Chew Your Food. Chewing thoroughly will help any food digest. Saliva contains lots of enzymes that aid digestion. The more you chew the more your food will break down. Try putting your fork down after every bite. Have kids? Make a game out of it. See which food requires the most chews before it’s so small that you have to swallow it!
- Increase Stomach Acid. Heartburn, belching or gas, fatigue, headaches, and much more can all be a result of low stomach acid. Boost your stomach acid by drinking a luke-warm glass of lemon water or one tablespoon of raw fermented apple cider vinegar before each meal. Other foods that aid digestion include beets, cabbage juice, papaya, Jerusalem artichokes, and dandelion root.
- Heal Your Gut. Traditionally our diets have included sources of healthy microorganisms that contribute to the body’s state of health. Consuming cultured foods on a regular basis keeps your intestinal microflora in balance and supports healthy immune and digestive systems. One daily serving of sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, etc. is all you need to begin to heal your gut!
- Eat Nutrient-Dense, Whole Foods. Processed foods contain very little if any of the nutrients your body requires to function in a healthy manner. Shop the perimeter of your grocery store for fresh goods. Choose pasture raised, grass-fed animal products when possible. Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits is the easiest way to acquire the nutrients you need for optimal health. Follow the 3:1 ratio on your plate – for every serving of protein, include 3 different vegetables. Try to consume produce that is organic, local and in-season. Choose a variety of produce – eat the rainbow! Grains are best digested when they are soaked and fermented – think sourdough or Ezekiel bread.
- Cook Your Food. Eating raw vegetables can be a beautiful thing however they are hard to digest. Eating vegetables that have been lightly cooked in a good fat (olive oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee, etc.) will aid in the digestion by putting less of a strain on your mouth and stomach to break down the food. Limit your raw foods and enjoy more cooked food for improved digestion.
- Drink Water. It’s one of the top nutrients for digestion. It makes up 55-60% of our total body mass. The stomach needs water for digestion, especially for the health of the mucosal lining, which supports the small intestine bacteria for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. You need to consume clean pure water every day. Mineral rich, spring or filtered water is ideal. At least 6-10 cups, depending on the person, should be consumed daily. Sip it throughout the day for better absorption.
- Rotate Foods. A healthy diet includes a variety of foods that are rotated on a regular basis. This means do not eat the same foods every day. This will also help prevent food sensitivities from developing.
- Exercise. It takes healthy muscle tone all around the abdomen to help move food through our digestive tract. Exercise also helps to lower stress and improve sleep quality. You don’t have to spend 60 min a day leaving a puddle of sweat as proof. A brisk walk, yoga, weight training, dancing, etc. are all great ways to enjoy the benefits of exercise.
- Sleep. Adequate, restful sleep ensures that your digestive organs have time for rest and repair. Lack of sleep also makes us more susceptible to stress, which can significantly influence digestive symptoms. Digestion requires a great deal of energy. If bedtime rolls around and your body is still working hard to digest your food, sleep is often compromised. Avoid heavy foods in the evening and give yourself at least 2 hours between eating and laying down.
Because digestion plays such a vital role in our health, meals should be prepared with the same care a pharmacist uses to prepare medicine. The foods you select as well as the way in which they are cooked, served, and eaten influence the effectiveness of digestion.
What’s your R.O.I. (return on ingestion)?
Here’s to eating with purpose, focus and passion for living from the inside out.