Everyone has experienced at least a short period of digestive distrubance, whether from stress, a stomach bug, food-poisoning, or a food intolerance. Unfortunately, many people struggle with digestive issues every. darn. day. For most of those people, there is much that can be done to support and diminish symtoms of digestive distress. Even better, for most people, those issues can be fixed with just a few simple tweaks! Following up on my article 5 Tweaks for Optimal Digestion, here are 5 (More) Tweaks for Optimal Digestion.
5 (More) Tweaks for Optimal Digestion
1. Spice it up
Carminatives (herbs and spices that aid digestion) are super helpful for warming up the pipes as well as soothing the chaos. Digestion requires energy, and energy is heat, so adding warming spices to your meal can really help aid digestion. Really hot spices like chillies can sometimes take this too far and cause irritation, inflammation, and even ulcers, so go easy! Some popular choices are turmeric, garlic, fennel, black pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. If you don’t want to add these to your meal, you might try making a ginger-fennel or chai tea to drink before or after your meal as a digestif. And don’t forget green herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, and thyme. Though green may seem like a more cooling addition to your meal, these herbs have some great carminative action (as well as great dose of nutrients, chlorophyll and antioxidants).
Green herbs are also a great way to add bitter into your life. The bitter taste is missing from many people’s diets in North America and yet it has a hugely beneficial role in proper digestion. Bitter signals your digestive juices and enzymes to release and get ready to work. This starts when the bitter taste hits (and is perceived by) the tongue. With that in mind, taking digestive bitters in pill-form isn’t optimal – though there are some receptors for bitter in the intestines, most are on the tongue. Fun fact: Leafy greens are mildly bitter, which is why salad is often served first in fancy restaurants – to set up your digestion and appetite!
2. Add some zing
Ferments are trendy, and there is a pretty good reason for that. In a society where everyone you know has tummy troubles, food intolerances, or chronic illnesses, digestive issues are quite often the common underlying theme. Ferments are a great way to add beneficial bacteria into your gut, stimulate digestion, and build up your immune system.
Another way to do this is to drink a glass of warm water with a shot of apple cider vinegar before each meal to aid the break down of food in the stomach. Lemon juice works too for stimulation and break down, and it doesn’t contain bacteria like ferments if you are sensitive to them.*
*Be aware that if you have a histamine intolerance, are sensitive to moulds, or are simply in a highly sensitive state of health, ferments may hinder more than help. If eating fermented foods causes upset, pain, asthma, congestion, headaches, skin flares, or any other negative symptoms, don’t use them as a digestive aid!
3. Move your body
Exercise helps digestive function. Yes, really! You don’t want to go running or do sit-ups right after a meal obviously, but a gentle walk or slow stretches can go far for stimulating digestion and getting the pipes moving. Food can stagnate at any point of the GI tract, so if you are having issues of sluggishness, try some gentle side bends and core twists to open up your body and encourage motility. Heavier exercise is also beneficial (away from food!), in a more whole-body idea – getting circulation pumping, sweating, and moving lymph are all beneficial to keep your whole body (and digestion) running smoothly.
4. The snacking conundrum
To snack, or not to snack? Rather a subject of contention in the nutrition world, I personally feel it comes down to timing and the individual’s situation. For example, athletes often need snacks when they are training, as they burn up a lot of calories through extreme physical action. But when they are not training, athletes actually require less frequent sustenance because they generally become more efficient at using glucose and nutrients. Students can burn through a lot of calories because the brain requires quite a bit of glucose to function well in a school environment. That said, if they are also sedentary, snacking requirements decrease substantially. Type 1 diabetics may also need snacks to keep their blood sugar levels optimal. It all depends on a person’s unique body and lifestyle, and really, there are no hard and fast rules here.
That said, I feel there is significant value in allowing the stomach to empty between meals if you are having digestive issues, certain blood sugar issues, or headaches. Back to that multitasking thing (from 5 Tweaks) – if our energy is constantly trying to digest food without a break, we can’t properly complete other important bodily processes. This also goes for snacking at night. One of the reasons we sleep at night is so that our body can finish daily processes, reset, and refresh. If we load in a bunch of food before bed (especially hard-to-digest processed foods), then we have to spend most of the night either digesting and neglecting other things, or doing other things and not digesting proberly. This results in unbalanced cortisol levels, poor long term digestive function, disrupted bowel schedule, poorer quality sleep, and in some, total system exhaustion.
5. Go to bed!
Sleep is the flip side of all of our bodily processes, including digestion. Sleep also plays a massive role in immunity and hormone production, both of which can affect digestion (for an in-depth look, start here and here). Every process in our body is linked to at least one other process, so it stands to reason that if one small thing is off, then eventually other things will follow suit. Lack of sleep is one of the biggest health triggers in Western society today, and is also one of the easier ones to fix – first step, go to bed!
Bonus – don’t stress!
Everyone is unique, and everyone has varying degrees of health and what that means to them. Quick fixes are helpful, but time, dedication and patience are key to sustainable changes. You will figure it out, and you will get there! Chronic stress is damaging to the whole body, and is the #1 reason for illness and digestive issues! So don’t harm your healing by stressing about it. Not easy, but definitely important, and will eventually get it’s very own post here, I’m sure!
*Disclaimer: This article and the views contained within are not intended to replace the advice of a licensed medical professional. Always speak with your primary care physician before implementing significant changes to your diet.