Ever wonder exactly why proper digestion and overall digestive health is important? Here are some basic functions of our digestive systems and some reasons as to how we may be hindering them. With these 5 Tweaks for Optimal Digestion, you can troubleshoot your gut issues and support overall digestive health.
Our digestive systems work mainly to turn food into usable nutrients and to excrete the waste products from that process. But it doesn’t stop there. We are discovering more every day about just how complex and delicate this system is. The effectiveness of our digestion dictates everything from the way our skin looks to our brain activity and moods, and is also an integral piece in autoimmune disorders and the switching on or off of genes. In connection with this, I encourage you to read up on the gut-brain axis (try here or here to start), as it is fascinating information that could change the way you think about the body!
Our ancestors generally worked hard for their food, therefore realizing the value in it, and not wasting a bit of it. However, in today’s society, many of us have moved away from traditional values. We eat highly processed foods in large quantities, yet we do not actually get enough nutrients from this food to keep our health optimal. Constantly distracted, we no longer think of food as being particularly important because most of us have never been without it.
Why should you care?
When our digestive health is not optimal, we get easily fatigued, our skin breaks out, we get bloated, gain weight, become malnourished, our immune systems can’t keep up with the germs going around the office, we develop strange illnesses or autoimmunity, and we simply can’t do what we should be able to do – be it physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Why does this happen?
When your digestion is compromised – whether by stress, distraction, loneliness, over stimulation, food allergies/sensitivities/intolerances, or lack of nutrition in our food choices – it can result in damaged gut linings, poor microbiota populations, poor absorption of nutrients and minerals, disrupted signalling to the brain and various cells, compromised evacuation of waste products, and strain on organs like the liver or kidneys. All this, in turn, can result in illness and disease.
For example, so many of us are used to being bloated or needing a nap after a meal that we don’t even think about it as a problem – but it is not normal! It’s a signal from the body that there’s a problem and we need to do something about it so that we can get back to optimal function and well-being.
The body wants to be well and knows how to do it, you just need to listen! Read on for a few tips on how you can start listening to and honouring your body’s messages, heal your digestive issues, and start living optimally again.
5 Tweaks for Optimal Digestion
1. Prepare your food
Digestion actually starts before food even passes your lips! This is called the cephalic phase, and is integral to proper digestion and overall health.The cephalic phase encompasses your whole experience leading up to eating. Things like thinking about food, such as when you plan a meal, feeling the textures as you prepare it, seeing the colours, smelling the aromas wafting through the air – experiencing every aspect.
How does it work? When you experience food outside the body, the brain sends signals to your mouth and other digestive organs to get ready for the oncoming food. Saliva appears (hence, your mouth watering when you smell food!) and enzymes are released, ready to break down your food into the individual building blocks your body needs to function.
2. Avoid distractions
Though you may feel like a great multitasker, your body is more efficient when it only has to focus on one thing. In Ayurvedic ideology, everything you experience in life (what you see, hear, touch, taste, etc.) requires a digestion of sorts. For example, when we hear bad news or witness a traumatic event, our brain needs to digest that information without distraction in order to process emotion. You may recall a time like this in your life – you probably weren’t at all interested in food at that time.
Well, the same goes for eating a meal. Our body needs to digest the food, not the information you are streaming in from Netflix. If you are having issues with digestion, this may be one of the most effective tweaks you can try! This means no: TV, reading, driving, or working while eating. There are plenty of studies showing that avoiding distractions while eating helps to control over-eating and emotional eating. Sitting down to a family dinner every night can significantly improve cognitive function and happy emotions, especially in children and teens (read more here and here).
3. Chew your food!
Chewing does so much more than making your food easier to swallow. As you chew and break down your food, enzymes in your saliva go to work right there in your mouth to break down the sugar molecules in carbohydrates. This is why the longer you chew, the sweeter carbs taste! This early breakdown then makes digestion easier for the stomach, which in turn makes absorption easier in the small intestine and so on. This step is one the easiest and most effective ways of supporting digestion and preventing bloat, gas, and brain fatigue!
4. Size matters
Portion control may be one of the scratchiest records on repeat out there, but it has a lot of merit. Fun fact: your stomach is roughly the size of your two hands cupped together! There was a time when we didn’t need to worry much about how big our portions were because food was limited (in comparison to Western society today), we cooked our meals, we were active most of the day, and we weren’t consuming mass quantities of processed food. This means we were getting more satiating nutrients in what we were eating, and we were all unconsciously participating in that cephalic phase mentioned earlier!
These days, our lifestyles simply aren’t the same. We need enough food to get the proper amount of nutrients, but not too much of the food that doesn’t work for us. The best way to handle this is to first load our plates up with veggies, then add protein, and lastly starches. I’m not saying follow a low-carb protocol (this works for some; I personally find I need carbs for adrenal health); however, starches on many people’s plates tend to be the most processed food items and lower quality grains, which can bog down digestive action significantly. Choose higher quality starches like sweet potatoes, squash, or basmati rice instead of white bread and pasta. The latter has little nutrient value and sticks to the walls of the intestines, triggering inflammation and slowing things down.
Water is absolutely, positively essential! If you aren’t drinking at least 5 cups per day, I can guarantee that you are probably dehydrated. Your body is made up of approximately 70% water, and you absolutely need it for every system to work properly – skin, hair, nails, body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, absorption of nutrients, bowel activity, and detoxing/sweating (read more here and here). Lack of adequate hydration seems to be rather an epidemic in today’s society – even amongst athletes!
5.a. Water temperature
Drinking warm water upon waking (before food or coffee!) will wake up your digestive system and prepare it for breakfast. Cold water at this time will suppress digestive function (think hibernation). Energy requires heat – have you ever noticed that your stomach is the warmest part of your body? Over-cooling that heat with exessive or poorly timed cold water limits function while the body works to re-stoke the digestive fire. Save your cold and icey water for between meals for optimal digestion!
While hydration is super important, excess can also have a negative effect on our digestion. Simply put, avoid drinking too much water during meals. There is a poor piece of advice about curbing appetite by drinking lots of water before and during meals. True, it will fill your stomach and curb your appetite. It will also inhibit the ability of your stomach to digest the food you are consuming. Some water is required to break down certain chemical bonds in food, but this amount is relatively small (about a cup with meals). Too much water dilutes hydrochloric acid (HCL) and pepsin enzymes which break down our food. This inhibits proper nutrient absorption in the small intestine.
Let me know in the comments if any of these 5 Tweaks for optimal Digestion have worked for you! Did you enjoy this article? Check out the follow up: 5 (More) Tweaks for Optimal Digestion
*Disclaimer: The views contained in this article are not intended to replace the advice of a licensed medical professional. Always speak with your primary care physician before implementing changes to your diet.