5 Tips to Improve Your Digestion
I think we can all relate to how uncomfortable digestion issues can be. Gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea aren't exactly fun things to deal with. For some of us these symptoms are what we have come to know as normal. But it shouldn't be that way.
Aside from the general discomfort poor digestion can cause at a symptom level, it can actually be pretty devastating for your body in many other ways.
The digestive process is how we obtain the nutrients from our food. This includes vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, proteins, and carbohydrates. If we're not properly digesting our food, we're probably not obtaining any of those wonderful nutrients.
That's right, you could be eating the healthiest diet on the planet but it doesn't really matter if you're not properly digesting it.
So how do you know if you're not digesting your food? Well, some of the symptoms can be fairy intuitive, such as poop problems (constipation, diarrhea, or alternating both), bloating after meals, gas, belching, light or clay colored stool, stomach cramps, nausea, heartburn, etc.
If you experience any one or more of these symptoms, you're likely experiencing some digestive dysfunction. But don't fret! I've got a few tips you can implement right now to help ease the burden on your body and optimize your digestion.
1. Slow Down & Eat Mindfully
Digestion is a parasympathetic process, meaning we need to rest in order to digest. We need to calm down and enter this parasympathetic state so our brain can then signal to the rest of the body that we're about to eat and it's time to prepare for digestion.
If you're eating on the go, standing up, or while distracted with a million other things, you're in a sympathetic state (think fight or flight) instead of parasympathetic. When we're stressed and sympathetic while eating, this communication process is interrupted and we're already starting the meal off on the wrong foot.
Before each meal, sit down and take a few deep breaths and limit distractions like your phone or the TV. Family meals or meals with friends can be great for digestion when you're just enjoying each-other's company.
2. Chew, Chew, Chew!
In order to properly digest, you've got to chew your food really, really well. This is important for two reasons.
First, our saliva has enzymes which are critical in the breakdown and digestion of carbohydrates. If you're not chewing your food enough, you're not allowing these enzymes to do their job in your mouth. These undigested carbohydrates continue down into the intestines where they can ferment and cause excessive and foul smelling gas and lead to an imbalance of gut bacteria.
Second, improperly chewed food creates a huge burden on our intestines. When food particles are too big, they can damage the gut lining making it permeable and causing what's known as leaky gut. We want our gut lining to be sealed nice and tight so nothing escapes that isn't supposed to.
I'm willing to bet the majority of people reading this aren't chewing their food enough. It may be helpful to count how many times you chew at first until you make it a habit. Aim for at least 30 chews per bite, more for high protein foods like meat. Undigested proteins are particularly tough on the intestines.
3. Consider Digestive Bitters and/or HCl Support
Our stomach needs to be highly acidic in order to breakdown our food once it's chewed and swallowed. The pH (specifically the acidity) of the food also triggers the release of pancreatic enzymes and sodium bicarbonate (to neutralize the acidic food) when the food moves from the stomach to the small intestine.
When we don't have enough hydrochloric acid (HCl or more commonly known as stomach acid), food will sit in our stomach and won't move on to the small intestine. This can cause the food to push up against the lower esophageal sphincter and can leak into the esophagus, causing heartburn. You may be surprised to learn heartburn is typically a sign of too little stomach acid, not too much! It just takes a little bit of this acid in the wrong place (i.e. your throat) to burn.
Other symptoms associated with low stomach acid are feeling really full after meals, like the food is just sitting in your stomach, belching, bloating, nausea, constipation, halitosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, anemia, and brittle nails.
Taking digestive bitters, a tablespoon or so of raw apple cider vinegar diluted in a little water, or supplementing with HCl with pepsin with your meals are all ways to help your body increase its stomach acid production.
4. Identify & Remove Food Sensitivities
Identifying food allergies and sensitivities is critical for your gut health. Every time you eat something you're intolerant to, your body has an inflammatory immune response. This can cause everything from typical digestion symptoms (bloating, poop problems, nausea) to things you might not consider would be related to food (sinus issues, achy joints, irritability, fatigue, etc.).
Food intolerances can develop over time and may very well include the foods you're eating the most of. The most common foods that people react to are gluten, dairy, casein, eggs, soy, and corn products, though you can develop a reaction to anything.
It's important to identify the foods you have a reaction to and remove them for a period of time until you can heal your gut. Then, you can try to reintroduce the food and see if you notice any symptoms reoccurring.
To do this, I would recommend removing those common triggers I mentioned before (gluten, dairy, casein, eggs, soy, and corn) for at least 30 days. You can then try and slowly reincorporate one at a time over the course of a couple weeks and pay close attention to how you feel. Symptoms can sometimes show up days after you've eaten something you're sensitive to, so give each food a few days before you try something else.
5. Heal & Seal That Gut Lining
Digestion is a north to south process, meaning we have to get everything right upstream to have success downstream. So if you're not parasympathetic when you're eating, you're probably not going to produce enough HCl to breakdown the food appropriately, to then trigger the release of pancreatic enzymes to breakdown the food even more, to then move into the intestines for nutrient absorption and recycling of waste.
That being said, the intestines tend to deal with the brunt of all the dysfunction going on further north since they're at the end of the system. Poorly chewed and improperly digested food can be damaging to the small and large intestines. As a result, the gut lining can be come permeable, or "leaky", and inflamed.
We want nutrients to make their way to our blood stream via the intestines when properly digested and broken down to small particles. However, if these particles are too big from improper digestion and the intestines become permeable, larger molecules can pass through the gut lining and into the blood stream. These larger particles should have remained contained with a healthy gut lining.
When this happens, the body starts to flag the food particles as foreign invaders. The immune system then begins to mount an attack against the food, as it recognizes it as something that shouldn't be there. When you continue to eat the foods your body has flagged as in invader, you will continue to have an immune response. Over time, this is how food allergies, intolerances, and eventually auto immune conditions can develop.
To help heal the integrity of your gut lining, you can add things like bone broth and collagen peptides. As a nutritional therapy client of mine, we can identify other gut healing nutrients that work for your body and your unique needs.
Don't forget to work north to south!
Remember, digestion is a north to south process! We have to get everything upstream fixed in order to keep everything downstream happy. If you only focus on say the gut healing aspect without working on chewing your food and getting your HCl production up, you're only putting a bandaid on the situation and eventually will be right back at square one.
If you're dealing with digestion issues and would like some help getting things back on track, I'm here to help! Nutritional Therapy is incredibly effective with digestion and gut healing. We can work together to implement diet and lifestyle changes and identify supplements that work best for YOUR body and get you feeling better. Click here to learn more about becoming a client.