Christina Carreau BA, ND
Many of us suffer from digestive complaints on a fairly regular basis. There are lots of symptoms associated with poor digestive function including constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, heartburn, heaviness after eating, upset stomach, etc. Fortunately there are a number of ways that you can improve your digestion by focusing on a few of these basics.
Here are 6 ways to improve your overall digestive health:
1) Choose quality over quantity. Sorry to state the obvious but the cleaner and the healthier the food is that we ingest, the more equipped our body is to break down and process these foods, the more nutrients we are able to absorb, and the less waste there is to process and eliminate. The whole point of eating is to nourish our bodies so the quality of our food is of utmost importance. I think it is fine to ‘nourish your soul’ with food from time to time i.e. coffee, beer, sweets, chips, you know… all that stuff that has nothing to do with ‘nourishing our body’. The problem is, there is just too much of that in our society. Our fast paced world makes us grab for easy options and those don’t always amount to healthy food choices. Not to mention, we have a real tendency to overeat as well. Eating too much of the wrong thing…this is a great recipe for digestive disaster.
2) Slow Down and Chew. This fast paced life that many of us lead often means that we are eating on the run. However, digestion is optimal when we slow down and are able to relax. When you are relaxed your parasympathetic nervous system is activated and this means that you are able to secrete all of the necessary enzymes and digestive juices needed to properly break down food. If you are rushed and stressed out then you are more likely to shallow your food without chewing it completely and you likely are not secreting adequate amounts of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid because your sympathetic nervous system (the one that deals with stress) is activated instead. Take the time to ‘de-stress’ before you eat. Sit down when you eat and be conscious of this idea of ‘nourishing your body’. The digestive process starts even before food enters your body…the smell of food increases salivary enzymes in anticipation of eating. Don’t rob your body of this important function. Be sure to chew your food thoroughly as this will significantly reduce the burden placed on your stomach. Two – five minutes of diaphragmatic breathing before a meal can significantly enhance digestion and absorption of nutrients.
3) Stomach Acid and Digestive Enzymes. In order to breakdown food so that nutrients can be absorbed we rely on a high concentration of stomach acid and a number of different digestive enzymes. Do you suffer regularly with gas, bloating, heaviness after eating, upset stomachs, heartburn or general indigestion? If you do, then maybe you don’t have what it takes to breakdown protein, carbohydrates and/or fats? There are tests that you can do to assess your stomach’s ability to secrete acid and there are other tests like live cell microscopy and stool analysis that will give you further information about your bodies ability to metabolize food. While both digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid are available in most health food stores, it is important to properly assess and determine what your specific needs are before supplementing. Eating a diet high in processed and refined foods depletes digestive enzymes both in our bodies and in the food itself and is in fact responsible for many of the digestive problems that we have here in North America.
4) Probiotics – The Good Guys. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that live primarily in our digestive system. Probiotics help us digest and process food, keep our bowels regular, improve mineral absorption, enhance immunity, inhibit the growth of yeast and enhance metabolism of dairy products. Probiotics are extremely important and can significantly impact and improve digestive health. The following foods are great sources of healthy bacteria: kefir, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Probiotics (similar to digestive enzymes) tend to be displaced by a poor diet, antibiotics and other over the counter medications. To restore your bacterial balance, take a good probiotic supplement. Don’t rely on yogurt – even the “enhanced” versions do not provide enough active bacteria to be effective. The only exception to this is Bio K – which is quite expensive.
5) Keep things moving at a healthy speed. Diarrhea and constipation are increasingly more prevalent and are great indicators that our digestion is compromised. If you tend towards diarrhea you are likely not absorbing the nutrients from the food that you are ingesting. Is there something in the food that doesn’t agree with you, are you lacking the enzymes to breakdown the food, are you stressed, are you getting enough fiber in your diet – these may be contributing factors. If you tend towards constipation, your body is exposed to the toxins in the feces for longer than it should be, which places additional burden on your liver, kidneys and other organs of elimination. Are you drinking enough water, are you getting enough fiber and essential fatty acids in your diet, are you eating foods that you are sensitive to, are you stressed – again there are all sorts of factors that can negatively impact bowel function. Bowel regularity in terms of frequency, consistency and color is usually a good sign that our digestive system is happy.
6) Stay Hydrated. Water is important for so many reasons. It improves nutrient absorption, clears toxins, protects the joints and vital organs, regulates breathing and temperature and improves bowel regularity. Dehydration often manifests as hunger and can therefore contribute to the cycle of overeating. One important thing to say about water and digestion is that it is best if most of your water is consumed away from meals. Drinking too much fluid with food can dilute digestive enzymes and stomach acid thereby compromising digestive function. That doesn’t mean that you can’t drink anything while you are eating but I would encourage you to sip at a glass of water rather than chugging it.
There are lots of little things that you can do to help enhance digestion. It is important to remember that your digestive system is one long tube that spans from your mouth to your anus. If there is a problem in one part of the tube, it is going to impact the function and efficiency of the rest of the tube. I do believe that good food and good digestion often translates into good health…of course there are exceptions to this but many of those are not in our control. We have complete control over what we put in our bodies. Is your digestive system happy with your choices?