I am constantly immersed in nutrition these days via school and what I like to call my “autoimmune renovation”, so I don’t always realize when something isn’t “common knowledge”. But after overhearing someone say that they “eat very well, so food can’t be the reason I’m bloated”, I realized that even the basics aren’t commonly known, nor does everyone understand exactly why proper digestion and overall digestive health is even important.
So here is an initial stab at explaining some of the more basic functions of our digestive systems and some reasons as to how and why we may be hindering these functions. If you manage to stay with me for that, then following I have listed 10 tips and tricks for troubleshooting your gut-rooted problems (which is actually most health problems!).
*Note – I am not including elimination diets, supplements or blood tests in this article, since they are more geared to extreme situations and are also so unique and personal. There are so many ways to troubleshoot and heal, and one post will never cover them all, but I encourage you to try these more simple ideas before resorting to bigger measures – you never know how simple your fix may be!
Our digestive systems work mainly to turn food into usable nutrients and to excrete waste products from that process, but it doesn’t stop there. We are discovering more every day about just how complex and delicate this body system is. Turns out that 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 take your digestion a few steps further and 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 worked hard for their food, and therefore realized the value in it, didn’t waste it, and kept portions practical. However, in today’s society, many of us have moved away from traditional meal times and portions, we eat highly processed foods, and even though we eat more, we do not actually get enough nutrients from food to keep our health at optimal levels. We are constantly distracted, and no longer think of food as being particularly important because most of us have never been without it.
So why should we 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 our 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! That is 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, we 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.
10 Tips and Tricks for Optimal Digestion and Overall Health
1. Prepare – prepare your own food as often as you can. Believe it or not, digestion actually starts before food passes your lips. This is called the cephalic phase, and is integral to improving digestion and increasing overall health.The cephalic phase encompasses things like thinking about your food, such as when you plan a meal, handling your food as you prepare it, looking, smelling, 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 various enzymes are released, ready to break down your food into the individual building blocks your body needs to function.
2. Avoid distractions – the cephalic phase is also one of the reasons behind avoiding distractions while you eat. Though you may seem like a great multitasker, your body is incredibly more efficient when it only has to focus on one thing. In Ayurvedic tradition, everything you experience in life (what you see, hear, touch, taste, etc.) requires digestion. 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 interested in food at all! Same goes for eating. 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 tricks you will try!
This means: no TV, reading, driving, or working while eating. There are plenty of studies out now showing that avoiding distractions while eating helps to control over-eating and emotional eating, and how sitting down to a family dinner every night can significantly improve cognitive function and happy emotions, especially in children and teens (read on here and here).
3. Chew, chew, chew – 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. There was a time when we didn’t need to worry much about how big our portions were because food was limited, we were active most of the day, and we weren’t consuming mass quantities of processed food – meaning 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, it may seem like some of us are working our butts off, but 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. Try to choose higher quality starch sources like sweet potatoes, squash, or basmati rice instead of white bread and pasta which have little nutrient value and stick to the walls of the intestines, triggering inflammation and slowing things down.
5. Hydrate – water is absolutely, positively essential! If you aren’t drinking at least 4 cups per day, I can guarantee that you are dehydrated, and that doesn’t even start to take into account making up for coffee and tea consumption. Remember that 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 and 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!
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 function (think hibernation / see below comment on ice water). Proper hydration is super important, but excess can also effect our digestion. Simply put, for ideal digestion, don’t drink too much water during meals, and say no to the ice! There is a bit of a debate going on about curbing appetite by drinking lots of water before and during eating. True it will fill your stomach and curb your appetite, but it will also inhibit the ability of your stomach to digest the food you are consuming. Though some water intake is required to break down some of the chemical bonds in our food, this amount is relatively small (no more than a cup). When we drink too much with a meal, we drown the hydrochloric acid (HCL) and pepsin enzymes which break up most of our food and therefore inhibits digestion further down the line.
My argument against ice is simply that digestion takes energy, and energy is made up of heat. If we over-cool that heat in our stomach, we essentially halt that energy. No energy = no digestion. Simple enough! If you must have it, save your ice water for between meals.
6. Spice it up – carminatives (herbs and spices that aid digestion) are super helpful for warming up the pipes as well as soothing the chaos. As explained in point 5, digestion needs energy, and energy is heat, so adding warming spices to your meal can really help aid digestion. Really hot spices like chillies can take this too far and cause irritation, inflammation, and sometimes 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 go along with it, or to drink before or after to aid digestion. And don’t forget green herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, and thyme – though green may seem like a 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, which can be huge for digestion! 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 to release and get ready to work, which 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. Fact: Leafy greens are mildly bitter, which is why salad is often served first in fancy restaurants – to set up your digestion and appetite!
7. Add some zing – ferments may be trendy, but 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 system, 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 will 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!
8. Move your body – exercise helps digestion function. Yes, really! You don’t want to go running or do sit-ups right after 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 ease things along. Heavier exercise is also beneficial (away from food!), in a more whole-body idea – getting circulation pumping, sweating, moving lymph, etc. are all beneficial ways to keep your whole body (and digestion) running smoothly.
9. The snacking conundrum – to snack, or not to snack? This is a huge subject of contention in the nutrition and health world, and I personally feel it comes down to timing and individual situation and status. For example, athletes are more likely to need snacks as they have faster metabolisms and burn a lot of calories through physical action. Students burn through a lot of calories because the brain requires quite a bit of glucose to function well. Some diabetics may need snacks to keep their blood sugar levels optimal. It all depends on a person’s unique body and lifestyle.
That said, I do feel that there is large value in allowing the stomach to empty between meals if you are having digestive issues or headaches. Ayurvedic states that the body can only concentrate on one thing at a time. For instance, if we are distracted with the TV while eating, our digestion won’t be able to work properly since our energy is drawn to our mind. Same goes for eating too often; 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 everything else, or doing everything else and not digesting…this results in unbalanced cortisol levels, poor digestion over time, disrupted bowel schedule, poor quality sleep, and essentially total system exhaustion.
10. Go to bed – sleep is the flip side of all of our bodily processes, including digestion. As stated in point 8, we can’t fully reset if we’re trapped in a poor sleep loop. 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. Nothing will ever work immediately – time, dedication and patience are key. You will figure it out, and you will get there! Stress is toxic to the whole body when it becomes chronic, 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!
So now that you have a few ideas to start boosting your digestive health, I hope you can find some relief – whether you have just a couple symptoms popping up occasionally, or a full blown disorder competing for your attention. Take a minute to listen to your body’s signals, drink some water, and incorporate some of these tips to help quell the inflammation and get things working properly again.
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, nor should you take this info as medical advice.