10 ways to Support your digestion naturally
LEARN. In this series of articles, I’ll be sharing information and suggestions based on my training, research and experience, both personal and professional. This information is for general health and well being purposes only and NOT intended to replace the advice of a medical professional.
It’s good practice to listen to listen to your body, and give it what it needs, especially after a period like the holidays, where we often take a no holds barred approach to food, not that there’s anything wrong with that, after all it is an event that only comes around once a year with it’s gatherings, parties and indulgent menus. There’s no shame in indulging, and there’s absolutely no reason to embark on a week or month long diet, detox or cleanse to make up for it either.
True health and wellness is achieved by creating sustainable habits for your mind body and spirit, choosing whole foods over processed foods, filling half your plate with plants, especially those dark leafy greens, getting plenty of water and fiber and eating mindfully and intuitively. Health & wellness is achieved by learning how to nourish your body right, but also by knowing how to live your best life and pamper yourself silly.
If you haven’t already don’t forget to grab my free guide, Nourish Live Pamper, designed to help you eat well and live a more balanced life in 9 doable steps.
In all honesty though, my digestive system always needs a little TLC after the holidays, or long periods away from home. I’m a creature of habit and when I stray too far for too long, I crave the familiar routine, even when it comes to food choices.
So today, I’m sharing my top tips to help you support your digestion naturally, every singe day, but you may find they’re especially handy after the holidays or a weekend in Paris eating nothing but pain au chocolat and baguette.
But first, let’s nerd out on some lightweight biology.
Good health begins with good digestion
Digestion my friends, it’s where it all begins. Digestion is to good health, as water is to hydration and fiber is to elimination. It’s not the most pleasant thing to talk about, but it’s so important that it needs to be the first article in this series.
All disease begins in the gut (hippocrates circa 2500 years ago).
The gut is home to 70% of the body’s immune cells and is our line of defense against pathogens, microbes, toxins, viruses and harmful bacteria. For those immune cells to function at their best, they need a healthy environment which means a balanced gut with a diverse microbiome (the right mix of good and bad bacteria).
How Digestion Works - a brief summary
Picture yourself sitting in your favourite restaurant, reading the menu, your stomach starts to grumble, the aroma and sight of the decadent dishes passing you by and being delivered to the tables around you makes your mouth water. You wonder what that girl just ordered, and if that guy is having the chocolate torte for dessert.
Whatever it is it looks so good, you think to yourself.
You decide you’re going to ask the server as soon and he/she comes back. You’re literally salivating - those are your digestive enzymes getting ready for work. Just don’t attack the bread basket yet. I promise you, it’s worth waiting for your food (enter mindful eating).
The digestion process has already started.
Once your food arrives, digestion continues in the mouth, with your salivary enzymes breaking down carbohydrates, it continues in the stomach where your body makes hydrochloric acid or gastric juices that mixes with food to breakdown protein, and then in the small intestines, where the pancreas and gallbladder are called to action to produce bile and enzymes that breakdown fats and continue breaking down carbohydrates and protein into nutrients that get absorbed into the bloodstream.
Undigested food travels to the large intestine where water is absorbed by the gut lining. Anything remaining feeds the bacteria in your gut (aka your micro flora or microbiome) and the rest gets eliminated with fecal matter. Water, dietary fiber and prebiotic food sources are very important to this process (read more about that here).
What happens when we aren’t digesting well?
There are many reasons why digestion goes awry, ranging from stress to poor lifestyle and eating habits, the use of drugs, alcohol and antibiotics and other medications or genetic factors. The side effects are plenty and we’ve all felt them at some point in our lives from indigestion to bloating to constipation or diarrhea. It happens to the best of us on occasion, but when it becomes the norm, it’s cause for concern.
When food is not broken down and digested completely and sits in the digestive tract too long, it’s a recipe for disaster. Undigested food basically putrefies and ferments in the gut and feeds the bad bacteria, and when large pieces of undigested food cross into the blood stream they get attacked by the immune system (aka leaky gut syndrome).
Apart from the obvious symptoms of irregular bowel movements, bloating and stomach pain, digestive troubles can be linked to allergies, arthritis, mood disorders, vitamin and mineral deficiencies from poor absorption, and premenstrual syndrome to name a few.
Learn to support your digestion naturally so you can feel amazing
There are things you can do to support your digestion, naturally and with minimal intervention, at every stage in the digestion process. Call them preventative measures.
Hydrate. Drink warm water, with or without lemon and/or ginger, especially first this in the morning on an empty stomach. Hyrdration is important for regular bowel movements.
Keep calm and eat. Stress is inevitable, we all experience it to some degree. It engages all our senses, keeps us alert and ready to take action. The fight or flight response, how our body prepares to either defend itself or runaway if we are in danger, redirects our energy away from the systems that are not essential for our survival in that moment like the immune and digestive systems.
Eat Mindfully & Intuitively. Sit down, eat slowly, chew your food properly and avoid electronic devices. Be present and grateful for the food before you and tune into your senses. See, smell, taste and feel the texture of the food. I’ve been guilty of eating too quickly, while I scroll through Instagram or pound on the keyboard. The end result is that I end up eating way too fast and feeling bloated or unsatiated which causes me to either eat more or feel lethargic. So now I make it a point to eat away from my desk (dinning room table by night, work desk by day). I grab a stool and sit at the kitchen counter and become one with my food. Tune into to your body’s hunger and satiation cues. Recognize the signs. Honour your hunger, but respect your fullness. Read my Seven tips to help you build better eating habits and improve your relationship with food.
Don’t Overeat. Eat smaller portions and stop when you’re comfortably full. It can take up to 20 minutes for your gut to send satiation cues to your brain. Smaller portions are also easier to handle and leave less of a burden on the digestive system. It may be difficult at first, you may still feel hungry after your meal, but over time, your body will adjust and you’ll know exactly how much to eat and when to stop. I’m not suggesting you starve yourself by any means, but there’s a big difference between starvation and being uncomfortably full and bloated. Find your happy medium.
Keep it Simple. Eat simple whole foods that your body can tolerate well. Mixing too many foods together in the same meal can put a burden on the digestive system. If you keep it simple, not only will your digestion benefit, you’ll also be able to identify the foods that cause you digestive troubles with greater ease, so you can eliminate the culprits and free yourself from discomfort.
Eliminate the Culprits. Every time you eat something you are sensitive or intolerant to, you are not only burdening your digestive system, you’re also putting yourself at risk of irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, headaches, skin disorders, joint pain and swelling, and other inflammatory conditions. When your digestion suffers, your health and well being suffers. Hippocrates said it first, all disease begins in the gut. So if you know something doesn’t sit well with you, get rid of it.
Actually Digest. Yes, I know, I did say that our bodies are well oiled machines, bla bla bla. They are. But I ALSO said that thing about maintenance remember? If you’re constantly eating, you’re basically telling your body to start the digestion process over and over and over again. Hello, confusing. In a nut shell, give yourself ample time to digest before your next meal or snack. Every time we eat our body kick starts the digestive process and it can take up to 4 hours for food to clear the stomach and up to an additional 4 for it to clear the small intestines not to mention the large intestines before you know what happens. The digestive tract also needs time to regenerate. Snacking doesn’t give the body the time it needs to digest and regenerate because it will constantly be called to action to produce digestive enzymes and break down food matter. I’m not saying that no one should snack ever. Get to know your body, listen to what it’s telling you. If your digestion is sluggish, reduce or eliminate the snacking and see how it goes.
Fruit. It’s a point of contention in the nutrition world with food combining advocates saying you should eat fruit alone, away from meals. The idea is that, due to it’s high water content, it digests rather quickly. If eaten along with other foods, you run the risk of it sitting in the stomach longer than it should, fermenting, which could cause digestive upset down the line. Others say, nooooo, don’t eat fruit alone, it will spike your blood sugar levels and make you a hangry monster later, which will cause you to over eat and that’s bad for digestion too. I could write a whole article about this topic alone and maybe I will. For now, I’ll say this. Eat your fruit, alone, away from meals. If you find that your blood sugar is sensitive to this, try eating a handful or nuts with the fruit. The fat and protein from the nuts will help stabilize your blood sugar levels.
Fermented Foods. Fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut, umeboshi plums and their vinegar, apple cider vinegar, kimchi, and kefir contain probiotics, the good bacteria that keeps your gut healthy, and remember, a healthy gut equals general health and well being. Including these foods in your diet is a good way to keep your gut flora in check and support your digestion naturally. A bowl of miso soup before a meal, some umeboshi vinegar splashed onto grains or salad greens, a side of kimchi or sauerkraut will go a long way, just don’t eat them all at once, because even too much of a good thing is never a great idea, unless you want to feel like a hot air balloon.
Fiber. I may be stating the obvious here, but it has to be said. Dietary fiber not only keeps things moving, but it also plays an important role in building a healthy colon. But not all fiber is created equal (read more about that here).