You’ve likely heard of the saying “you are what you eat”, but I believe it should be “you are what you digest”. You can eat organic, nourishing foods, but if you cannot properly digest them, then they are of no benefit to the body. Healthy digestion, absorption, and elimination are essential for your overall health.
The digestive system is inarguably connected to the immune system, the nervous system, and our hormonal health. Thus, the health of our gut has a direct impact on various vital systems in our body. Many people suffer from poor digestion but either ignore the signs, or just choose to accept it.
Symptoms of an Impaired Gut
There are an array of symptoms that are linked to poor digestion. There are of course, the more obvious ones like stomach discomfort, bloating, gas, cramping, constipation, and diarrhea. However, there are various other symptoms that many would not know could be a sign of an impaired gut. Some of these include heartburn, unwanted weight gain, moodiness, anxiety, and depression. When gone untreated, poor digestion can lead to serious health problems such as leaky gut, IBS, GERD, candida overgrowth, and other mental health issues.
How to Improve Digestion
One of the ways we can improve our digestion is by reducing our stress levels. Our gut is like our “second brain”. How we think and feel directly impacts our gut health. When we are eating under stress, our bodies cannot properly break down and absorb the nutrients from our food. Stress whilst eating can be elicited from various triggers, like eating too quickly, the people you are eating with, what you’re doing while eating (ex. eating while watching TV or while doing work), and what is on your mind before and during meal time. Being mindful of your thoughts and environment while eating is important. Outside of meal time, daily stress reducing activities that calm our nervous system like yoga, meditation, journaling, and deep breathing are great to incorporate.
“Mindful eating” is the process of noticing and paying attention to the sensations and experience of eating your food. This can involve intentionally smelling, tasting, and savoring your food. The process of digestion begins with the nose and mouth. When we smell food, it signals to our brain that food is coming. This in turn prepares our stomach to digest, as our brain relays to our gut that it is time to start producing the enzymes that are necessary to properly break down our food.
“Mindful eating” can also involve a gratitude practice. For example, appreciating where the food came from and giving silent thanks. Eating mindfully prompts us to eat much more slowly, which in turn, enhances digestion. It takes approximately 20 minutes for our stomach to signal to our brain that we are satiated and full. Mindful and slow eating is key in recognizing that feeling of fullness.
Absorption of nutrients is key. In order to properly absorb our food, we need to 1) chew our food thoroughly, 2) nourish our gut lining, and 3) ensure we have an optimal level of stomach acid present in our gut. As stomach acid and digestive enzymes are necessary to properly break down food, low levels of either can be a problem. Drinking of any sort during meals can dilute and inhibit production of stomach acid, therefore drinking 20 minutes after your meal, while only having small sips throughout, is beneficial. Carbonated beverages can negatively affect stomach acid, so they are best to avoid (when possible). Taking digestive enzymes, bitters, lemon water, or apple cider vinegar before meals can help to stimulate stomach acid production.
Lastly, an imbalance of gut bacteria can disrupt digestion and lead to poor health. It is important to have the right balance of bacteria in your stomach. An imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria can come from regularly consuming poor food choices, stress, antibiotics, and other toxins. We can increase good bacteria by eating particular foods. Of course, eating nutritious foods is important, but eating foods rich in prebiotics (ex. green banana flour) and probiotics (ex. fermented foods) has the power to nourish, feed, and increase the amount of “good” bacteria present. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods, bone broth, avoiding alcohol, sugars, vegetable oils, processed foods, and eating cooked foods over raw, are all ways to optimize digestion. Consuming organic foods, limiting our exposure to toxins in our personal care products, and eliminating plastic are some (of the many) ways you can reduce your exposure to toxins. All of these choices will help to rebuild and restore balance within your gut.