Are you someone that suffers from digestive upset such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and / or acid reflux? You’re certainly not alone, and the good news is there are simple things you can do to improve these uncomfortable symptoms. Did you know that the gastrointestinal tract (aka, the digestive system) is 25-30 ft. in length and is the gateway of nourishment for every cell in the body, as well as the primary waste removal route? So you can see why keeping this sophisticated system clean and balanced is so important for good health and vitality.
It’s not something we think about every day, but chewing is the only voluntary part of the digestive process; the rest happens automatically. It is imperative that we all make it our intention to chew our food thoroughly until it becomes a liquid consistency, or close to it. This insures that your stomach and intestines can do their jobs properly, too.
Another tip for strong digestive fire is to hydrate between meals, rather than during, to prevent diluting important gastric secretions such as hydrochloric acid. This acid is designed to break down food in the stomach, especially protein, and enhance the absorption of nutrients such as minerals. After all, we are not just the sum of what we eat, but more significantly what we are able to absorb. It takes approximately 15 - 20 minutes to register that your body has received enough nourishment from your meal, so slow down the pace of your eating style and serve yourself smaller meals. Large meals and overeating can overwhelm and impair the digestive system and function.
Our bodies have been designed to be in “rest and digest” mode (via the parasympathetic nervous system) versus “fight or flight” mode (via the sympathetic nervous system) in order to fully utilize the nutrients in our food. If we are stressed, our bodies will prioritize survival functions like increased blood flow, laser-sharp vision, heightened sense of sound and enhanced muscular reflexes for fast acting responses to our environment rather than processing the food we just ate. Ever experienced constipation when you were feeling “tense” about something, or had diarrhea when you were really nervous about something? This is your body’s way of either putting digestion on hold or trying to get rid of the food as quickly as possible to endure a stressful situation.
This is problematic because the transit time of food is a key factor when it comes to good or poor health. Anything that stays in your GI tract for more than 24 hours is far too long and becomes toxic to your body. Anything that exits your GI tract in less than 12 hours is far too quick and can leave you malnourished. The ideal situation is that you are going to the toilet 1-3 times a day. You want your intestines to have just enough time to absorb the single nutrients that the rest of your GI tract has worked so hard to break down, such as fatty acids, amino acids and monosaccharides. These pass through thousands of villi (finger-like projections), which are covered by millions of microvilli and into the bloodstream for transport to the cells of your body. The integrity of this “brush border” is essential for a well working digestive system. Therefore, we want to protect it from getting damaged from toxic things like medications, GMOs, chemicals found in conventionally produced foods, and regular exposure to foods an individual is sensitive to. It is possible to damage the lining of the intestines so much that it creates small holes where food particles and other foreign substances can pass directly through into the blood supply, creating excess inflammation and activating the immune system (a condition called “leaky gut”).
Fact: 2/3 of our entire immune system is located in the mucosal lining of the intestines, doing its best to protect us from harmful toxins and foreign invaders. Having a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria in our gut helps to keep our immune system calm and not over-reactive. It’s amazing to think that we each have hundreds of trillions of microbes within us! Together they form the largest “organ” in the GI tract, weighing approximately 4 lbs. So there are hundreds of different species - bacteria, yeast, fungus and parasites - all competing for space, food and nutrients.
Below is a list of 10 simple ways you can boost your digestion capabilities and get maximum nourishment out of your food:
1. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan. Plant foods contain all the fiber your body needs to feed beneficial microbes and keep your digestive system clean with efficient waste removal. They also contain many of the raw materials your body needs to function optimally (such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants). Again, ensure you chew your food thoroughly to fully utilize these nutrients.
2. Reduce your daily exposure to toxins such as conventional food, alcohol and medications etc.
3. Boost your beneficial bacteria to provide competition for undesirable microbes by gardening, spending time with animals, eating fermented foods and taking a daily probiotic.
4. Avoid foods you have known sensitivities to or get tested for any suspicions (a trial of an elimination diet is a very good indicator, and it’s free).
5. Keep excess inflammation at bay by eating an anti-inflammatory diet like that of the Mediterraneans – lots of organic plant foods in their whole form (unprocessed) and supplementing that with high quality animal proteins like fatty fish, which are rich in omega 3s.
6. Support the immune system by minimizing your exposure to as many toxins as possible, such as those found in the modern day food supply, water, outside environment, household and skin care products. Sun on bare skin is a simple yet effective way to boost the immune system as it triggers the production of the hormone Vitamin D.
7. Drink ample spring or reverse osmosis filtered water between meals to hydrate the cells of the body, especially the colon, to prevent constipation and ensure efficient waste removal. (US residents can find a reverse osmosis unit here...)
8. Embrace daily physical activity to help the bowels regulate themselves.
9. Manage stress by adopting a daily mindfulness / relaxation practice such as breathing exercises, various forms of meditation, taking naps, doing yoga, enjoying regular massages, relaxing in Epsom salt baths, sweating it out in infrared saunas, enjoying chill-out music, reading a good book, participating in creative activities such as painting, gardening and / or spending time in nature, etc.
10. Make bone broth a regular part of your diet – it’s so versatile, nutrient dense and delicious. It has powerful health benefits including gut healing and immune boosting properties with its high concentration of amino acids (particularly gelatin) and minerals. Cook with it or simply drink it warm like a tea.