“After your meal, sit a while, then walk a mile.” – Dr Bernard Jensen.
Good digestion. When it’s all working smoothly, we tend to take it for granted, but when things get out of balance, it can quickly become all we think about. Heartburn, bloating, nausea, diarrhea – we may make jokes about them, but these symptoms of poor digestion can make us feel downright miserable, not to mention antisocial.
Digestive disorders have risen dramatically in recent years, likely because our fast-paced lifestyles contain many elements that contribute to problems, such as high-stress levels, too much time spent sitting, insufficient movement and insufficient quality sleep. If you experience pain in your digestive system, it is, of course, essential to see your family doctor so that they can help you rule out any medical issues. The good news is that if a medical problem is not the reason, it’s often possible to get your digestion back on track by implementing a handful of simple, lifelong habits.
Let’s look at ways you can figure out that funny tummy, reclaim your social life and feel confident that what you eat is truly nourishing your body.
8 Proven Habits to Improve Your Digestion Every Day
1. Eat a Whole Food Diet
A “whole food” diet means opting for the most natural, least-processed version whenever possible, no matter what form your diet takes (balanced, low carb, vegetarian, etc.). A whole baked apple instead of apple pie, for example, a handful of nuts over a protein bar or whole grain over refined white flour. This is the best way to ensure your food contains all its essential nutrients and enzymes so that it is nourishing and easier to digest. Not to mention that the additives and excess sugar found in many processed foods can feed the harmful bacteria in your gut, contributing to gut irritation, bloating and cramps.
2. Drink Plenty of Water
One of the most common culprits for constipation is dehydration. Water serves four main functions in digestion. First, your body must produce the various digestive enzymes and juices that help break down your food. Next, it is the vehicle nutrients that ride in so your body can absorb them easily. It also helps to keep things well-lubricated so that the fibre you eat turns into a soothing, puffy gel and your digested food moves quickly through your intestines. And finally, water is a fundamental ingredient in muscle movement – and your gut is essentially a long tube made up of muscles that need to contract in a specialised wave-like motion called “peristalsis”. Well-hydrated muscles can contract as required to push the digested food through the gut and out of the body so that it doesn’t sit around for too long and start to irritate.
Unfortunately, digestion isn’t always the body’s top priority. Survival takes precedence, so if your body senses that you need more water elsewhere in the body, such as your brain or legs (fight & flight), it will redirect water from your gut to serve the immediate survival need, making your stools harder to pass.
3. Choose High Fibre Foods
As healthy fibre from whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, fruits, and (most importantly) vegetables pass through your body, it absorbs water and other fluids to form a gel-like substance that feeds the good bacteria and soothes the gut wall. In addition, it helps provide bulk to stools, which allows them to move along the digestive tract more efficiently, contributing to regularity and that sometimes elusive feeling of complete elimination.
However, it is essential to remember that if you currently eat a low-fibre diet, you must be careful not to ramp up your intake too quickly, as that can lead to gas, discomfort and, ironically, constipation. Instead, make sure you increase your fibre intake slowly over a few days or weeks – especially if you add an extra fibre supplement such as freshly ground flax seeds – while also drinking more water, as the fibre can absorb a lot.
4. Eat Consciously
As mentioned above, stress has a way of messing with digestion. So keeping stress low is particularly important during mealtimes. You can achieve this by simply slowing down, avoiding eating on the go, and making a conscious effort to sit down at a table to eat your meal.
Turn off the TV, take slow, deep breaths and pay attention to the pleasure of good food. Use your senses throughout the meal – taste, smell, textures – food should be enjoyed, after all. Savour every bite instead of absent-mindedly snacking while thinking of something else. You’ll improve digestion by putting your body into “rest and digest” mode and giving it all the right signals to trigger the necessary digestive enzymes. Not to mention, conscious eating helps to reduce the chance of overeating to the point of feeling too full.
5. Chew Your Food Properly
What’s the rush? When you chew your food, you’re starting the digestive process. The mechanical action of your teeth breaks food into smaller pieces to increase its surface area so digestive enzymes can work. Chewing also triggers the production of saliva, the first enzyme in a cascade of different enzymes, each triggering the next to achieve complete digestion and absorption of nutrients from your food.
Aim to chew your food 20 – 30 times before you swallow for the best results. That’s right, just like Grandma told you.
6. Support Your Digestive Enzymes
If chewing your food doesn’t go far enough towards easing an overly-full feeling after meals, try supporting your digestive enzymes more directly. This can mean taking a shot of apple cider vinegar before meals to provide enough acid to trigger stomach digestion. Alternatively, chewable digestive enzymes made from papaya and pineapple actively break down protein in your food, and more comprehensive and targeted digestive enzyme supplements are available too.
7. Feed Your Good Bacteria
Your digestive tract contains trillions of good bacteria that support gut health by breaking down specific carbohydrates, soothing the gut wall and producing hormones such as serotonin, the “feel-good hormone”. Maintaining that microbiome is essential for avoiding digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea – and for mental health.
Make sure to eat a wide variety of healthy whole foods to help sustain them and fermented foods to help replenish them. These include unsweetened probiotic yogurt, kimchi, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut.
Probiotic supplements can help replenish and balance your gut bacteria if food alone isn’t enough. In addition, research suggests they’re an effective supplement to reduce the symptoms of existing digestive problems.
8. Move Your Body
This brings us back to the quote from digestive health pioneer Dr Bernard Jensen: “After your meal, sit a while, then walk a mile.” The reason for this suggestion is simple: When you move, your digestive system moves. Scientists have found that exercise can improve the rate at which you digest food. Gravity and movement stimulate peristalsis by helping to trigger various “fullness” receptors in your colon. This results in more muscle movements pushing your digested food through the digestive tract at a regular pace.
By the way, exercise also reduces stress, boosts energy, improves mood and supports good heart health.
Digestive symptoms like bloating, diarrhea and indigestion shouldn’t be holding you back from enjoying life. If you’d like to talk about further strategies, lab tests to check the status of your microbiome, or you want help creating a plan to implement these tips, give me a call!
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