Improve your digestion the cheap and easy way
Updated: Jan 22
If you're like me, you take a bit of a break from your healthy eating habits from late November until New Years. Okay, maybe the break starts closer to Halloween...
At any rate, January is the time when many decide to resume eating better. Motivations vary, from weight loss to feeling more energetic to improving overall health.
For many of us, a constitution with less than stellar digestion can be a huge source of frustration. We feel like we're doing the right things - eating smaller portions, including fresh fruits and vegetables, consuming less sugar - but we continue to feel plagued with digestive upset. Symptoms can range from the mild (heartburn, irregularity, gassy distention) to more severe (painful cramping, urgent diarrhea.)
The more severe symptoms may warrant a consult with your family physician. However most of the milder symptoms, as well as some of those that are more distressing, can be reduced or resolved with some fairly simple and inexpensive strategies and changes.
Simply put, don't eat when you're stressed.
I know you've heard this before - our body's reaction to stress remains the same, regardless of the source. It doesn't matter what the trigger is (running from a lion or arguing with your son about homework), the body's basic stress response is activated. Blood is shuttled away from the digestive organs in order to supply tissues such as the heart, lungs, and muscles that are needed to survive a predator.
What does this mean for our digestion? If you eat while under stress, digestion slows down. Release of digestive enzymes is hampered, pH is altered, and contents aren't moved down the track as they should be. The result? Oftentimes gas and bloating.
This sounds overly obvious, yet many of us chew our food inadequately before swallowing. I am definitely guilty of this, especially on those days when I feel especially hurried.
In addition to creating smaller pieces, sufficiently chewing food allows time for digestive enzymes to be released in our saliva, particularly the enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates. Properly chewing our food not only causes physical but also the beginnings of chemical breakdown of our meal.
The next time you eat, try an experiment of chewing each bite 20-25 times before swallowing. An additional benefit is this creates a more mindful experience, allowing us to fully appreciate what we are eating while we are eating it.
Plant material provides fiber and can act as food for the good bacteria in our gut. In addition, there are two main categories for herbs that can assist and strengthen our digestion: bitters and carminatives.
Bitters are exactly as they sound - plants that taste bitter. When our taste buds detect this flavor, they send a message through the nervous system that then prepares the body for digestion. Digestive secretions are released, including bile, insulin, and digestive enzymes. Our nervous system goes into a calmer mode allowing us to digest our food more optimally.
Examples of bitter herbs include artichoke, orange peel, burdock, dandelion, and rosemary. Bitters should be used 15-20 minutes before a meal, and can be taken as a tea or tincture. If taken as a tincture, try 10 to 20 drops 15 minutes before eating.
Carminatives contain aromatic volatile oils which are soothing to our GI tract. They help to remove gas, lessen inflammation, and ease cramping. Examples include ginger, fennel, peppermint, cardamon, and chamomile. Like bitters, these can be taken as a tea or tincture. Typically these herbs would be taken preventatively after a meal or at the onset of digestive symptoms.
Okinawans and other people of the world's "Blue Zones" stop eating when their stomach feels 80% full. Additionally, they make dinner their smallest meal.
Light exercise such as walking after eating assists the digestive processes. Keeping a strong core helps to tone and bring circulation to the digestive tract.
Proper hydration benefits all of the cells throughout the body. It also helps to keep things moving through our GI tract.
Many other options are available to strengthen digestion; I've focused here on those that are most accessible and least costly.
Best wishes for health in 2019!
For educational purposes only. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.