Optimizing digestion is easy. Sadly, we’ve become disconnected from our digestive processes, which can lead to a variety of digestive concerns. The good news is, getting back on track only takes a few simple steps.
1.Rest and digest
Before you can even start properly digesting food, your body needs to be in a relaxed state. In scientific terms, we call this the parasympathetic state. The opposite of this is your sympathetic state, which is when your body is primed for stress. From an evolutionary perspective, our sympathetic system should only be on when we’re being chased by a lion or in a similar stressful situation. Today, we are constantly stressed by work, responsibilities, aggressive drivers, health concerns, etc. It’s this constant state of stress that is causing many people to have digestive concerns. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for instance, can be directly linked to stress and anxiety.
When we force food into our body and it’s not ready to properly digest, we are preventing the normal digestive functions from happening: stomach acid secretion, bile secretion from the gallbladder and liver, enzyme secretion from intestinal cells, and bowel movements from the colon. If we do this over and over, the body eventually develops disease — very preventable disease.
To digest properly, you need to rest. Carve out the necessary time throughout the day to digest, and your gut will be much happier for it.
2. Chew more
The next easiest change you can make is to chew more often. Not only is proper mastication (the scientific term for chewing) better for digestion, research has shown it can help with weight loss.
Regarding digestion specifically, chewing helps to infuse your food with enzymes and break it down to a liquid form before passing into the stomach and beyond. This is critical because: chewing stimulates the rest of the digestive tract to prime itself for incoming food; mixing the food with the enzymes in your mouth allow for digestion to start before the food even hits the stomach; and improperly chewed food particles have been shown to cause damage to the digestive tract.
Regarding weight loss, a 2011 study from China showed that chewing more with every bite (upwards of 40 times per bite) decreased food intake by more than 10 per cent and helped regulate blood sugar. This study proves the age-old habit of taking your time when you eat and eating until you’re 80 per cent full. It’s hard to know you’re 80 per cent full when you eat your meal in less than 10 minutes!
3. Morning warm water and lemon juice
A common issue we see with patients is dehydration. Most people laugh when we mention they should be drinking the 1.5 to 3 litres of water per day. The human body is made up of 55 per cent to 65 per cent water. That’s over half!
If you don’t drink enough water every day, your body quickly starts to break down. Headaches, low energy, muscular tension, and sluggish digestive function are some potential effects of chronic dehydration.
When you sleep at night for eight hours with your mouth open, you significantly dehydrate your body. Try breathing with your mouth open for one minute and see how you feel. Throughout the day, we dehydrate approximately half a liter via breathing and have a litre via perspiring. The rest we lose via urinating and bowel movements. If you don’t replenish this with water or fruit/vegetable consumption, you will be dehydrated.
Start your day with a warm glass of water and a squeeze of lemon juice. The water helps rehydrate the body and prevents constipation. The lemon juice stimulates the liver and gallbladder to secrete bile and prepare the digestive tract for the day’s work ahead.
4. Minimize liquids at meals
Now that you’ve hydrated properly, the next tip is to minimize how much you hydrate around meals. Your stomach acid is tightly managed within a narrow range of acidity, measure in pH. The acid is so strong it could burn a hole in your shoe. There are multiple reasons for this, the most important being protein digestion and neutralization of harmful bacteria. Without sufficient acidity, we don’t break down foods properly and we increase our risk of infection.
The research on this one is controversial. Some research says it doesn’t matter if you drink liquids around meals. Other research says the opposite. Since research isn’t always correct, we rely on tradition for this one and look to traditional dietary patterns, which show that certain liquids like wine (in small amounts) were custom, but large glasses of water were not.
We recommend minimizing the amount of liquid consumed at meal times and to leave the water chugging for times away from meals.
Aside from these basic tips, there are also plenty of healing foods, spices and medicinal herbs that help support and/or stimulate digestive function. Maintaining a whole-food, low sugar, low processed food diet is the best way to further support your digestion.
If you consistently follow these recommendations and eat a well-balanced diet, you will be many steps ahead of the average person in maintaining optimal digestion and feeling your best!
For more guidance on digestion or nutrition, consult with a qualified health professional like a naturopathic doctor or registered dietician.
Dr. Jenn Keller and Dr. Alex Keller are naturopathic doctors and the owners of Vis Tree Health in North Gower. By educating people on diet, healthy lifestyle choices and using natural therapeutics, they offer their patients a natural medical option when dealing with health concerns. They also operate Vis Tree Farm, a certified organic produce and herb farm, where they offer health workshops throughout the year.