Tips for Optimizing Your Digestion
With the dawn of a new year, many people resolve to get healthier. No matter the health goal, as a naturopathic medical student and future physician, I understand that nutrition is the cornerstone of health. Feeling and looking better is largely dictated by the food we eat. But “you are what you eat” is no longer, rather “you are what you absorb” is of utmost importance.
Many Naturopathic physicians or other nutrition experts value particular diets and start their nutrition plan with foods to include and/or eliminate. You could be doing a great job of eating the right kind of food, but what of those nutrients is your body actually taking in?
It’s a lot like putting premium gasoline in your car, when what it really needs is a tune-up.
Don’t let this make you think that nutrient-dense food isn’t important because it absolutely is. However nutrition needs a greater emphasis placed on how well our food is to being digested and absorbed. Some physicians (MD or ND) rationalize their patient’s digestion isn’t up to snuff and the prescription pad comes out. Digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) become part of the treatment plan. Unless there’s some type of underlying pathology or condition (for example a removed gall bladder) much of the time this is unnecessary. Rather than taking pills to do your body’s job, with a few tips and lifestyle modifications you could optimize your digestion yourself!
- Digestion begins with the sight and smell of food.
Many think that digestion starts at the stomach. In reality, the cephalic phase of digestion begins when you see, smell, or even think about food.The cephalic phase kick starts the production of various digestive enzymes (chemicals that breakdown food). This is just one of the many reasons why cooking is beneficial for your digestion.
B.’s Tips: Ideally, cook your own food, while smelling and appreciating fresh, fragrant ingredients. Additionally, meal planing and thinking about the food you’re about to make will get that saliva flowing!
But, we can’t be culinary maestros all the time.
- Share cooking duties with a partner or room-mate and sneak in the kitchen for a whiff while they cook.
- Set an alarm on your phone or computer with a pop-up picture of something tasty before you eat.
- Enjoy food porn. There are some beautiful food blogs to not only inspire your taste buds and start that cephalic phase, but also to brush off those culinary skills.
If you’re strapped for time (hey, you’re human), use the above tips when you pick up take-out or eat out.
- Eat at regular times.
I believe there is no single right diet for everyone. You could eat three square meals a day, or it may be more beneficial to snack in between. But, what is important is consistency. Your body likes routine! This is not just true with eating, but also for your bed-/wake-up time. The better able you are to get your body on a schedule, the better it knows what is to come and can prepare for it. You’ll find as your body regulates, your cephalic phase complete with drool and stomach gurgles are right on schedule.
- Create an environment for eating.
It’s all about conditioning. When you eat in the same place your body unconsciously realizes it’s time for food. Try eating without distractions. Turn off the TV, refrain from replying to your pile of emails and prepare your body for the food you’re about to enjoy. Respect and appreciate your food with a moment of gratitude or saying grace.
- Sit down to eat.
No (sorry!), the driver seat of your car doesn’t count.
Sitting down better ables your body to move into “rest and digest” mode. When the body is resting and digesting (parasympathic mode), a variety of physical changes occur. This includes an increase of digestive juices as well as increased blood flow to your gut. With increased blood flow to your gut, there is more blood to take nutrients away to the places in the body that need it.
Alternatively, if your body is forced to digest food while still in “fight or flight” (sympathetic) mode, there is often insufficient digestive enzymes, especially stomach acid. This can lead to major indigestion and over time can contribute to leaky gut when poorly broken down food molecules are being absorbed (forcefully) across your gut lining.
- Chew your food.
Surprise, surprise, mom was right. Adequately chewing your food is crucial for optimal digestion. After that cephalic phase, the next place digestion occurs is in your mouth. Mechanical digestion achieved by those pearly white chompers makes the job of the rest of your digestive organs a whole lot easier. Also, the longer you chew, the more time your food is exposed to digestive enzymes in your mouth, especially important for starchy foods.
- Eat breakfast.
Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day. Eating first thing in the morning sets your metabolism for the day as you are “breaking the fast“. You are resetting your digestion after the extended time of not eating.
Be sure to include adequate protein, fibre and fat. This will slow down the breakdown of your food, making you feel fuller longer (more on this to come in future nutrition posts).
- Don’t ignore hunger or satiety cues.
Listening to your body is important on so many levels, and eating is definitely one of them. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. This is when proper nutrition comes in so you are eating the right kinds of food that make you feel fuller longer and deliver more nutrition (again, more to come later). But, it’s important to really pay attention to these signals. Are you actually thirsty rather than hungry? Are you just eating because you’re bored? Did the movie distract you from realizing you ate the whole bowl of popcorn?
- Portion control
As an added point to that above, over-eating at meal times can be a problem. Research shows the ratio of the plate occupied by your food can impact how much you eat. The larger your plate, the more you eat. A study conducted with a refillable soup bowl showed a significant increase in eating, just because the soup continued to be replenished.
- Use smaller dishes.
- Cook just enough food for your meal (or pack the rest away for leftovers). Out of sight, out of mind.
- Put bulk foods in smaller containers.
- If you don’t buy it, you can’t eat it! Yes that jumbo bag of chips from Costco was a good deal, but now you have a tempting snack constantly taunting you every time you visit the pantry. (My study chocolate remains in the freezer, and I do my best not to touch it!)
- Avoid water at meal times.
I am definitely guilty of this one. Running errands all day, not thinking about drinking water, then sitting down at a restaurant where they fill and refill your glass with ice cold water because you’re guzzling it back. No wonder! You haven’t had anything to drink all day.
There are mixed views out there, but I think that drinking an excess of water can potentially dilute your digestive enzymes, and raise the pH of your stomach acid (you want the pH of your stomach to remain low for optimal digestion). More importantly, avoid cold drinks with your meals. From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, your digestion needs fire, and cold drinks dampen the fire or put it out completely.
Away from meals, stay hydrated! Unlike with meals, this will help digestion remain fluid. Personally, I don’t think the temperature of your water matters away from meals- whatever makes you drink more and stay hydrated.
- Don’t exercise right after eating.
This goes back to talking about “rest and digest” versus “fight or flight”. It’s important to give your body some time to digest the food you just ate. If you start exercising, blood flow will be redirected to your muscles instead of your gut. Do your body a favour and chill out after you eat.
Exercising away from meals however is hugely important for your digestion.
If you don’t move, your bowels don’t either.
- Start keeping a diet diary.
A great way to get an idea of what’s happening with your digestion is to keep track of what you’re eating and how you feel.
Questions to consider:
- What kind and amount of foods are you eating? When?
- What happens when you eat certain foods? Are you gassy, bloated, in pain? Where does it hurt?
- What and how much are you drinking?
Another great thing to keep track of is your bowel movements.
People often wonder why their Naturopathic physician asks these questions. It is an important diagnostic tool that gives us an indication of how your system is functioning.
- How many times a day?
- Is it loose, or formed? Does it float?
- What colour is it?
- Is there blood, mucous or food in your stool?
- Do you have to strain?
As doctors, we want to know all the nitty gritty details! The more information the better.
Ideally, fyi, your stool should be light brown in colour and the size and consistency of a ripe banana, anywhere from 1-3 bowel movements a day (can be higher depending on food intake).
Food goes in and out!
- Consult a Naturopathic physician.
Find an ND and work together on improving your digestion. You’ve got a great start with these tips, and bringing in your diet diary will knock his/her socks off! NDs have a multitude of tools at their disposal to get you on track. As mentioned, there could be an underlying pathology that’s contributing to your digestive woes. An example of impaired digestion lies in conditions such as Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Those affected could be eating a great diet, but the swollen and impaired cells in their gut cannot properly absorb much of the nutrition from their food. Naturopathic physicians have a whole protocol for you.
Healing the gut is one of the things we do best!
Don’t feel overwhelmed! Food and eating isn’t something to be intimidated by, but enjoyed in all its capacity. We can’t all take hours to consume a meal like the Italians, but small changes can make a world of difference. You following all of these tips and maintaining a perfect diet is not what’s important, rather it’s about becoming an active participant in your health and not simply an observer.
My idea of health management is empowering you to adopt healthy, long-standing habits that you feel good about. I’m here to not only coach you, but be your biggest cheerleader.
Take a bite out of life my friend, and truly enjoy it!