5 Tips To Improve Your Digestion, A Nutritionist Explains.
5 Simple Tips To Improve Your Digestion, A Nutritionist Explains.
Not a single one of the tens of trillions of cells in the human body can function to its full potential if nutrient intake is low or digestion and absorption are malfunctioning. The human body uses nutrients from the process of digestion in a form that can be absorbed and used for fuel. When fuel is low or absorption is not optimal, our bodies are not running to the ability that they can. Over time, this creates symptoms, and although some symptoms become noticeable, others like “hitting that afternoon wall” can become our “normal” through the day to day.
But how does digestion work anyway?
There are a handful of organs involved in the process.
Digestion starts in the mouth and the mouth has two main functions.
The mouth is responsible for chewing the food we put in it and secreting saliva from our salivary glands which contain enzymes to help us break down our food.
Imagine the mouth functioning as a washing machine. In a washing machine, soap starts the break down of dirt in our clothing in the same way that saliva has certain enzymes that start the breakdown of food.
The esophagus is a tube that connects the throat and the stomach.
If the mouth is the gateway to the body, then the esophagus is a slide for food and drink to travel along to make it to the stomach through a mechanism called peristalsis
The stomach has a few main functions. The stomach mixes bolus (chewed food) into smaller pieces with gastric acid (hydrochloric acid and pepsin) and stores swallowed food and liquid until it is ready to be used.
Like a giant blender.
The small intestine assists in finishing digestion of macronutrients and absorbs nutrients into the bloodstream. Upstream processes in the mouth & stomach play a key roll in how the small intestines can perform these functions.
Poor breakdown of food can create problems with inflammation and poor nutrient absorption.
Think of trying to fit a quarter in an hourglass. The quarter will never make it to the bottom like sand will.
In this analogy, the sand is the final product when upstream processes are working to their full potential.
If nutrient absorption is working optimally, these nutrients can be absorbed by the cells to be utilized through many systems of the body.
The large intestine sends waste into the rectum to be stored until elimination via a bowel movement, similar to how a sewage pipe takes the waste into the sewer system until it is disposed of elsewhere.
The large intestine also absorbs water + certain vitamins and minerals.
The rectum stores waste until it is ready to be eliminated through the anus.
Similar to a gumball dispenser.
The gumball machine holds gumballs until they are ready to be released like the rectum stores waste until it is ready to be eliminated.
Once ready for release the sphincter relaxes and waste goes out.
The liver, gallbladder, & pancreas also has a role in the digestive system.
The liver filters out things that do not belong like a vacuum cleaner.
The liver also makes bile to break up fat for optimal absorption in the small intestine, has a role in the metabolism of macronutrients, activates enzymes, and assists with some nutrient absorption.
The gallbladder stores and concentrates bile & the pancreas makes digestive juices and enzymes to help break down sugars, fats, and starches.
As you can see, there is a lot going on during the digestive process.
Why is this all relevant, because every action has a reaction
The digestive process, although complicated is easier to understand when using analogies to simplify the process. When broken into steps it is easy to see how one suboptimal function upstream can impact what is going on more downstream.
Every action has a reaction when we experience symptoms such as bloat, gas, low energy, migraines, and more the answer is not always so easy but working upstream with digestion through my 5 simple steps can help create positive feedback loops in the right direction.
In reality, the only voluntary part that we can control when it comes to digestion is chewing our food and that starts in the mouth. We control how long and well we chew our food which has an impact on the rest of our digestion when the Autonomic Nervous System takes over. Before moving into my 5 simple tips to optimize digestion, we must understand the role our autonomic nervous system plays in our digestive system.
Autonomic Nervous system:
- The parasympathetic Nervous system – “rest and digest” – conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, creates calm, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.
- The Sympathetic Nervous system – “fight for flight” – directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations.
Our bodies are not designed to eat in a “fight or flight” state and the digestive process can often be malfunctioning due to something as simple as eating during high stress. Stress affects how quickly food moves through the body, how much digestive secretions we produce, and what nutrients are absorbed.
Working upstream, what does this mean.
Many physiological processes within the gastrointestinal system can be contributing to the symptoms we experience on the day to day. For example, here are some things that could be working sub-optimally and impact downstream digestion creating negative feedback loops within our digestive system…
- Poor chewing, fast eating
- Poor saliva production (dehydration)
- Impairment from dysfunction in the mouth
- Low stomach acid (from impairment in the mouth, drinking lots of fluids with meals, medications like acid blockers)
- Gastric infection
- Inflammatory diet
- Poor nutrient utilization necessary for GI mobility due to low stomach acid
- Vagal nerve dysfunction due to stress (sympathetic dominant state)
- Impaired by what is happening above
- Impairment due to lack of sleep
- Microbial Imbalances or overgrowth
- Low digestive secretions due to stress
- Poor bile consistency (liver and gallbladder health)
- Food sensitivities
- Inflammatory diet
- Medications (birth control, NSAIDs, statins)
- Thinning of the mucus membranes (celiac)
- Impaired by what is happening above
- B6 Deficiency
- Missing Gallbladder
- Impaired by what is happening above
- Low fiber diets
- High sugar diets
- Inflammatory diet
- Poor bowel frequency, reabsorption of toxins
Notice constipation and gas are at the very bottom of this “upstream concept”.
The point I am presenting to you is that there is always a root cause of every symptom and working upstream can help find the true root cause behind them.
Here are the 5 simple tips that may improve your digestive function without involving an expensive supplement protocol or visit to a specialist, using a technique called working upstream.
1.Practice Mindful Eating & Chew your food
Remember, chewing is the one thing we can control with digestion to optimize how we break down food and make it easier on the stomach and small intestine to digest.
Chewing thoroughly leads to better digestion and assimilation of nutrients by initiating the release of digestive enzymes from our saliva that break down food. Many of us are fast eaters or eat on the go but if you can find a way to slow things down you can make a major improvement in your digestive function.
Some simple ways to practice mindful eating & slow down meal consumption are…
- Digital Detox: Turn off the TV, be present.
- Play some relaxing music or binomial beats
- Eat with your non-dominant hand, this will slow things down for sure!
- Take 3 deep breathes before your meal, mid-meal, and after your meal
- Have gratitude for your meal, think about what happened in order for you to enjoy your meal
- Smell your food, use your hands
2. Support Vagal Nerve Function
The Vagus Nerve is the largest nerve in your body and connects your brain to your gut. Proper stimulation of the vagus nerve happens when the body is in a parasympathetic state and is essential for digestion.
If you experience random lower GI cramping, it could be a sign that your vagus nerve is not functioning optimally. The vagus nerve is a “parasympathetic nerve” (remember rest & digest) and cramping can be our nervous system lacking function during high stress or fast eating habits.
Here is how you can support the vagal nerve function…
- Practice mindful eating to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and support vagal nerve function. For example: Try 2-3 deep breathes before meals
- When you brush your teeth at night, brush your tongue and gag a few times or use a tongue blade.
- Gargle aggressively with water 2-4 times per day
3. Do a simple at-home test for low Stomach Acid Test
Optimal stomach acid is important for many reasons.
To name a few…
– To further break down food
– To support the passive immune system and rid bacteria
– To denature protein
– To separate minerals from protein
– To absorb nutrients important for sleep, thyroid, and many metabolic processes in the body
If you are someone who suffers from acid reflux, indigestion, bloating, constipation, have a history of using acid-lowering drugs, have nutrient deficiencies, or feels sluggish after consuming meat… there may be a chance your stomach acid could be suboptimal. Should the suspicion be there, there is a way you can do a simple at-home test using baking soda.
How to do the baking soda test:
-Do this first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything.
-The best practice is to repeat this test for 3 days in a row for an average.
-Mix ¼ teaspoon of baking soda in 4 oz of water. Get your timer ready.
-Drink it all and immediately start the clock.
-See how much time passes until you burp. Not a small burp, a big burp.
-Stop timing after five minutes.
People who make enough stomach acid generally burp within two to three minutes. If you went past that without burping, talk to your nutritionist or health care practitioner to best support you around which remedy to increase stomach acid is best for you.
Some ways to improve your stomach acid while waiting to see a practitioner:
-Move water consumption away from meals
-Chew Your Food Thoroughly and Eat Smaller Meals (starting to see a pattern here?)
-Use apple cider vinegar (diluted) as a dressing or before meals. If you feel a burning in the stomach, stop immediately, and see a licensed practitioner.
-Consider adding digestive bitters 10-15 minutes before a meal in a small amount of water (especially when consuming protein). When your digestion needs a little support, bitters can facilitate stomach acid and act as a digestive aid. I like Urban Moonshine Digestive Bitters.
-Shift to a predominantly plant-based diet with wild fish, and crockpot cooked chicken avoiding any tough meats.
4. Hydrate well, but not with meals
Drink enough water. Muscles within your digestive tract need enough water to contract properly in order to help you go to the bathroom. So low levels of water can result in diarrhea, constipation, cramping, or hemorrhoids.
– Aim for 2-3 L per day + additional 8 oz per cup of coffee / black tea
– Hydrating fluids include water, seltzer/sparkling water, and non-caffeinated/herbal hot (unsweetened).
– Ideally, keep water consumption away from meals. Research shows that sipping a little water during meals isn’t a cause for concern but drinking a glass or two may interfere with digestion and stomach acid levels.
5. Increase bitter greens
Increasing bitter greens in the diet can help stimulate digestion.
Eating bitter food activates taste buds that simultaneously stimulate enzyme production and bile flow, which promotes digestion.
Bitter greens can also promote natural detoxification of the liver, which regulates cholesterol, balances hormones, detoxifies the blood, and aids in metabolizing fats.
Here is a list of bitter greens:
Kale (including Dinosaur Kale, Lacinto Kale)
It’s hard to always put the nail on the head as to what can be causing your symptoms but working upstream and optimizing a few simple practices can help create positive feedback loops and dig into the root cause or root causes.
If you are looking for further assistance and for more information on how we can work together email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: This information is not to be used to diagnose or treat any individual health concern. If you are experiencing any major gastrointestinal symptoms it is important to work with a licensed practitioner to determine the root cause for you.