I grew up with a clever rhyme about beans being a “magical fruit” due to the sounds they often produced after consumption. Reflecting upon this still brings a chuckle but also is a reminder of how often flatulence, bloating, acid reflux and all sorts of bowel imbalances get normalized in American culture. In my practice, I often hear things like, “oh, this is just how I am” or “some amount of gas is normal, right?” In actuality, all of the above symptoms are signals that your digestion is less than optimal. Why does it matter? In short, poor digestion leads not only to discomfort and potentially embarrassing symptoms but also to systemic inflammation and can develop into more serious disease states. What can you do about it? While every individual is unique and is treated as such in clinic, what follows are a list of some common ways to optimize digestion on a day to day basis.
Build With Quality Raw Materials
Eat a balanced diet composed of fresh, organic vegetables (especially root veggies and dark leafy greens), fruits, nuts, seeds and grains along with grass fed or wild caught meats if you choose to eat meat. These foods provide nutrients for whole body health but also specifically B vitamins and minerals such as zinc and magnesium that are necessary for adequate production of stomach acid and proper assimilation of nutrients. Avoid conventionally grown (non -organic) foods along with processed foods and sugars as they often contain harmful pesticides and herbicides which are known to cause harm to the mucosa of your gut. This disruption of gut mucosa inhibits your ability to absorb nutrients and can further lead to autoimmune and more serious disease states. In addition, processed foods and sugars actually take more energy than they give, depleting your stores of B vitamins and minerals that are critical for normal digestion.
Simply Eat When You Eat
Let eating take center stage by settling down to nosh in a relaxed environment rather than eating while driving, standing or multi – tasking. Avoiding these activities when eating helps minimize the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn helps to regulate levels of stomach acid to ensure proper digestion. Focus on chewing each bite thoroughly in order to maximize the digestive process that starts in your mouth. Allowing this mindfulness to continue after meals aids in attuning to foods that may provoke digestive upset and would be best avoided or prepared in alternate ways.
Drink Up Between Meals
Imagine concocting a rich, savory stew then pouring a bucket of ice water into it. Ridiculous right? But that’s what we, often unknowingly, do at mealtimes. Drinking copious amounts of liquids with meals, reduces the production of stomach acid and dilutes the chemical soup of digestive enzymes, stomach acid and bacteria that aid in processing food. Shoot for drinking liquids in between meals in order to stay hydrated but not interfere with the digestive symphony at mealtime. If you desire to have a beverage with meals, choose one with digestive properties such as a cup of ginger or lemon tea, kombucha or occasionally a small amount of beer or wine. If you feel that you need a beverage to swallow your food this is often an indication that you are not chewing your food thoroughly enough.
Befriend Fermented Foods
Have you ever wondered why those little pickles, famously called cornichons, always end up with the charcuterie, the miso soup gets served before your favorite sushi or a bratwurst is often blanketed in kraut? Traditional cultures have long known that the secret to good digestion lies in a bacterial process. Fermented foods are fairly ubiquitous in various cultures, most commonly known in the above examples along with kimchi, yogurt, kefir, apple cider vinegar and kombucha. These fermented foods and beverages contain the trifecta of factors necessary for proper digestion: acid, enzymes and probiotics. In addition, the beneficial bacteria they contain, often known as probiotics, contribute to a balanced gut microbiome. Modern research has shown that a healthy microbiome is involved in normal function of just about every bodily system and helps regulate normal immune, hormone and stress responses as well as brain function. Want to embrace the power of these foods and beverages? Try adding ¼ to 1/2c cup of unpasteurized, fermented veggies or beverages to each meal and observe how you feel. If you notice that adding fermented food increases your digestive symptoms this is often a clue that you may have a bacterial imbalance that would best be corrected via acupuncture, herbs and dietary change.
Sprout It Out
Grains, nuts, beans and seeds all are contained in a convenient protective coating in order that they may survive until conditions are ripe for germination. If these foods are consumed before they have the opportunity to be sprouted, the protective outer coatings can cause digestive distress and inflammation due to the phytates and lectins they contain. Once again, we take the nod from traditional culinary systems and see that sprouting these foods not only removes the protective coating with its inflammatory compounds but also improves nutrient assimilation by creating digestive enzymes. Sprouting is fairly easy to do but pre-sprouted products are also available in most health food stores and even some major grocery chains. If you’re keen to give sprouting or fermenting a try, a great resource is the cookbook, Nourishing Traditionsby Sally Fallon.
Digestive bitters, traditionally derived from plants such as gentian root, have long been utilized to improve digestion, often in pre- dinner cocktails. Their efficacy lies in the ability of the plants’ bitter compounds, once detected by taste buds, to signal a release of stomach acid enzymes, and bile thus priming the body for digestion. Prepared bitters are widely available in a variety of flavors but check to make sure they are free of artificial colorings or flavors. If you feel inspired, you can also make your own concoction. And no booze is necessary to enjoy. Try a bit of your favorite bitters in a small amount of sparkling or still water with a wedge of citrus. Refreshing and effective!
Harness The Power of Herbs
Once again, we look to the wisdom of cultures past who have traditionally incorporated herbs and spices into daily cooking not only for their flavor but also for their digestive benefits. Chances are you may have some helpful medicine hiding out in your cupboard or fridge right now! In fact, many commonly used herbs such as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, black and red peppers, and various mints have powerful digestive properties. If you’d like to explore utilizing culinary herbs as medicine, a great resource is Alchemy of Herbsby Rosalee De La Foret. This book provides great insight and recipes on how to incorporate common herbs into your diet and also speaks to the unique properties of each herb that may make them more suited to one type of person over the other. If this peaks your interest in utilizing herbs more intensively as medicine, keep in mind that practicing herbal medicine safely and effectively takes years of study. Therefore, it is best to seek guidance from a trained herbalist if you wish to incorporate more concentrated forms of herbs such as pills, powders or tinctures into your treatment regime. A trained professional can best assess what combination of herbs will best support your unique constitution and chief complaints.
Back Away From The Tums!
Antacids and Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) are often used to treat acid reflux or indigestion. Initially these might sound like a helpful solution as they can neutralize acidity but they in truth make reflux even worse. Here’s why: Adequate levels of stomach acid are crucial to breaking down food, in particular proteins and fats. When the pH of the stomach becomes more basic, food (especially proteins and minerals) will sit and essentially compost, creating heat that rises up in the form of bloating or reflux. In addition, low stomach acid levels leave your body more prone to pathogenic bacteria such as H. Pylori which can cause and exacerbate acid reflux. So instead of reaching for an antacid, focus on utilizing a fermented food or digestive bitters with each meal to help restore the proper balance of stomach acid and bacteria. Sometimes these measures are enough to correct reflux but more stubborn cases respond best to a regime of herbs, acupuncture and dietary change.
Give It a Rest
Minimize snacking between meals and stop eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime to allow your digestive system a chance to rest and reboot. In addition, implementing periods of intermittent fasting of 12 or more hours per day has been shown to not only improve digestion but also to lower insulin and cortisol levels, improve mental clarity and help maintain healthy weight. If you are drawn to try intermittent fasting start slowly, fasting 8-10 hours per day between dinner and breakfast. If you do not experience weakness, headaches or dizziness you can increase the length of the fast slowly. Some patients report feeling their best fasting 14-16 hours per day, but every individual can have a different response to extended fasts. Please note that intermittent fasting is not indicated for everyone. If you are a diabetic, elderly, frail or have a history of eating disorders intermittent fasting is not advised without the supervision of a medical provider.
While this list contains only a handful of suggestions, even these can be overwhelming for some individuals. If you feel led to experiment with some changes, try integrating just one this week and observe how it impacts your digestion and overall well – being. Then try adding in other tools, one at a time. Many patients find it helpful to keep a journal in order to keep track of strategies they’ve implemented along with the symptomatic changes they’ve observed. Finally, in all things the key to change is mindfulness. Keep paying attention and your body’s inherent wisdom will start to point you to lifegiving dietary rhythms and a more harmonious digestive system!
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