No matter what food plan you tend to follow, there are some basic steps to help support the body’s innate wisdom as it relates to the digestive process. By incorporating these steps into your daily routine with every meal you will enhance your digestion and elimination at every level.
The complex process of how the body extracts the nutrition from the food you’re eating is something we often take for granted until it doesn’t work as well as it should and symptoms develop - indigestion, reflux, gas, bloating, etc. While many gut symptoms can be an indicator of other issues that may need additional treatment measures, paying attention to your digestive habits will go a long way to alleviating symptoms and maximizing the complex physiology of digestion.
Take time to prepare your food.
The process of digestion actually begins as soon as you become aware of being hungry. The production of enzymes, acid and other chemicals needed to break down the food you eat is stimulated by the brain’s acknowledgment that “hey, it’s time to eat!”. While the actual mechanical and chemical process of digestive happens in the gut, the signaling system starts in the brain and nervous system.
Taking some time to prepare your food, even 10 minutes, goes a long way to stimulating this initial step in the process. By grabbing food on the go or eating processed food that’s ready for immediate consumption we short-circuit this process. We are now eating but the body isn’t ready for digesting. Taking the time to set the table or getting out your best plate and cup can also count toward this important first step.
Sit down and eat mindfully.
Living in a culture that supports multitasking can make it difficult to walk away from the computer to have lunch or to devote otherwise valuable time to having a meal. Eating in the car or catching up on the news while we eat actually diminishes the body’s capacity to fully do its job of completing the digestive process. When we are actually being present with our food, appreciating it and really tasting it - this goes a long way to helping us be more in touch with our body cues of fullness and satisfaction.
The parasympathetic nervous system, a division of the autonomic nervous system, is responsible for the co-ordination of the many systems in the body that repair and restore functionality in the body, including the digestive process. A stressful environment interferes with the parasympathetic nervous system’s ability to do its job. Mindfulness at the table goes a long way to creating an environment of relaxation that allows one to fully benefit from the food we eat.
Chew every mouthful at least 31 times.
If the process of digestion actually starts in the brain and nervous system, then the next step begins in the mouth. The salivary enzymes produced by the anticipation of the flavors, textures and aromas of the meal are critical to the chemical breakdown of the sugars and starches in the food being eaten. And mechanically, the act of chewing breaks down the bulk of the food so the stomach and small intestines can have an easier time to do their job. Eating quickly delivers a large amount of completely non-digested food to the stomach where it now has a much more difficult job to do. Chewing each mouthful thoroughly, helps slow the process down and ensure that the system does not get overwhelmed and dysfunctional.
Avoid eating when stressed or upset.
When we’re in stress mode, the nervous system has to prioritize which bodily functions need maximum attention to survive the threat and which functions can be shut down or ignored until the threat has passed. Whether the stressors are real or imagined, whether they are chemical, emotional or physical, our digestive capabilities are considered fairly non-essential when it comes to our stress physiology. This means that the whole symphony of elements needed for successful digestion comes to a grinding halt when we’re experiencing negative emotions.
Consider how this effects your digestive capacity over time if you're chronically worried or stressed at every meal or tend to be an “emotional eater”. Building resilience through the regular use of breathing techniques, practicing gratitude and other mind-body techniques can go a long way to help switch the nervous system from stress mode to recovery mode to aid digestion. For the emotional eater, substituting non-eating activities instead of indulging in favorite “comfort foods” can help break that cycle of making poor choices and eating when we’re not really hungry.
What else do you think helps to support healthy digestion?