Health is ALL about the gut! And while the “microbiome” (inner garden) is vital for health and something everyone now knows about I think we’ve lost the focus. One key way to support this ALL important environment multiple times daily is to focus on our digestion!
We are what we digest from the food that we eat!
So if our bodies aren’t performing this vital function effectively we need to take steps to lift our game. The following strategies combined with the BEST food you can source WILL produce optimal digestion which will exponentially enhance your health now and into the future!
Let’s talk about the most important system in regulating digestion, the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system consists of two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight-or-flight setting, the one that evolved from our need to run away from a saber-toothed tiger hundreds of years ago. As you can imagine, this system sends blood flow to your extremities, but shuts off digestion. (If you’re running from a tiger, your body’s more concerned about super-charging you to safety than processing what you had for lunch.)
These days, our sympathetic nervous system is also what dominates when we’re busy or stressed, which is why digestion so often takes a backseat. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is our “rest and digest” system. It’s the mode you want to be in before, during and after eating, to allow for optimal digestion.
With today’s on-the-go lifestyle, our sympathetic nervous system tends to rule the day. Many of us eat on the run or while doing work, so we’re not even giving our parasympathetic system a chance to work its magic.
Here are a few easy tips to help bring your parasympathetic system into balance and optimize the entire digestive process:
- Breathe through your nose. Our breath is such a simple but powerful tool in regulating our nervous system. Breathing through the mouth, as you often do when you’re working hard, nervous or anxious, activates our sympathetic nervous system. Breathing through the nose, however, does the opposite, and relaxes our body into parasympathetic mode.
So, before you even look at your food, close your eyes and take three deep breaths, in and out, through your nose. See? You’re more relaxed already.
- Add apple cider vinegar. For acid reflux, bloating, and constipation, try taking 1 tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar, in a small amount of water, 15 minutes before each meal. This gives your body a heads up that its time to eat, and your stomach will start producing all those enzymes and juices you need to break down your food. It’s not all that tasty, but it’s totally worth it.
- Use all your senses to eat. This is the mainstay of mindful eating. Look at your food, notice the colors, and way it sits on your plate. Smell your food before eating it. Pay attention to the texture of each bite, and taste all the flavors. Mindful eating helps to put your body into parasympathetic mode, and also encourages you to eat slower, therefore enhancing the overall digestive process.
- Only eat when you’re sitting down. This might seem obvious, but how many of us shovel food while we’re running to a meeting, after the kids, or in between chores? When you eat, the only thing you should be doing is eating. And sitting. Nothing else. No TV, no computer, no work. This nudges your body into parasympathic mode, and sends blood to your digestive system to help break down and absorb all those vitamins and nutrients.
- Chew your food at least 20 times for each bite. Mechanical breakdown is the first step in digestion, and it’s an important one. Aside from physically starting the breakdown process, saliva contains amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch even before the food hits your stomach. Studies have also shown that people who chew their food more end up eating less.
- Don’t jump up for a second helping. It takes 10 minutes for your stomach to send your brain the message that you’re full, so wait at least 10 minutes before going for seconds. This will prevent you from overeating, a common cause of indigestion, and may even help you shed a few pounds, too.
- Try tea. After all of this, if your digestion is still off, try some tea, but be choosy. Peppermint tea can help calm cramping and bloating, but may aggravate reflux. For reflux, try chamomile. Feeling nauseous? Try ginger tea, and add a few slices of fresh ginger for good measure.
- Do yoga: Hug it out! Well, kind of. Adding a few simple yoga poses to your dining experience can do wonders for digestion. This short series will follow the direction food moves along your colon, giving it a gentle nudge forward. About 15 minutes after eating, lie on your back and hug your right knee into your belly, with your left leg extended to the floor. This massages your ascending colon. Keep hugging your right knee in as you bring your left leg up to meet it. This stimulates the transverse colon. Next, extend the right leg, keeping the left leg in to massage and stimulate your descending colon. Take five deep breaths, in and out of the nose, in each position.
- Do yoga: Twist it out! Gentle twisting also helps to stimulate the digestive organs and move the process forward. Again, lying on your back, hug both knees in to the belly. On an exhale, let your knees fall over to the left, stimulating the right side of your body. Extend your arms out onto the floor into a T and take your gaze over to the right. Stay here and breathe. Come back to center on an inhale and take a few more deep breaths. On an exhale, let your knees fall to the right and repeat the exercise on this side.
Note: If you’re incorporating yoga into your digestive routine, always compress the right side of the body first, followed by the left, since food and other toxins move through our body from right to left.
- Exercise. Still feeling a bit sluggish after a meal? Go for a short walk. This gets blood moving, and helps with peristalsis, the wave-like motions of the stomach and intestine that move food along. It also helps to balance your blood sugar.
- Drink warm water NOT cold water. There is a concept called Agniin Ayurveda, meaning “digestive fire.” Ayurveda compares our digestive capacity to a physical fire. We ‘extinguish’ this fire when we consume cold water, whereas warm water kindles digestive fire, supporting elimination.
- STOP Eating Salads! So often touted as the classic ‘healthy food,’ salads actually disturb the elimination process for most people. That is because, like drinking cold water extinguishes digestive fire, eating cold, raw, uncooked vegetables in salads is difficult for our digestive system.
Eating raw vegetables additionally aggravates Vata dosha. When Vata dosha is aggravated for a long time, it can lead to the development of 80 different diseases. Keeping Vata dosha in a state of balance is a priority in Ayurveda.
The science of Ayurveda therefore recommends eating warm, oiled foods, which supports the digestive process and helps balance Vata dosha. You can steam or add oil to salads if you’d still like to eat them.
- BLESS your food and/or take a moment of gratitude for what you are about to eat. Be grateful to the animals, plants, farmers, workers, sun/rain… all of nature that played a part in that food being on your plate. Be grateful for the nourishment the food will bring to your body. This helps you to connect with the circle of life and have reverence for what you are eating.
- AVOID processed, refined, fake foods and sugar. Your body does not digest these things well and plus you know it ain’t good for you!
- ELIMINATE dairy, grains and legumes. Many people with compromised digestion will need to avoid these foods entirely and it is recommended to do so, at least initially. Some are able to add in raw dairy products (especially fermented dairy) and do quite well with it.
- Incorporate FERMENTED or CULTURED VEGGIES such as raw sauerkraut or kimchi with your meals. Use them like a condiment with your meals. These foods provide the gut with good bacteria and help with the digestive process. (**You are looking for RAW, unpasteurized fermented veggies. They can also be made cheaply at home.)
- Drink BONE BROTH daily. Bone broth is a superfood and does many things to nourish our bodies. One of the many healing properties is from the gelatin that is created during the cooking process that helps to heal, seal and nourish our digestive tracts. Remember… the ability of our digestive tract to be strong is essential to our health. And it is quite tasty!!
- Practice WOMB SQUATTING daily. This is the position we used to poo in before we had toilets! Womb squatting helps improve digestion by helping to promote proper elimination and stimulate natural digestion. It opens the hips and ankles, helps relieve constipation and menstrual cramps, as well as many more wonderful health benefits.
- Don’t eat when you are stressed or emotional. Your body goes into a state of “fight or flight” which is your body’s natural survival response to stress. When the body is in this state is shuts down digestion and puts energy towards the brain and muscles in order to adequately respond to the stressful situation. So… sit and eat your meals with as little stimulation as possible. Don’t eat and drive or eat and do 20 things at once… not helping your body digest your food.
- Eat until you are 80% full. This allows enough space for the digestive juices to breakdown food. Think of a furnace… if you filled the furnace full of wood and then tried to light it you wouldn’t create a very good fire because there is not enough space for oxygen to help keep the flames going. In the same way if you fill your stomach full of food then you will not create enough space to ignite your digestive fire so to speak.
- Use herbs to support optimal digestion such as bitters. Consult a qualified practitioner if you need guidance.