Michal Ofer

Food Freedom Friday Edition 69 - Digestion 101

Michal Ofer

There is no denying that what you put (and don’t put) in your mouth has enormous and often game-changing consequences for your digestion. The comfort of your stomach and intestines, your regularity, and the presence or absence of symptoms (excessive or stinky gas, bloating, cramping, distension, heartburn and more) can, in many cases be directly correlated with food choices. 

The integrity and resilience of the digestive system is not, however, dependant only on what you eat. How you eat and the way in which you live your life confers enormous impact on your digestive bliss or woe. 

Optimal digestive function is not just about what goes into your mouth. It is also a derivative of  your ability to digest, the health or distress of your gut flora, the lining of your intestinal tract and the balance of the enteric nervous system (ENS), also known as your second brain. These all coalesce to produce a particular digestive picture. 

I have put together my top suggestions to help reduce digestive distress and improve function by enhancing the ability of the gut to digest food, promoting microbiome health, creating nervous system/ENS balance and reducing factors that can create symptoms. Extremely simple things like introducing less air into your system and dampening stress hormones all confer benefit. 

1. Before eating, take 6-10 deep breaths. 

This promotes balance throughout the nervous system, which in turn supports regular motility. 

2. Sit when you eat. 

 Resist galloping out the door slurping down a smoothie or eating at the sink, in front of the fridge or otherwise while on the run. 

3. Slow down. 

By slowing down when you eat, you introduce less air into your system and have less likelihood of overeating. 

4. Chew your food. 

There is no need to count bites, but taking your food down to a soft paste reduces the amount of pressure on the stomach and small intestines to break food down further. It is much more challenging to digest large chunks of food than well-chewed ones. Your gut flora will thank you, too. 

6. Eat to satiety. 

The above suggestion will help set you up for this. Overeating is a major cause of gastrointestinal distress on several levels. It is also typically habitual, and as you set up new habits and practice them, your body will let you know when it has had enough. 

6. Put work and electronics aside. 

When you eat, just eat. As tempting as it may be to scroll through Facebook, research the latest kitchen gadget on Amazon or catch up on work email while you eat, these enormous distractions remove you from the act of eating. This makes you more likely to eat faster, chew less, eat more and introduce excessive air into your system. 

7. Avoid talking with food in your mouth. 

Your mother was right - talking with your mouth full not only takes away from chewing, it also introduces excessive air into your system. That air, of course, will have to come out one way or another. 

8. Avoid arguments or stress-inducing conversations. 

 Activation of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (your ‘fight or flight’ system) and the corresponding surge in cortisol, adrenaline & noradrenaline are antagonists to your digestion. This causes blood and resources to be diverted away from the digestive organs and into the limbs. This is not where you want your body to be focused during a meal. Eating and digesting occur when the the other branch of the nervous system, the parasympathetic system (your ‘rest and digest’ system) is stimulated. 

9. Sleep. 

Many experiencing motility disorders like constipation, diarrhea, IBS and SIBO often are plagued by sleep problems. Set normal sleep/wake cycles, avoid electronics before bed, and get help for your insomnia if present. Create habits that allow you to get 7-9 hours a night. 

10. Move your body. 

A daily morning walk, preferably around nature, if possible, is a great way to ground and center yourself for the day, balance the nervous systems and promote regular bowel movements. This is one of my top interventions for people struggling with chronic constipation. 

11. Avoid chewing gum. 

Although not technically ‘food’, gum chewing introduces a lot of air into your gums and upper digestive tract and often contains artificial sweeteners that are gas-inducing. As an alternative, try sucking on some cloves to freshen the breath and promote oral health. 

12. Hydrate. 

Your gut needs large amounts of fluid daily. Water is crucially important for food breakdown and appropriate motility. Dehydration is a key cause of constipation, especially when coffee is over-consumed and sleep patterns are compromised. 

13. Incorporate probiotics. 

These are the supplemental form of beneficial bacteria, and they help support your native flora. Most probiotics do not colonize the GI tract, rather they help to promote optimal digestive function. You can find really great brands of probiotic supplements or, ideally, consume them in the form of naturally fermented, unpasteurized, raw foods. Start slowly, they can be an acquired taste and need to be introduced to your gut bacteria with ease. 

14. Consider digestive enzymes.  

Taking a digestive enzyme supplement with your meals will support your body in breaking down food. They do not create dependence. Age, stress, lack of sleep and other physiological and environmental factors contribute to less enzymes digestion more challenging. A little help will go a long way in easing many symptoms. Consult with your health care advisor for what your specific needs are in the enzyme department. 

15. Get rid of your hand sanitizer. 

Hand sanitizers that contain triclosan can be problematic for your gut bacteria, promote antibiotic resistance and have been linked to a number of conditions, including allergies. Many types of hand sanitizers are slowly being phased out due to these deleterious consequences. Very warm water, soap and a thorough wash are more effective and safer for your gut. 

Bonus tip 

 Use a foot stool. 

Propping up your feet while going to the bathroom puts your anatomy in the best position for easy, unstrained, pain free bowel movements. No need for anything fancy, a little step stool from a home goods store, or even a small wastebasket in the bathroom, is enough to prop your feet up on, raising your knees above your hips. 

Pick one or more to focus on at a time and make improving your digestion, assimilation and elimination a priority to ensure you can achieve your wellness goals.