Ten Tips for Optimizing Digestion
One of the most fascinating aspects of clinical nutrition is gut health. Your digestive system is where the breakdown and assimilation of food occurs, 70% of your immune system resides, and the majority of detoxification happens. The gut is commonly referred to as our “second brain” and is intimately connected to our emotional state. In fact, 80-95% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is found in our bellies!
Making sure our digestive system is operating optimally is crucial to our overall well-being. Here are ten ways to improve your gut health from start (mouth) to finish (well, you know where it ends!).
Chew Your Food
You might have read that in your mother’s voice, but she was right. Chewing your food is the first step to proper digestion. In addition to mechanically breaking down each bite, the saliva produced in your mouth secretes enzymes to assist in the process, lightening the load for the rest of your digestive system. Research suggests chewing five to ten times for soft foods and up to thirty times for more solid foods.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
This might seem like another obvious one, but hydration is essential to maintaining digestive health. H20 plays a role in the production of stomach acid and helps with gut motility. Our large intestine relies on water to carry out its functions properly. It is best to sip water during mealtimes and drink larger quantities approximately twenty minutes before or after eating. Strive for six to eight glasses per day or half your weight in ounces.
Bitter is Better
Bitter foods enhance digestion by getting the gastric juices flowing. They cause you to secrete saliva, stoking the digestive fires in your stomach, and release of enzymes in your small intestine. Some examples of bitter foods include dandelion greens, endive, arugula, radicchio, and dark chocolate.
You can also find bitters in tincture form. I love and often recommend Urban Moonshine Digestive Bitters – they’re organic and come in six unique flavors. You can read more about the power of bitters on Urban Moonshine’s website.
Choose Real Food
Processed foods, refined sugar, chemical preservatives, and artificial sweeteners all wreak havoc on our bodies causing irritation to our intestinal lining, inflammation, and an imbalance of gut bacteria. Certain medications can also have a negative effect on our digestive tract (there are too many to list – maybe a topic for another blog post!). Choose whole, unprocessed foods that your body will recognize whenever possible. Aim to eat a rainbow of color to ensure you’re getting the full spectrum of phytonutrients, many of which are anti-inflammatory!
Let it Ferment
Did you know that you are currently harboring three to four pounds of bacteria in your gut? These microbes play an important role in your metabolism, immune health and nutrient status. You can assist in keeping your gut flora balanced by eating fermented, probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, kombucha, tempeh, kimchi and pickles! Just make sure the fermented veggies are refrigerated and not shelf-stable – this ensures they contain active cultures.
Prebiotic foods help to feed the good gut bacteria, so load up on onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas, as well!
Release the Phytates
Certain foods like grains, nuts, seeds and legumes contain a naturally occurring compound known as phytic acid. It is considered an anti-nutrient because it can block important minerals from being absorbed by the body and inhibit certain enzymes we need to digest our food.
These foods can be a healthy part of our diet if we soak them in water before preparing or consuming them. Not only does this release the phytic acid, it activates enzymes we need to digest and assimilate these foods properly! Adding a strip of dried kombu seaweed to the soaking water assists in the breakdown phytates. Soaking times vary depending on the item.
Fiber: Nature’s Broom
We can’t really talk about digestion without touching on the importance of fiber! Among other responsibilities, the roughage in our diets feed the bacteria in our large intestine, producing a number of byproducts that act as fuel for these cells to function properly. Fiber is often referred to as nature’s broom because it doesn’t get absorbed into our bodies like other nutrients – it sweeps through, helping to bulk up stools and remove waste from the body.
Aim to get at least 25 grams of fiber per day from sources like chia seeds, flax seeds, brown rice, beans, apples, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower and berries. Increase your intake slowly to avoid symptoms like gas and bloating and remember to drink plenty of water.
Be Mindful of Beverages
Coffee and alcohol are both diuretics and can dehydrate you quickly, so be mindful of your intake throughout the day. Some are more sensitive to caffeine than others – an overstimulated bowel can lead to diarrhea, so scale it back if you fall into this category!
Herbal teas like chamomile and peppermint can have a soothing effect on the digestive system. Sipping on a warm cup of bone broth is the perfect gut healing beverage. It contains nutrients like collagen that help to repair intestinal cells and reduce inflammation.
Set the Mood
The fast-paced culture we live in makes it hard to slow down during mealtime, but it is so important to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system when eating! Do your best to eat without any distractions – turn off the TV, computer, or even pull over onto the side of the road if you’re on the go. You’ll enjoy your meal more and your body will be able to slip into ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Move Your Body
Moderate physical activity can help with regularity, stress reduction, boosting immunity, and weight management – all important to healthy digestion. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits! Find activities you enjoy and practice them regularly.
So, there you have it – ten tips for improving your digestion. If you have symptoms and have tried these basic interventions without success or find some of them difficult to navigate on your own, you may benefit from a consult with a nutritionist. Some symptoms or conditions require a more individualized approach that may include further diagnostic testing, special dietary guidelines, and targeted supplements. Don’t hesitate to contact us – we’re happy to support you!