What we eat has a huge impact on how we function and our health but equally important is how we break down those foods and how we absorb those foods. The best foods in the world can only work their magic if we are able to access and use the nutrients.
We now know that our food is way more than just calories. The foods we eat are information for every cell in our body and are what our cells need to grow healthy tissues, fire our nervous system properly, fight viruses and bacteria, grow bones, think clearly, detox chemicals/meds/hormones/etc, make enzymes/hormones/neurotransmitters, and so much more.
But first we need to properly break down our foods and then absorb our foods effectively. So many of us are not doing this efficiently and while this can prevent us from using all the nutrients improperly digested food can also cause acute problems such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, inflammation, and more. No thank you.
No matter what health issue you are working on, starting with the gut from top to bottom will support any/all of the work you do. No matter what fancy protocol you are following, gut function is key.
Here are 5 simple ways to enhance digestion so you can fully use all the nutrients you are eating to support your health today and for decades. Try adding a new one each week and see how your feel.
1.Breath 3-5 times before you eat. Taking the time to breath calmly before you eat impacts digestion in a few magnificent ways. We cannot digest our food when we are stressed. We need the parasympathetic part of our nervous system (aka rest and digest side) to be activated in order to secrete stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile, which are all needed to break down our food and absorb the nutrients in them. The time it takes to stop, slow down and breath also allows us time to smell our food which also activates digestive secretions and blood flow to the gut so we can properly break down our food. So many of us are rushing around throwing food into our mouth and not setting up the environment for digestion. (I even do this when I am eating on the trail and especially if I am ever eating at work or on the run.). So for a week try breathing 3-5 times before you eat and see how you feel.
2. Chew, Chew, Chew. Chewing is one of the first steps involved with digestion. Digestion is a cascade of events that relies on the completion of the steps before it. When you chew your body is queued to make secretions needed for digestion/absorption. The longer you chew the longer your body has to get ready for digestion and in addition, the longer you chew the greater the surface area of your food so these digestive juices can easily act upon it, breaking it down more effectively and efficiently. Chewing alone can relieve gas, bloating and abdominal pain for many. “Eat your drink and drink your food” is a quote I love and one that helps me remember how important it is to chew our food until it is liquid and soft (plus ‘chewing’ our liquids like smoothies allows our body time to release those important digestive secretions that it won’t release if you guzzle down your smoothie or juice too fast). Try counting how many times you chew each bite today and then try chewing until your food feels like a liquid. Try chewing 30-50 times and see how it feels. If you tune into how that feels it can become a habit to chew your food like that regularly and in result improve how your body functions and feels. And guess what, you can do this if you are eating on the trail too!
3. Drink raw fermented apple cider vinegar in water 20-30 minutes before you eat a meal, similarly lemon water works for this. The low pH of apple cider vinegar on an empty stomach encourages your stomach to produce hydrochloric acid, which is essential to break down proteins and to absorb important energy nutrients like iron and B12. Stomach acid also helps kill pathogens that enter through the mouth. It’s a common misconception that heartburn and GERD are symptoms of too much stomach acid, but in reality, these are typically an indication of not having enough stomach acid (PMID: 27574495). We want our stomach to be very acidic, around a pH of 1–2. Start small but shoot eventually for 1-2 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (or 1/2 a lemon) in 8 ounces of water 20-30 minutes before you eat. If you feel a warming under your ribs on the left side that means you can scale back or eliminate this as you have sufficient stomach acid. Although this is a gentle practice, if you have inflammation due to GERD or any issues with stomach acid please work with your healthcare provider.
4. Try herbal bitters with your meals. Herbal bitters are a wonderful addition to support digestion as they stimulate gastric juices such as hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, and bile to support the breakdown and absorption of food. I like spraying bitters in my mouth or before a meal but my kids like spraying them in their water. You can take them with your food or after. They definitely live up to their name (they are super bitter) but as you reintroduce this important flavor back into your life they will become more tolerable. Bitters also support fewer sugar cravings. There are many wonderful small batch herbal bitters that you can find at farmers markets or in your local health food stores but I love the ones from Herb Pharm which come in a spray bottle for easy use. I love encouraging people to use these during our spring cleanse where we focus on loading up on fresh seasonal foods and elixirs to support our liver and our body’s ability to detox.
5. Stimulate your vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve is what controls your digestive juices and motility of your digestive system. We need it working properly in order to break down our foods and pass them through the system in a timely manner, we don’t want things moving too fast or too slowly (aka poop). We even rely on good vagal tone to keep the bacteria in our gut in the right places so they don’t cause problems elsewhere (aka bloating, burping, gas, etc). Low vagal tone has been implicated in everything from Parkinson’s, to bloating, constipation, Fibromyalgia, IBD, hormone problems and more. It is the biggest nerve in the body and communication goes both ways from your brain and gut and from your gut to your brain. If our gut is not happy it tells our brain and if our brain is stressed it impacts our gut. A few ways to easily tone your vagus nerve is to hum, sing, gargle, or chant every day. I try to hum every morning when I am filling up my lemon water and tea water. Deep breathing is another wonderful way to stimulate your vagus nerve. Monitoring your heart rate variability is a great way to tune into the health of your vagus nerve.
This is only a start but these 5 pack a big punch in supporting your body to digest and absorb the food you are eating better. In result YOU function better and address many annoying signs and symptoms.
The best foods in the world will not work and can even cause problems if you are not breaking them down effectively, absorbing them and moving things along in a timely manner. Plus, our digestive system is the gateway between the outside world and the inside world. It is directly connected to our immune system, our nervous system, and the health of every cell in our body. Poor digestion can be the cause of so many problems that don’t feel like they have anything to do with the digestive system (think headaches, fatigue, joint pain, hormone problems, insomnia and more).
This is one reason I love Functional Nutrition. We focus on the roots of health, the root cause of symptoms and HOW THE BODY IS FUNCTIONING, not just covering up symptoms. People often (and understandably) spend time chasing symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, insomnia, bloating, etc. Before you jump in on a fad diet or herb make sure your body is functioning. When you address the roots you can make an impact on the entire body. Using food and lifestyle to support the body to function its best is powerful way to optimize health no matter where you are in life or on the health spectrum or no matter what other medical therapy you are using. Starting with the basics- GUT HEALTH and DIGESTION– is one of the first steps for all of us.
Give these a try and let me know how it goes.
Join the SPRING CLEANSE and we will be adding all of these (along with loading up on nourishing foods to cleanse, detox, rejuvenate and release the heavy energy of winter).
Hope to see you soon.
Janel Ferrin Anderson. NC, FNLP, DNM
Janel is a board certified nutrition consultant, a certified functional nutrition practitioner and has her doctorate in Natural Medicine. Janel is obsessed with helping people understand their body better and helping them get to the root of what is causing health problems. Using food, lifestyle, herbs, supplements and testing she helps people shift the terrain towards health.