Proper digestion is essential for optimal health. Our digestive system is connected to every major organ system and over 60% of our immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract. You may associate common health complaints like gas and burping to improper digestion, but it can also show up as skin irritations, foggy brain, fatigue, anemia, and weakened immune.
Signs of an unhealthy gut include the following:
- poor bowel habits such as constipation and diarrhea
- undigested foods in stools
- bad smelling stool
- feel better if you don't eat
- chronic indigestion after eating
- frequently cold for no reason
- frequent burping, passing gas, or bloated abdomen
We all know that what goes in must come out. From when food enters through your mouth to when it exits your body, your stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, and large intestine all get involved in the processing of it. At any point along the journey, if things are not functioning properly, you may experience digestive issues. There are a variety of reasons you might be experiencing the symptoms above—including food sensitivities, too little stomach acid, not enough digestive enzymes, and low amounts of friendly bacteria.
Below are ten simple ideas for healthy digestion.
1. Chew your food. Chewing your food can really make a difference in the digestive process. Digestion doesn't start in the stomach, it starts in the mouth. Chewing activates the enzymes and prepares your stomach for producing gastric juices, such as pepsin and hydrochloric acid (HCL), to break down proteins. When your food is not chewed, not only do nutrients not get extracted from the food, but also undigested food can produce bacteria in the colon which can lead to bacterial overgrowth, gas, and other symptoms of indigestion. If you are able to see identifiable food in your stool, it is a good sign that you are not chewing your food enough.
2. Don't drink liquids during your meals. It's good to drink a lot of water, right? Yes! But there is an exception... when you are eating. During meals, you do not want to drink a lot of water because it dilutes the HCL in your stomach which impacts digestion and nutrient absorption. Get your fluids in before and after your meal, just not during. Try to keep your water intake to under 6 ounces during your meal.
3. Skip the antacid. Do you reach for the antacid when you experience heartburn because you think you have too much acid in your stomach? If so, you could be making it worse. Much of the time when you suffer acid indigestion, it is actually because you have too little acid, not too much. Taking antacids suppresses the production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes (which is exactly the opposite of what you want to be doing to alleviate the problem). As we age, we produce less HCL. Some of the symptoms of not having enough HCL are belching, gas, bloating, feeling of fullness, no taste for meat, stomach aches, and bad breath. To increase your HCL to help the digestion process, you can drink less fluid as mentioned in #2 or try taking a 1/2 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in water before your meal.
4. Relax at meal time. Stress shuts down digestion. Take a deep breath, take time to eat, and allow your body to properly digest and absorb your food. Don't overeat.
5. Eat whole foods and fermented foods. Once your food has left the stomach, it moves to the small intestine. The pancreas sends in digestive enzymes to break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to neutralize the stomach acid. If you are low on enzymes, then you can also experience digestion symptoms like gas, bloating and stomach pain. To increase enzymes, eat whole, fresh organic foods. Reduce your intake of sugar, refined flour, trans fats, packaged foods, sodas, and alcohol. Eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, and naturally fermented vegetables, such as pickled cucumbers and kimchi. You can also take digestive enzymes like protease, amylase, and lipase.
6. Increase your friendly bacteria. The last bit of digestion happens in the large intestine. This is where your friendly bacteria live. These bacteria help produce enzymes, manufacture B vitamins, keep you resistant to food poisoning, and keep bad bugs from taking up residence. It is essential to have good bacteria in your colon. You can help this by eating fermented foods, as mentioned above and by taking probiotic supplements (lactobaccilus and bifidus). (Note: Use of antibiotics can kill your friendly bacteria, so if you have been on antibiotics, it is essential to take probiotics).
7. Eat more fiber. Constipation and diarrhea are two indicators that your colon is not working efficiently. Constipation may occur if there is not enough water in the bowel. This may happen when digestion is slowed down or when you don't consume enough fiber. Diarrhea can occur if there is too much water in the bowel. This may happen when food is not digested well. Increase your fiber intake by eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and prunes. If you have constipation, you may want to take a magnesium supplement or add flax seeds to your diet (soaked and ground) which will increase smooth muscle relaxation and hydrate the bowel.
8. Drink water. There are so many reasons for drinking more water and healthy digestion is one of them. The general rule of thumb is to drink half of your body weight in ounces every day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should try to drink 75 ounces of water daily.
9. Remove allergenic foods. It may be helpful to do an elimination diet (removing highly allergenic foods from your diet like gluten, eggs, soy, nuts, dairy) if you are having digestive issues to see if you have any food sensitivities or allergies. Doing a detox program is a good way to get you started on discovering any food sensitivities.
10. Check your poop. How your food is exiting can tell a lot about what is happening with your digestion. You should have one to two good bowel movements a day. Your poop should be solid (not runny), sizable (not drops), medium to dark brown, and not highly aromatic. It should come out easily without straining.
Having a healthy gut is not only good for your digestion, but also for total body health.
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Dina Colman, MA, MBA, is an author and educator of health and wellness. She has her Master’s degree in Holistic Health Education from John F. Kennedy University and her MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University. She founded Four Quadrant Living—a simpler, natural, more fun way to a healthier, happier, and energetic life. Four Quadrant Living provides information and motivation for healthy living through nourishment of the four quadrants of our lives—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment. Dina has a private practice, working with clients to help them create health in their lives by eating well, finding the fun in exercise, reducing stress, managing relationships, and creating a healthy environment. Dina's book, "You Are Not Your DNA: 52 Simple and Natural Ways to Create Your New Health Destiny" will be published in 2013. Contact Dina at email@example.com