Practical Ways to Improve Digestive Health at the Dinner Table
Most people probably don’t spend much time thinking about their gastrointestinal tract (GI), but I am obsessed with it. It does phenomenal work, mostly unnoticed, until something goes wrong. Common GI complaints include gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, undigested food in the stool, incomplete evacuation, belching, heart burn, and upper or lower GI pain. These symptoms are not normal and are all indications of a breakdown in the system.
The GI system is an unbelievably efficient machine allowing you to turn the food you eat into usable units for building, repairing, and maintaining your body. The large intestine is also the home to a vast array of bacteria to help you maintain a strong immune system, create vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters. In other words, a healthy gut is central to your overall health. If there is an imbalance in the digestive process, all other body systems suffer.
To review, digestion starts in the mouth with the release of digestive enzymes in the saliva. These digestive enzymes, along with the action of chewing, help to prepare a bolus of food to travel through your esophagus to your stomach by neuromuscular action. Once the food bolus enters the stomach from the esophagus, the powerful stomach acid serves to kill harmful bacteria and along with more enzymes continues the digestive process. The stomach also initiates mechanical grinding of food. The food then enters the small intestine, a narrow tube about twenty feet long that contains millions of villi, which increase the surface area of the small intestine. This increased surface area allows for greater absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream to travel to the rest of your body. While all parts of the GI system are important, the small intestine seems to be the most valuable as this is where you assimilate the food you eat to nourish your entire body. After about three to five hours, most of the absorption of nutrients has taken place in the small intestine and the remaining liquid then enters the large intestine, also known as the colon. There is very little, if any, bacteria in the GI tract until you reach the large intestine. The majority of the bacteria responsible for absorbing excess water and nutrients reside in the large intestine and bacterial diversity is vital for appropriate gut function. Once these trillions of bacteria have completed their tasks, the waste is then moved into the rectum and on to the anus where it can be excreted from the body. Other important organs involved in the digestive process include the pancreas and gallbladder. The pancreas is responsible for secreting insulin and pancreatic enzymes, while the gallbladder produces bile to breakdown fats.
As you can see, there are many opportunities for dysfunction throughout the GI tract. If there is a miscommunication or disruption in any one area, the entire process of digesting and absorbing nutrients is compromised. When nutrient absorption is compromised, your quality of life suffers and disease can develop. Gut health then becomes a central feature in many chronic disease conditions and one target of therapy.
Maintaining the health of your gastrointestinal tract can be accomplished by addressing and correcting any issues quickly and completely. When addressing gut health, I often use the 5-R protocol. I want to remove any offending items that could be harming the gut like allergens, additives, sensitive foods, and unhealthy oils, replace missing items like digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid, reinoculate the system with healthy bacteria, repair the gut lining with targeted nutrients, and rebalance the lifestyle to maintain gut integrity.
While each person is unique and the 5-R protocol must be tailored to the specific situation, there are some general concepts surrounding meal time to improve gut and digestive function that everyone can take advantage of daily.
You can remember my top ten list with the mnemonic HEALTHY GUT:
1. Have a break before all food intake: too often our meals are rushed and we eat on the go. But taking a few minutes to center yourself with a short meditation or deep breathing technique can allow your body to create the right atmosphere for complete, healthy digestion.
2. Eat in a quiet environment: if you are in a noisy, hectic environment, digestion will likely be interrupted. Creating time to focus just on eating and digesting your meal can improve many gut symptoms.
3. Avoid cold beverages: Cold drinks can actually negatively impact the digestive process whereas warm beverages promote healthy digestion.
4. Let it go: If you are feeling stress or in an emotional state, stomach acid can actually be elevated and remain in the stomach for too long, leading to irritation. If you are in an emotional situation, take time to calm down before eating.
5. Take a seat: Our lives are hectic and we run from one thing to the next. Sitting for meals can allow for relaxation and will bring your attention to focusing on the process of eating.
6. Heed the signals: Our bodies are remarkable at giving little signals to get our attention. We’ve all overeaten at some point and have felt stuffed and uncomfortable. Aside from the discomfort, it’s very difficult for proper digestion to occur when you overeat. Pay attention to your body and stop eating before you feel full.
7. Yield: Take time to savor your food and chew thoroughly to allow for proper initiation of the digestive process and the secretion of adequate digestive and pancreatic enzymes.
8. Graze no more: Allow your body time to completely digest the previous meal before eating again. This is variable for each person, but is usually three to six hours. If you choose to snack, have something very light.
9. Unprocessed is best: Processed and junk foods have known additives, sugar, and inflammatory oils that disrupt the gut lining and negatively impact the gut microbiome. Choose instead real, whole foods that have only wholesome ingredients.
10. Take a break from talking: you’ll be better able to enjoy the taste of your food and your body will be better able to initiate the digestive process. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your sparkling dinner conversation, but while you’re actively eating, avoid speaking and just savor.
Digestive disorders are common and there are a wide array of root causes. A plan to restore gut health will likely need to be very specific and detailed for an individual, but it’s always important to take stock of your own meal-time habits. Before taking a medication for heart burn, or trying the latest fad to ease your digestive symptoms, ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to any, work on making your meal-time more gut- friendly. Many GI symptoms can be improved just with my ten HEALTHY GUT steps above.
· Do you rush through meals?
· Do you typically feel as though you don’t enjoy the taste of your food?
· Do you feel nauseated, bloated, gassy, and sluggish after meals?
· Do you stuff food in and swallow with minimal chewing?
· Are you distracted at meal-time?
· Do you go for convenience foods?
· Do you eat on the run or standing up?
· Do you eat even though you’re not hungry?
· Do you feel hungry immediately after meals?
· Do you vacillate between soft stools and constipation?
Restoring a healthy GI tract is fundamental to overall wellness. If you need a targeted plan, contact us for a free 15 minute phone consultation!
Healthy Gut Smoothie
20 ounces coconut milk
2 handfuls raw spinach
2 tablespoons whole-milled flax
2 teaspoons peeled ginger root
1 scoop unflavored collagen powder
2 teaspoons raw honey
½ frozen avocado
½ cup frozen mixed berries
Place all but frozen ingredients in a blender and blend for 1 minute. Add the frozen fruit and avocado and blend again for 1 minute.