When looking to improve digestion, the aim is to process the food to maximum efficiency with minimal discomfort. The way the digestive system performs has an effect on the amount of nourishment that can be drawn from the food eaten. This fundamentally effects wellbeing. Being able to use food effectively will enable the mind and body to be on top form. You get the energy you want to go out and do the things you love to the fullest extent.
The gut is the gateway to which you interact with the outside world. It filters and processes what gets used by the body. So, it helps to eat nutritious foods for a healthy head start. Below is a list of eating practices, specific ingredients, exercises, foods and daily tweaks which can enable you to fine tune the digestive system.All these help to get your moneys worth out of every bite.
Probiotics are foods/concentrates of live organisms that contribute to a healthy microbial environment and suppress potential harmful microbes.
These are essential for the efficient use of the foods are put into the body. They help improve digestion by nurturing the beneficial bacteria in the GI tract. Having healthy gut bacteria enables assimilation of foods to maximum efficiency, drawing greater amounts of nutrients from ingested foods to be used by the body for immune protection. Not only do they improve the digestive efficiency of the gut microbiota but they enable assimilation of more nutrients for immune protection, metabolism and detoxification. They are gold standard when it comes to food utilisation and digestion – They help manufacture B-complex vitamins, Vitamin K, break down Phytonutrients (antioxidants, flavinoids, polyphenols) for absorption, help to balance PH, digest lactose & proteins and increase absorption of minerals.
Where to find them:
- Sour cream
Drink Water 20 Minutes Before Meals
Drinking water before a meal satiates hunger before eating a meal. This makes it less likely to overeat at meals leading to slow and impaired digestion. Additionally, when you drink with a meal, the liquid interferes with digestive enzymes which break down your food. This causes poor assimilation of nutrients, tainting the efficiency of digestion.
Use Spices With Meals
Aside from increasing the taste of foods, spices improve digestion by increasing their digestibility.
Spices stimulate the secretion of bile from the liver and increase the activities of enzymes involved in the digestive process (1). There is a combined effect on salivary, gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions, and the digestive enzymes in the mucosa of the small intestine. This increases the efficiency and speed at which the food passes throughout the entire digestive process. This means we can assimilate nutrients more efficiently, getting more bang for our culinary buck.
Not only do spices enable us to draw more nourishment from food but also accelerate the digestive process reducing the time for food to pass through the GI tract.
Next time you are cooking up a storm consider throwing in some of these:
Turmeric assists in the digestion of protein and cleanses the liver (11), possibly accounting for its stimulatory effect on biliary secretion.
Coriander, cumin and ginger for bean dishes to reduce flatulance (1). Ginger is especially good for the digestion of high protein foods, including meat.
Garlic & cayenne pepper can control the growth of pathogenic bacteria that results from consuming excess animal products and imbalanced food combinations (4).
Cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, ginger and cardamom assist with the digestion of sweet foods such as winter squash, sweet potato, carrots and fruits (4). They also act to improve digestion of dairy products like milk, yoghurt and sour cream. Taste wise, Cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger combine well with dairy – in milk smoothies or yoghurts. Throw in a little honey if you are feeling adventurous.
This is one that most of you will be familiar with by now but a little more info cant hurt.
Fibre assists in the uptake of nutrients in the intestine as well as keeping the digestive show on the move, effectively addressing constipation and diarrhoea. You need both insoluble and insoluble fibre for a healthy GI tract. It is pretty easy to get enough fibre if you consume a diet rich in whole foods. Processed and refined foods, mostly carbohydrate based have had the fibre stripped of them. Avoid phoney products that claim to be fibrous, aka breakfast cereals. These are fortified with fibre, which isn’t quite the same as its natural counterpart.
Fibre needs depend on the individual. People with more fragile digestives systems may need to go easier on the fibre than those with stronger ones. Look for more soluble fibre if you have a sensitive digestive system – apples, nuts, oats, berries.
Fibre is found in almost any plant food to varying degrees. Here are some common sources:
- Brown rice
- Whole grains, whole wheat
Eating large portions puts a risk on overloading the digestive system. The body can only deal with so much food at once, physically and biochemically. Digestive enzymes can only work so fast to break foods down, and if overfed a backlog of food is likely to occur. Food that is sitting undigested is susceptible to bacterial putrefaction by way of digestion which can cause those well known side effects, bloating and gas. Typically you want to eat until you are 80% full to not overload the digestive system.
Time of Day
Many people eat at different times of day based on personal constitution. Generally, aim to leave at least 2 hours, 3 hours ideally after eating before going to sleep. When we sleep our digestion slows as metabolism eases, the body goes into rest mode. If we have a full stomach when going to bed the body has to use energy to digest the food as opposed to using it for recuperation. Not only is digestion less efficient, we may not be as well rested when morning comes. The largest meal of the day is best eaten a couple hours before a workout to ensure that you have maximum levels of energy to perform optimally and sustain balanced energy levels. If it is a rest day, then lunch will be the best time to go all in. A decent sized breakfast doesn’t go amiss either.
Speed of Eating
The speed of eating has an effect on how much food you eat at each meal. Taking time over the meal gives digestive enzymes the time to do their thing, triggering the release of hormones associated with satiation, leptin and ghrelin, which signal the appetite to cool off (2). Thus you find that you end up eating less and don’t overload the digestive system, finding true satisfaction in each meal. Eating mindfully is the best way to achieve this. Before you eat, take the time to look at your food, smell the food, this triggers the release of bile and digestive enzymes in saliva, stomach, pancreas and intestines before any food has entered the mouth. Find enjoyment in each meal by savouring the taste and texture of the food.
Cleanse the Digestive System
Now and again you might consider throwing in a juice if you feel clogged up. Juices are a great way to improve digestion by introducing an abundance of micronutrients, phytonutrients and enzymes into the body. The best ones are mostly vegetable with a little fruit. Although most of the evidence is anecdotal when it comes to juicing many people strongly advocate using juices to flush the system for a day or two to reduce digestive disturbances. Juices do have anti-inflammatory properties and they may even help by cleansing the liver, pancreas, intestines and stomach so they can better perform their digestive tasks.
Cut the Sugar
More good news about sugar, the beloved, addictive, culinary cocaine is out to get us once again, this time in terms of digestion. Consuming large amounts of sugar over time can damage the epithelial lining of the intestine. When blood sugar drops suddenly (after eating sugar) the adrenal glands secrete cortisol (stress hormone) which triggers the release of hydrochloric acid in the intestines; overproduction can compromise the guts structure leading to undigested food particles leaking into the bloodstream which causes an immune response leading to auto-immune diseases, food intolerances and chronically impaired digestion.
Sugar also feeds pathogenic yeasts called Candida which produce nasty digestive upset including gas, bloating and poor digestion.
Establish Food Intolerances
Some foods are not well tolerated by certain individuals, be it genetic or a result of deleterious foods such as sugar. Food sensitivities occur because of an inability to properly break down given food particles due to intestinal bacteria dysbiosis (imbalance of beneficial to pathogenic bacteria – addressed with probiotics) and compromised intestinal permeability. Common food intolerances are gluten, wheat, dairy and sugar to name a few. Seek to eliminate foods if you sense a reaction in order to improve digestion. Consuming these will result in digestive discomfort and inefficiency – bloating, gas……you know the story by now.
Foods vary in terms of their digestive responses. On a sliding scale, some are more acid forming foods and some more alkaline forming foods. Consuming large amounts of protein requires a lot of acid to break it down. Meat, beans, legumes, nuts and animal products are best consumed alongside foods high in alkaline minerals such as greens, which help buffer the acidic environment. Without them the body would have to draw on alkaline minerals such as phosphorous and calcium from bone in order to do so. The process of digestion requires enzymes to break down food particles. These enzymes are effective at different PH’s and can become denatured if the environment is not suitable and if there aren’t enough enzymes then digestion will not be as efficient.
If you seek to balance PH, have 1 source of protein on the plate at each meal. The english breakfast, par example has at least 3 different sources of protein on the plate at once – eggs, bacon and sausage. Consider subbing out extra protein for some mushrooms or greens.
Cut Down on Caffeine, Alcohol and Pasteurised Dairy
Many people who drink a lot of coffee will be familiar with the bowel string effects of coffee. Thats not to say coffee isn’t good for you; its an excessive consumption of caffeine that can irritate the intestinal lining due to its nature as a stimulant. Additionally, Caffeine can inhibit the absorption of some nutrients and causes the urinary excretion of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and trace minerals.
A little bit of booze never hurt anyone, its those with fragile digestive systems and heavy drinkers that need to give the hooch a wide birth. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the lining of the stomach, small intestine, inflammation of the pancreas and most famously damage to the liver. The damage that alcohol can do to the digestive organs is reflected in the way they function – malabsorption of nutrients, diarrhoea, constipation and leaky gut syndrome. If the digestive real estate becomes damaged then its not likely to work as well as a squeaky clean set of pipes.
Pasteurised or homogenised dairy is processed in a way that removes much of the beneficial bacterial life. Additionally milk can be laden with hormones and antibiotics. The antibiotics in milk destroy the microbiota in the human gut, compromising the bodies ability to properly draw nutrients from food with the help of beneficial bacteria. Look to source organic or at least non-commercial milk without hormones or antibiotics.
Find a Way to Reduce Stress
The pace of everyday life can leave many feeling stressed, having knock on effects on digestion, absorption, barrier function (Increased permeability of gut) (5) and altering composition of the intestinal microbiota (6)
Telling someone to simply not be stressed is somewhat like telling an ostrich to simply spread its wings and fly. You can however implement lifestyle changes to reduce the amounts of stress in your life. Exercise, yoga, meditation and diet are the big 4 to look at. If you are highly stressed consider focusing on one of these to start alleviating stress. The one of greatest impact when relating to digestion will be diet. Prioritise whole foods and avoid sugar, processed foods, pasteurised milk….. all the above.
Prioritise Whole Foods
Natural foods are what our bodies recognise and thrive off. They support a healthy digestive system which is the gateway to optimal immune function, metabolism, sleep, mood…etc. Whole foods are packed full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, healthy fats, fibre, starches and proteins which keep the digestive system well oiled. Each meal is an opportunity to choose to support your digestive system to enable it to support you, its a two way street. Look after your body and it will look after you.
Premium sources of sustenance can be found in:
Nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, greens, root vegetables, squashes, grains, oats, quality meat, fish, milk, fermented vegetables/dairy, cheese, wine, cold-pressed oils, herbs and spices.
Chew Food Well
This one might seem quite obvious but its nevertheless an important factor to improve digestion efficiency. Chewing your food into smaller pieces increases its surface area and makes it easier for the digestive tract to process and quicker to absorb. Having a larger surface area also increases the bioaccessability of nutrients for effective absorption (3). By chewing more you are holding food in the mouth for longer periods, giving food greater exposure to salivary enzymes which start to digest the food before it has been swallowed. If you cant hack chewing for long periods of time then smoothies and soups are a great option to reduce the workload of the digestive system.
Different foods require unique profiles of digestive enzymes in order for them to be properly broken down. Combining certain foods together can expedite the digestive process and prevent traffic jams in the digestive tract that cause digestive fermentation, foggy thinking, incomplete nutrient assimilation, gas and bloating. Different food combinations will be tolerated by different people, but as a general measure to improve digestion you may consider following these guidelines:
High protein foods and starches don’t tend to combine well, but in certain cultures it is customary to consume them together. In this case try to minimise the amount of protein relative to the amount of carbohydrate in a ratio of minimum 1:2 (4)
High Protein Foods:
Beans & legumes, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, cheese, milk
Non starchy veg:
Carrots, winter squash, courgettes, aubergine, peppers, cucumber, mushrooms
Pasta, Brown rice, quinoa, corn, potatoes, parsnips, artichokes
Broccoli, pak-choi, spinach, kale, watercress, cabbage
Non starchy veg accompany starches and proteins well. Greens compliment the digestion of Protein and combine well with fats and starches
Avoid Processed Foods
Regularly consuming processed food is a gamble. They are full of artificial flavourings, colourings, sweeteners, preservatives and a whole host of other garbage that can barely be pronounced. Along with trans fats, sugar, low fibre, Poorly researched GMO’s and excessive salt.
Ingredients in processed foods may cause attacks on parts of the digestive system (7). Antibodies are launched by the immune system in response to the food ingredients, which it recognises as allergens.
By consuming processed foods you are missing out on fibre, which helps slow the absorption of carbohydrates (8), staying satisfied with less calories and preventing overeating, avoiding putting unnecessary strain on the digestive system.
Foods processed at high temperatures, with flavourings and sugar have been thought to induce inflammation (9) leading to increased intestinal permeability (10) (leaky gut). Having holes in your digestive system isn’t ideal for the thorough digestion of foods and assimilation of nutrients, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies.
If you are going to eat processed foods consume them in moderation, like alcohol and cigarettes. These foods should be taken with a pinch of (added) salt.
Move the Body
Working out the kinks isn’t just good for digestion, its going to do wonders for your health. Exercise supports healthy digestion by way of better assimilation and elimination, and keeps the digestive system moving due to increased blood flow through movement.
You may want to experiment with different types to see which suits you best. You may find that sustained endurance exercise like running or cycling to be more gentle than high intensity weight training.
Busting shapes through yoga moves the body in weird and wonderful ways which can therapeutically stretch and stimulate the digestive organs. This is effective as common practice and can also be used as a measure to address digestive discomfort, such as bloat or gas.
Yoga can stimulate the digestive fire and is great for loosening the bowels, especially when constipated.
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