Last weekend we had an intensive two day focus on the digestive system.
(For those of you who don’t know, I’m studying nutritional therapy with IINH and we have at least one intensive weekend of lectures a month.)
When I first heard this was the topic I envisaged a Biology lesson and if I’m honest didn’t expect to learn anything all that exciting or astounding. I was anticipating sorting through my memory and endeavouring to dig out what I had learned in school from some brain cells that haven’t been tried and tested for quite some time!
Of course we did look at the digestive system from a functional perspective but I hadn’t expected what I was learning to be so practical! I came away taken a back by the interesting facts, the tips, my mind a wash with the on-going research and potential associations between a hell of lot of diseases and the digestive system; other than those commonly affiliated.
As ever I’m really keen to share some of the interesting bits and pieces and had difficulty deciding on what to focus on. I decided to go with the interesting facts that I would have liked to have discovered sooner as well as some quick tips for improving your digestion with simple changes; a good few of which I’ve been trying out over the week, re- establishing good eating practices and it really has been making a difference!
Rather than overloading the post I’ve decided to break it in to two so first up I’ve got some practical tips to help improve digestion, from how you eat, to when and finally what!
Tips to Improve Digestion (some of which may seem obvious, but are you putting them in to practice?)
Chew your food! I’m the worst culprit, speed eating, spending time preparing and cooking and then rushing through my food without a second thought. By chewing food sufficiently you will aid digestion and utilisation of it’s nutrients.
Slow down. It goes along with chewing your food more sufficiently, but if you slow down and take your time while eating you will not only enjoy your food more, feel a greater sense of satiety, you will appreciate the flavours and textures, preparing your whole digestive system for what’s about to hit it!
Avoid Overly Hot or Cold Food. This is something I’ve really been trying to work on. I have a habit of eating my food piping hot, more often than not burning my mouth in the process. Heat actually debilitates the stomach and creates acidity while anything too cold will paralyze it…effectively disrupting the whole natural and ideally smooth digestive process.
Drink before you eat. Ideally you should avoid drinking while you eat your meal, particularly large quantities of piping hot or icy cold beverages for the same reasons cited above! Drinking with your meals will also dilute the much needed digestive juices.
Rehydrate before breakfast. Many people wake up and the first port of call is the breakfast table. I know my mum is one of the worst offenders, commonly stumbling down the stairs, eyes wide shut, and reaching for the box of cereal, seemingly unable to function unless she follows this ritual. When you wake your need to rehydrate with water, giving your digestive system time to prepare for the first meal of the day. Ideally give yourself an hour if possible, drink a pint or even two of water as you get ready. Sleep with a bottle of water beside your bed for early morning convenience!
Sit down and relax. It’s become commonplace for people to eat while on the go, working through lunch breaks, running out the door with a slice of toast in hand and sitting down in front of the television with the evening meal placed on there legs. Stress and distraction breath poor digestion. Not only will you suffer the possibly painful consequences such as bloating and gas, your body may not be able to properly absorb the nutrients you’re trying to supply it with. You need to become present with your food, enjoy meal times, preventing mindless eating.
Give your digestive system a break if possible. I’ve always been one for snacking between meals, considering it a way to keep my blood sugar levels stable. Everyone is different and eating more frequently will suit more people, however something which I hadn’t considered was giving my digestive system a break. It takes a considerable amount of energy and effort to digest food and potentially eating every couple of hours could be putting a strain on it. I’ve fallen in to eating more balanced complete meals four times a day and I have to say my digestion has improved significantly!
Consider the GI. I was slightly sceptical of the GI diet, not really knowing a whole lot about it other than it being another diet trend. However with a bit more clarity I have started to incorporate some basic principles in terms of avoiding extremely high GI foods on their own, combining them with essential fats and proteins preventing severe fluctuations in my blood sugar levels. I have a bit of a habit of eating dried fruit before bed. Commonly waking up at 3am for no apparent reason I hadn’t really contemplated any sort of association…having cut out the dried fruit it evidently was causing my blood sugar to crash during the night leaving me restless during the night. I’m now sleeping much more solidly!
Spread meals regularly. Avoid skipping meals or going without food for too long. An empty stomach causes pain and bloating. If you establish regular eating patterns your digestive system will work in harmony with your practices rather than working against you!
Fruit Before Not After. How many of use choose fruit as a sweet fix after our main meal? It’s quite common practice. Fruits are generally more easily digested than proteins and fats as they contain simple sugars. If they’re eaten after a heavy meal they are less likely to be digested as efficiently as intended not only causing bloating and discomfort but potentially losing some of their nutritional value as they’re left to digest and mingle with food that stays much longer in the stomach.
Deficiency. If you’re suffering from indigestion immediately or within a half an hour of when you eat, feeling the pain in the stomach as opposed to lower down in the gut you could potentially be lacking the necessary stomach acid to digest your food. Taking a zinc supplement along with a digestive supplement containing betaine hydrochloride should help and possibly solve the issue; the release of hydrochloric acid, the stomach acid, is dependent on zinc. Zinc levels decline with age and with half the population thought to eat less than half of RDA we’re all at risk of deficiency. (I completed underestimated and undervalued the role that zinc has to play in the body…I’ll doing a whole post on this mineral over the coming weeks!)
Nutrition and Digestion. If you’re lacking in micronutrients, notably Vitamin B6, your digestive system is unlikely to be able to produce the digestive enzymes needed to breakdown your food. Not only is this important in terms of the absorption of nutrients, foods that aren’t broken down properly that pass in to the small intestine will inevitably lead to bloating, flatulence and abdominal discomfort. Pistachios, molasses, bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, most beans and legumes as well as sesame seeds and tahini paste are all fantastic plant based sources of this water soluble vitamin; you need to keep your levels topped up daily as it isn’t stored in the body!
Healthy Bacteria. We’ve all heard of “healthy bacteria” and more than like succumbed to the yoghurts and drinks which supposedly aid digestion. Probiotics, healthy bacteria, do in fact heal the gut, aid digestion, as well as playing a fundamental role in mineral absorption and also the manufacturing of some vitamins. It’s more effective to take a good quality supplement as there are certain strains which can be more readily colonised in the gut. Lactobacilli and Bacillus coagulants are good choices and about 100 million bacteria is recommended per gram! A good supplement will also contain FOS or what can be cited a prebiotic for the bacteria to feed off.
Infections. Eating a diet high in sugar, taking antibiotics and continually suffering on with indigestion can cause gut infections. Antibiotics wipe out the good bacteria, and gut that contains all the wrong types of bacteria will be fuelled by a high sugar diet. If you have to take antibiotics…make sure to invest in a good probiotic! Regularly eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, tofu, miso, tempeh, soya yoghurt will also help support promote the good bacteria in your gut.
What goes in… Constipation is a common issue. I couldn’t find any statistics for the UK or Ireland more than likely as a result of people not coming forward about the issue. Approximately 4 million Americans are though to suffer and even still I’d imagine this number is a lot higher with people just accepting delayed bowel activity as the “norm”. Ideally you should empty your bowels at least once a day. Long term constipation can have serious complications and has been linked to bowel cancer, the second largest cancer killer of both men and women in the UK and Ireland. Ensure you stay hydrated, maintain the balance of healthy bacteria, eat plenty of fibre rich bulking foods including wholegrains and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
It’s important to resolve digestive problems as opposed to battling on and living with them. If you suffer from indigestion be it in the stomach, the small intestine or the colon, allowing the problem to go on will inevitably lead to long term health problems. I’m only at the early stages of studying nutritional therapy but if you have noticeable discomfort that you haven’t been able to solve and overcome yourself it’s worthwhile seeking out the advice and guidance of a nutritional therapist.
The astounding digestive facts which I garnered from the last weekend will be up early next week..I’ll give you a while to digest this lot first! (pun totally intended!)
Do you have any tips to share to improve digestion?