Digestive disturbances affect nearly everyone at some point in their life and it’s estimated that 40% of Americans will suffer from heartburn at least once each month – ouch. In fact, the proton pump inhibitor drugs (think Nexium and Prevacid) are the third largest class of drugs sold in America each year. As vital digestion is the cornerstone of health, to have some tips and recommendations in your “tool kit” to treat digestive complaints.
As a Holistic Nutrition practitioner and teacher of Asian medicine digestive health is primary in practice. It’s a foundational principle of all Holistic medicine – if we improve the digestion, the body will improve overall. The idea of “what can I do to improve my digestion of this meal?” is always present in my mind and something I try to encourage clients to embrace.
The following recommendations are beneficial for any level of digestive vibrancy, whether you have excellent digestion and want to make the most of a healthy system or you are treating chronic or debilitating digestive issues. Honestly, I know of no condition that will not improve or benefit from the simple habits listed below.
Chew your food – Let’s start at the beginning. Besides the teeth mechanically breaking down the food, salivary amylase is added in the mouth to break down starches. This enzyme is not found in the stomach, it has to be added into the food in the mouth. Although the stomach churns to help break food down, it doesn’t have teeth and large chunks of food overly burden the stomach causing gas, bloating, and acid re-flux. The physical act of chew also triggers mass peristalsis in the colon – meaning you will move your bowels more regularly. Ideally, you should chew your food about 30 times, so put your fork down between each bite and savor your food.
Have a seat – “Li proceeds Qi.” Literally, where your intention (Li) goes your Qi (energy & manifestation) will follow. If your intention is to eat a meal, assist your body by sitting down, relaxing and enjoying your food. If your attention is rushed or focused elsewhere Qi won’t readily flow into your digestive organs to help properly transform the food. Voila – you now have a rock in your stomach or gas and bloating. Turn off the TV, put down the Iphone, try to simply eat and allow your body to transform food into Qi, and other vital essences.
Eat with joy – Eating in good company is a joy and a pleasure – and you will digest your food better. However, sometimes we don’t always have the option to only eat with people we like or get along with. How do you manage? Check your attitude at the door and refuse to let your emotions run the show. When we get emotional our Liver Qi stagnates and doesn’t supply Qi to the Spleen, Stomach and Intestines for digestion. The worst thing to do in this situation is to gulp your food. If emotions try to dance on your table, take a few deep breaths, put your fork down and calm yourself. The exception is Joy – Joy is wonderful to have meals with.
Know your body – Are you satiated? Pleasantly full? Are you partaking of too many rich foods or foods that you have difficulty digesting? Knowing your body also means that you recognize whether you are pushing your boundaries. If you have problems with gluten maybe having beer, bread and cake isn’t the greatest option. Holidays and parties can often mean dining at odd times, be cautious of blood sugar swings. If dinner is set for later than you would normally eat, feed yourself a little before you go and eat a little less at dinner. If the menu calls for Mexican food, which doesn’t agree with you, consider taking enzymes to aid with the meal or keep the selection simpler for your system’s sake.
Don’t flood the Spleen & Stomach – I have several clients that grew up in Europe and a common theme shared by them is that only a little water or wine was served with dinner. Not a lot…a little was the key. In Asia, a small servings of tea or rice wines are the norm. It’s a wise tradition. The stomach has a delicate balance of enzymes that it needs to mix into the food to break them down. Excess fluids at the time of eating foods will flood the stomach and dilute the mix. Classically, we say about 8 oz of tea or beverage while you are eating is fine.
Try not to drink too many of your calories – Shakes, smoothies and juicing can be assets or enemies in the diet. If you are in the habit of drinking smoothies frequently you will skip the step of chewing. Now your body must work to break the carbs that slipped through your mouth without mingling with salivary amylase. Depending on your method of juicing, you may be cutting out all of the precious fiber from the plants to just drink their blood. Most smoothies are served raw and cold, which can be helpful for short cleanses, but in the long run will dampen the digestive fire (metabolism) cooling the core and hindering the Spleen. The occasion smoothie and juicing is fine in health – but be cautious, I’ve seen many systems weakened by yoyo dieting and excess use of smoothies and shakes.
What can I add to this meal to make it more digestible?- – It’s a simple question that can make a tremendous difference in your digestion. Traditional cuisines throughout the world include something with each meal to aid absorption. Here are some ideas:
Have some tea – Carminative teas aid digestion. Stock up on ginger, chamomile, fennel, dandelion, peppermint, rosemary, catnip (yes, really), citrus peel teas, licorice and Traditional Medicinals’ Eater’s Digest can work wonders. Sit down and sip it during or after your meal.
Play with green clay – Internally, green clay has tremendous detoxification properties and can be used to treat acid-reflux, GERD, bloating, gas, diarrhea, morning sickness and heart burn. It calms the digestive system and helps to heal the stomach and intestines. It pulls heavy metals from the systems and absorbs and astringes.
Fennel seeds – Most Indian restaurants serve fennel seeds after the meal. Fennel seeds warm and stimulate the digestive fire, they eliminate phlegm and relieve gastritis. They also scare away anyone who doesn’t like a licorice type of flavor.
Add in fermented foods – Trending in America right now…fermented foods have been around since we’ve been eating. So they shouldn’t be a trend, they should be a regular part of our diets. Using live probiotic foods will increase the digestive vitality. Add in a tablespoon of a live ferment like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and other pickles stimulate digestion. Do I recommend supplementation of probiotics? Yes, when we need to get the system back in check for a short period of time. Eating probiotic foods provides the additional energetics of the foods (kimichi is warm, etc), the fiber, the benefits of chewing and it provides a range of strains of probiotics. Probiotics manufactured and packaged are controlled, they serve a purpose but they may not provide the vast variety that is necessary for optimal digestion.
Digestive enzymes – Foods rich in digestive enzymes like papaya, pineapple and green leafy vegetables are a great addition to the digestion. Also a digestive enzyme supplement taken right before meals can be extremely beneficial.
In my years practice, I’ve seen incredible improvement in clients who started with just a few of these recommendations, forming healthy positive habits that can lead to better digestion, so try a few.