Let’s face it, we all love to have great poops. When we are constipated we feel, well, crappy. Not only is it more comfortable to have healthy bowel movements, it also indicates that the digestive organs are orchestrating their myriad of activities in a healthy and balanced way.
When food hits the stomach it meets the amazing gastric juice “soup” of hydrochloric acid, enzymes, hormones and billions of bacteria. Like a delicate garden, the environment in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract needs to be ”just right” for ideal functioning. The functioning of this mini ecosystem is determined by what and also how we eat and it affects the health of our entire body.
It is important to also know that the GI system is not just about eating and absorbing important nutrients. It also has a crucial role in water retention, waste removal, immunity and hormone production. More than 90% of serotonin, the “happy hormone,” isn’t made in the brain but in the gut! The gut is also responsible for about 60% of the immune system’s functions.
The GI tract literally affects everything downstream, which is everything. Most naturopathic physicians agree that health and disease start in the gut.
Have the whole family follow these tips for great digestion:
Chew your food! Remember, the belly does not have teeth. Chewing does the hard mechanical work of breaking down food and mixing it with saliva, making digestion easier. Chewing (and even thinking about your food) gets the rest of the digestive organs in motion by secreting enzymes and acid.
Don’t dilute the belly juice. The acidic and enzyme rich soup in the gut is powerful in small quantities. If you drink a bunch of liquid with your meal you essentially dilute the gastric juice and make it less potent. Drink most of your liquids between meals. Sips are okay with a meal, but if you are chewing well and getting lots of saliva going, you won’t need to wash down big gulps of food with a drink.
Keep the bowels lubricated. The GI tract needs water and healthy fats to keep things moving along. Drink 8-10 cups of water daily and even more if sweating or drinking caffeine. Dehydration is a large cause for constipation, especially in the elderly. Oils from flax, hemp and fish are great for keeping the stools soft and moving along.
Don’t put out the digestive fire! Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine both teach that proper digestion requires quite a bit of heat and power. Ice cold drinks and cold foods dampen the stomach fire and reduce the ability to digest food, especially anything raw. I see low digestive fire in patients all the time, which is often reflected by gas, trouble with uncooked and unprocessed food, and a pale tongue with a white coating.
Bring on the bitters! Eat something bitter, sour or pickled at the beginning of the meal. The bitter or sour taste will essentially “prime the pump” and get the digestive juices flowing. Most cultures have pickled veggies or bitters as part of their regular diet. The following can be consumed before the meal to increase acid and enzyme production:
One of my favorite remedies is a dropper of herbal gentian (Gentiana lutea) tincture in a little water. It’s very bitter and effective. Any one of these simple tricks will make your mouth pucker and your belly yell “hallelujah!” All it takes is little bit of something bitter or sour, so just go for it.
Plant good flowers in the garden (increase healthy gut bacteria). I read somewhere that the reason we are here is to carry around our body’s bacteria. Well, let’s at least make sure we are hosting the right kind! Although not always given its proper weight, the bacteria in your gut is paramount to the health of your digestion and immune system. You can increase the healthy bacteria (probiotics) by doing the following:
Eat lots of soluble fiber: fruit, veggies, nuts, oats, flax meal. Just like you and I, probiotics thrive in the presence of these foods.
Avoid antibiotics as much as possible. Broad spectrum antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, clearing out everything in their path. This creates a quick road to intestinal disruption and yeast infections. Replace probiotics daily for at least one month after a course of antibiotics.
Eat food high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, rejuvelac and miso. It needs to have “live active cultures” in it. Therefore, it can’t be pasteurized after the cultures were added. Culturing things at home is great fun (if you are into that sort of thing). Check out my fermentation blog to learn more!
Take a good quality probiotic supplement.
Check out Donna Gates’ “Body Ecology Diet” book or website to learn all about changing the terrain of the body to support the billions of friendly bacteria.
Exercise the intestines. The belly benefits from a good workout just as much as the rest of your body. The best way to exercise the intestines is with fiber. Many feel that they eat a high fiber diet because they eat cereals and breads, but the reality is that those sources are usually over-processed and actually lacking fiber. Whole fruit, veggies and whole grains are the best way to get the fiber you need. Someone in the family constipated? Start adding flax meal to some yogurt or cereal and eat an apple a day. Fiber stretches the intestinal walls, creating a reflex wave to clear a path and move things along. It does a beautiful job of cleaning the nooks and crannies of the intestines, which prevents conditions like diverticulitis. The intestines also get some nice movement when you exercise the whole body or rub the belly (in a clockwise direction towards the left hip).
Avoid allergens and food sensitivities. This topic is larger than the scope of this blog but I will give you the nuts and bolts. The immune system has a few mechanisms for reacting to food that’s perceived as a foreign invader or antigen. The most talked about in conventional medicine is the “immediate” immune response (IGE). It causes an almost instant reaction with symptoms that include swelling and inflammation (puffy lips, throat closing, itching mouth, trouble breathing). These reactions can be mild to severe. Diagnoses of food allergies can be made through blood testing or extensive skin pricking tests. Unfortunately, many doctors stop here with food allergy investigation. There is more to the story, though.
There are also “delayed” food sensitivity reactions (IGG, IGA). These reactions tend to take anywhere from several hours to several days to appear. For example, your child could be sensitive to bananas and not fully react to them for three to four days, making it almost impossible to pin down a food reaction. The symptoms of delayed sensitivities tend to be more vague and widespread. The most common sensitivities I observe are digestive complaints, fatigue, headaches, mucus, asthma, eczema, skin breakouts, dark circles under the eyes, frequent urination, childhood bed wetting, joint pain, mood disturbance, and PMS-like cramping. In my experience, testing for delayed sensitivity is best done through ELISA testing or enzyme immunoassays. Ask your open-minded M.D. or naturopathic physician for more information. There are other testing methods out there that have varied results.
The story is still not over. There are other ways the body reacts to food that these tests may not catch. For instance, a lactose intolerance is not a food allergy. Rather, it’s a deficiency of the lactase enzyme. Furthermore, I have had patients severely hypersensitive to gluten whose lab tests did not indicate this. Nevertheless, we eliminated all gluten products from the diet, and found it was the source of many of their symptoms. Eliminating a suspicious food for a month and then reintroducing it can be very illuminating. If you would like to learn more about how to do an Elimination Diet, check out www.naturecuresclinic.com for the E-book by Dr. Greg Nigh, N.D. Between testing and food elimination, you get a comprehensive picture.
Eating a food to which you are sensitive will inflame the gut and can create a cascade of problems including more food allergies. The food may not be to blame—it’s like a “chicken or the egg” scenario. Ideally, the body can manage that food again as the immune system matures and the gut health is restored.
Avoid processed food. Use packaged or processed foods as accents in a whole foods diet. Many packaged foods have been over-processed, depleting them of their nutrients and enzymes. When you eat pretzels, bread, or crackers that have “enriched flour,” the flour has been pulverized, bleached, and stripped of all vitamins. Synthetic forms of the vitamins are then added. Eating food like this actually robs your body’s personal store of essential nutrients and enzymes in order to be metabolized. In excess, processed food will decrease your enzyme output by stressing the pancreas. It will also hurt the healthy bacteria, further damaging the delicate digestive garden.
Eat food rich in natural enzymes. When a food is raw, it’s living and contains natural enzymes for digestion. When you eat a whole raw apple or carrot, it actually contains the enzymes to break itself down (genius!). Live food carries vitality and energy that the body loves. It does require more chewing and good belly health to digest raw foods, so if raw food is a challenge for someone, it tells me that we have work to do. Sprouting grains and beans is a wonderful and important way to activate your food and bring out the enzyme potential.
Tone your brain with calming activities that put you into the parasympathetic state; the ideal environment for eating, digesting and healing. When you are stressed out and attempt to digest – guess what happens? Your body does not want to prioritize breaking down food if it thinks it’s running from a lion, so food will just sit there and ferment instead of digest! (stinky breath, gas, bloating, burping after meals…) When your body is stressed or overstimulated while eating (discussing finances or watching the news during dinner!) digestion shuts down by up to 66%!!
Eat in a calm environment.
All together now…Inhale deeply and then exhale slowly. You just helped to transition your nervous system to the parasympathetic state—Keep going with those deep breaths because just 10 deep slow breaths will literally turn your brain activity towards better digestion. The science is clear and your body knows: when you are in a stressful environment (mind or body), your digestion is impaired. This is what I suggest and am still working on in my own family.
Create a calm eating environment: no loud music,TV, phones or distraction.
Try to avoid upsetting or stressful conversation.
Avoid eating while driving or on the run.