Digestion 101: How to get the most out of your food

A massive part of achieving your wellness goals is shifting away from processed foods, incorporating more whole foods and nutrient-dense dishes, and discovering the best macro-nutrient ratio for your bio-individuality. The thing is, if we’re not properly digesting all these beautiful foods and healthful recipes, there really is no point. You could be eating the most vital, nourishing foods, but they could be doing nothing for you, or worse, actually causing harm to your body! The following are a few digestion basics that will help you more readily absorb and utilize the foods you’re eating, so that you can better achieve your wellness goals.

Rest and Digest

First thing's first: in order for you to properly digest your foods, your body needs to be in a PARASYMPATHETIC STATE (calm + relaxed), as opposed to a sympathetic state (most commonly known as “fight or flight”). When running around town doing errands, slaving away at your desk at work, even standing, your body puts all of its focus on your brain and muscles so that you can think clearly and move efficiently. Blood rushes away from the body parts that are deemed “unnecessary” in this moment, like your stomach and mouth, which reduces saliva production, stomach acidity, and slows or inhibits the secretion of important digestive enzymes. On the other hand, when you’re calm and relaxed, sitting in front of a nice big plate of goodness, your brain senses the smells and sights, and sends signals to the rest of your body to begin readying itself to receive food. The mouth begins to salivate (which produces salivary enzymes to break down food), your stomach produces more acid (also needed to break down food), and your digestive enzymes start secreting. Here are some ways of achieving a parasympathetic state before you eat your meal:

Sit

By simply standing, our brain is telling the body that it may need to flee or fight at any second. While many people can achieve a parasympathetic state while standing, it’s just not as easy, and the sheer act of sitting down can help shift your body into that calmer space. Just make sure you’re not slouching! It’s not just an etiquette thing your grumpy old nanny used to harp on you about. If your torso is collapsed it can negatively effect the functioning of your digestive system, and hinder peristalsis (the movement of food through your GI tract), as well as the function of key digestive organs like the stomach, liver, gallbladder and pancreas.

Breathe

Slow, thoughtful breathing is a fantastic habit to get into at any time of the day, and doing it right before meals is key to slowing down your heart rate and shifting gears into a more relaxed disposition. I usually suggest taking at least 3 big deep breaths, starting from your belly, then moving to your lungs, before exhaling slowly. Inhale for the count and three, then exhale for the count of 3. In fact, do it right now as you’re reading this!

Sniff Some Essential Oils

EO’s like lavender, frankincense, and Ylang Ylang all have calming and grounding effects that are ideal for digestion. Just taking a whiff of any of these oils before a meal can do wonders for your nervous system! There are also some great EO combinations designed specifically to switch you into parasympathetic mode. 

Laugh and Smile

There’s a reason us humans like eating in the company of others. Being around loved ones, laughing, smiling and sharing stories, is inherently calming, uplifting and distressing. We are communal creatures, and enjoying delicious food with the people you love is a fantastic idea for so many reasons, not just for digestion. Now of course, this isn’t a reality for everyone, every day, and at every meal. Something I like to do is put on a funny show or listen to a comedic podcast while I eat. I know a lot of people shun TV and computers while eating, but as long as you’re sitting in a healthful position, and enjoying something that is relaxing and uplifting, then I personally don’t see the harm in it.

Chew Chew Chew

Once again, another thing that your grumpy old nanny may have told you to do, but is actually extremely healthful. When we chew properly, the food is not only broken down into smaller pieces, but is soaked in the various enzymes in our saliva necessary for digestion. Conversely, when we don’t chew our food properly it enters our stomach in larger chinks, not already partially digested by those salivary enzymes, putting a massive strain on our stomach to do more work. Often not being up to the challenge, undigested food particles then enter our intestines, resulting in a number of deficiencies including leaky gut, candida overgrowth, or dysbiosis.  Other than more obvious symptoms of gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea, these extremely common ailments are the culprits for a number of scary complications such as food sensitivities/ allergies, auto-immune diseases, inflammatory conditions like arthritis and heart failure, weight imbalance, and even some mood disorders. Yikes! So chew like crazy! And if you’re into smoothies or other liquidy treats, please don’t chug. It’s still important to incorporate those foods with plenty of saliva before swallowing. One thing us NTP’s like to say to our clients is “chew your liquids and drink your solids.”

Increase Stomach Acidity

Ideally, our stomach acid should be between a pH of 1.5 and 2.5 to properly digest food. That’s almost pure acid! Sadly, a lot of things we do hinder our body’s ability to secrete stomach acid and maintain that pH. One major thing is stress, another is the heartbreaking over-prescription of antacids and acid-blockers in our modern society. The good news is there is also a variety of things we can do to restore those ideal acidity levels in our stomach! Consuming some apple cider vinegar, or lemon juice either on its own or diluted in water before a meal can be extremely beneficial. Similarly, taking some therapeutic bitters before a meal will not only increase stomach acidity, but also encourage the body to secrete all those wonderful digestive enzymes. For more extreme cases, hydrochloric acid and betaine supplements can be life changers. However, when going this route, I always recommend you seek the guidance of a nutritionist, naturopath, or gastroenterologist to make sure you’re doing it in the safest and most healthful way possible.

Eat Fermented Foods

Another brilliant lesson from cultures and communities of old! Eating fermented foods used to be a major staple in the human diet, but has somewhat disintegrated in more modern times. Thankfully, this practice is coming back in full force! Grocery stores and wellness shops are seeing a massive influx of sauerkrauts, kombuchas, and kefirs. Many people have even taken to making their own batches at home! Fermented foods are packed with healthful enzymes, ideal for breaking down the other things we ingest. The fermentation process even makes the food’s own nutrients more bio-available, meaning we can better utilize and absorb them. Best of all, fermented foods have high-doses of beneficial bacteria to ward off the bad bugs in our digestive tracks, combating candida and dysbiosis. Of course, taking a high quality probiotic can be a very good idea as well. One thing I must caution, is that it’s common to have a “die-off reaction” when starting to incorporate more fermented foods and/or probiotics in the diet. Basically it’s a little war inside your gut between the good bacteria with the bad, and can result in some increased gas, bloating and bowel irregularities for a short period of time.