You’re only as healthy as the food you digest. That’s really the Basics of Healthy Eating 101. Poor digestion sets the stage for disease; unfortunately, it’s not so uncommon these days. Let’s define poor and optimal nutrient assimilation and how to get your digestion on the right tract (ha ha).
Signs of Poor Digestion
Bloating= The food you eat isn’t breaking down as it should causing pressure to build up in and around the digestive tract. This is particularly noticeable after meals and may be accompanied with stomach pain.
Rumbly Tummy and lots of Belching= Just your stomach’s cry out for help since things aren’t working as they should. Also, particularly common after eating.
Constipation = No proper digestion means no proper elimination. It’s so important to have good bowel movements since this is how the body flushes away toxins.
Diarrhea = Seems a bit counterintuitive that constipation and diarrhea are both symptoms of poor digestion. But things moving along too fast and too loose is also indicative of a digestive system in distress and low to no nutrient assimilation.
Fatigue and lethargy = Nutrients in food are the building blocks of life. Impaired digestion starves your cells of fuel, so of course you feel tired and unmotivated. Also, your energy will be depleted since your body’s digestive system is working extra hard to function properly.
Depression and/or Aggression = Our guts are a production site for serotonin, otherwise known as the feel-good neurotransmitter. As much as 95% of the body’s serotonin lives in our GI tracts. It’s absolutely vital to promote healthy digestion if we want to be calm, happy people.
Weight gain and/or inability to lose weight = Ghrelin is another hormone manufactured in the gut. This one communicates with the brain about hunger and when to stop eating. A weak digestive system lacking in ghrelin sends the brain confusing messages about cravings and appetite, prompting overeating of the wrong kinds of foods and fat retention.
Causes of Poor Digestion
Poor diet = This one probably seems a bit obvious, of course your diet impacts your digestive health. Our bodies desire a variety of whole, plant foods which offer lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains bring all the good stuff. Organic when possible and always non-GMO are ideal standards. And the Standard Western Diet with its excess of processed, refined carbs and animal protein? Asking for nothing but digestive distress.
No healthy bacteria = More and more studies are showing how a population of healthy bacteria in the gut really is the key to overall good health. Gut flora provide numerous benefits including strengthening the immune system, fighting off bad bacteria and viruses and enabling the production of neurotransmitters. And without a thriving population of healthy bacteria in the gut, proper digestion is pretty much impossible.
Too much stress = Excessive stress equals bad news for health for so many reasons. Least of all is the number it does to the digestive tract. Stress invites toxins into the body which overload the digestive system. Besides weakening it, stress also inhibits the production of those all-important neurotransmitters, serotonin and ghrelin. Result: foul mood and weight gain.
Not enough rest = Restful sleep is a must for repairing the wear and tear of daily living, including the daily stress to which the digestive system is subjected.
Not enough sunlight = From sunlight our bodies absorb vitamin D which is essential for the assimilation of healthy fats. Inadequate amounts of this vitamin not only set us up for weak digestion but weak bones as well.
Dehydration = Just like every other function of the human body, proper digestion needs water to make sure things go smoothly.
How to Heal
Internal massage: This is a great yoga move for massaging the digestive tract. Sit cross-legged with your hands on your knees. Rotate your body from the waist up in one big round circle, inhaling as you come to the front and exhaling, pulling your chin into your chest, as you rotate toward the back. Repeat this several times before reversing your direction. This feels amazing! Still not sure how it’s done? It’s the first move in this yoga sequence.
Eat Well: This means favoring all the lovely plant-based foods teeming with fiber and phytonutrients. Incorporate as great a variety into your diet as you can. Save the heavy meals for cold weather when our bodies could do with extra warmth, and the raw, light foods for warm days when our digestive systems are more active.
It’s not a bad idea to temporarily eliminate the most difficult to digest edibles from your meals: meat, dairy, sweeteners, wheat and alcohol. Following a low-sugar, wheat-free, alcohol-free vegan diet for at least two weeks can give your digestive system a rest, allowing it to reset and heal.
Peaceful mealtimes: Ayurvedic medicine teaches that it’s never healthy to eat when distressed or upset since negative emotions distinguish digestive fire, known as agni. Aim for a peaceful state of mind before sitting down at the dinner table.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is so important in every aspect of our lives. When eating, we can engage with the moment by taking our time to notice every mouthful. Thoroughly chew your food noticing how it tastes and feels. This is where digestion starts. Our saliva contains enzymes which begin breaking down food before we even swallow.
Also be aware of your posture. Hunching over your food as you shovel it in can signal a state of distress and starvation to your body. Sit up straight in a strong posture, support those abdominal muscles (where all the action takes place), breathe, appreciate…it’s really just the basics of good manners, isn’t it?
Schedule Mealtimes: Eat your meals and snacks around the same time everyday, allowing your body to anticipate a certain schedule. Begin your night time fast a few hours before you actually go to bed so your body isn’t forced to undertake digestion in a reclined position. This promotes better sleep.
Hydrate: Are you drinking water before your first bite or sip of anything else in the morning? A cup or two of warm water first thing, lemon juice optional, helps energize you and kickstart your metabolism, both are very good for digestion. Be sure to hydrate well throughout the day. Ayurveda does caution against drinking large quantities of water just before, during or just after meals since water dilutes agni.
Cultivate Good Gut Bacteria: A diet rich in whole, plant foods will provide plenty of prebiotics to nurture a healthy population of gut microbes. But how do we get the bacteria in there in the first place? Raw/unpasteurized fermented foods are our best option. This could be fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, kimchi and raw pickles, drinks, like kombucha, and condiments, like shoyu, miso and apple cider vinegar. Raw cultured products, like yogurt, butter, kefir and cheese, are most commonly made with dairy but non-dairy alternatives are available.
Eat and drink a variety of these foods to expose yourself to a diversity of unique microbial populations. Try to incorporate at least one fermented food into every meal. If you’re aware of having very poor digestion, gradually add fermented foods into your diet to give your system time to adjust and strengthen.
Spice Up Your Tea: Several spices soothe and aid the digestive tract. These include cinnamon, liquorice root, fennel seed, cardamom and ginger (actually a rhizome). Look for tea blends which contain these ingredients. Or make your own tea by steeping any combination of these whole spices and fresh ginger in simmering water for at least 20 minutes. Sipping your tea in the evening is a nice way to wind down and prepare for bed.
Small changes, achieved one at a time, create big differences.
Sources and Further Information
If you liked this post why not subscribe to my email newsletter?