Our digestive system takes in and breaks down food and experiences. It is through the process of digestion that bits of food are transformed into vital nutrients – complex chemical processes work to extract vitamins and minerals, break down fats into lipids, and proteins into amino acids. A well functioning digestive system has the wisdom to break down, absorb and utilize the nutrition it needs from the food we eat and let go of the parts and pieces that it does not. When digestion is not working well, one can eat the healthiest, most pure, organic food in the world, but not absorb any of the nutrients. In fact, improperly digested food (whether of poor or high quality) over time can lead to larger health concerns. We spend so much time focusing on WHAT we eat in our culture, I think we often forget to look at HOW we eat and whether or not our body is able to process and assimilate nutrition from that food.
Our digestive processes are integrally connected to our nervous system. The enteric nervous system, which has almost as many neurons as the spinal cord, runs the length of our digestive system from our mouth to our anus. The enteric nervous system is responsible for the secretion of digestive enzymes, bile and other fluids, the movement of peristalsis and the opening and closing of sphincters that allow food to pass from one digestive organ to another. The enteric nervous system is often called a second brain because it contains neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that are responsible for communicating and thinking. Tissues that contain these “communicating and thinking” neurons and neurotransmitters (the same as those found in the brain) surround the primary organs of the digestive system – esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine – and are responsible for much of its functioning. When our senses are stimulated (the smell, sight or taste of food are a few examples), the enteric nervous system is triggered to begin the digestive process.
That being said, our digestive processes are influenced by all the same factors that influence our nervous system and to all those things that relax and worry us. When the body is stressed out, anxious, sad or angry, these emotions trigger our sympathetic nervous system, initiating the fight or flight response – when the body is in this state it goes into survival mode and digestion slows way down. On the contrary, when we are relaxed, happy and at ease, the parasympathetic nervous system is active; this is the rest and digest state. When we are in the rest and digest state, the enteric nervous system functions optimally and there is better digestion, absorption and elimination.
If you want to get the most out of your food, to digest properly, the body has to be in a relaxed, parasympathetic dominant state. Otherwise, the enteric nervous system, which makes all these amazing digestive processes work, will be impaired and sluggish. The most important first step is to make space to eat and digest. Making space to eat might include taking a few deep breaths before meals or taking a quiet moment to shut your eyes and soften into your body. A quiet moment of reflection such as this can help to lower the stress response. One of the other important ways that we can make space to enjoy and appreciate the food we eat is to practice gratitude – even if we are just eating a quick snack or a meal on the go. You can express your gratitude toward the food you are eating, those who prepared it or grew it, or to something else entirely. Giving thanks is an act that stimulates a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state, enhancing the digestive process. There is ancient wisdom in saying grace before meals, as practiced by many cultures around the world.
Digestion is about breaking down, absorbing, processing and letting go of far more than just the food we eat. Supporting healthy digestion is also about acknowledging how we process experiences, emotions and energy. The state and health of our digestion can have a direct impact on our emotional state and vice versa. If you have an irritated, inflamed gut, you will feel irritated in your life. If you have sluggish, slow digestion, you will feel slow, unmotivated and perhaps depressed in your life. Supporting your digestion (including the ways we prepare and consume food) will positively influence how you feel, perceive, respond, react and initiate in your life. Supporting digestion is a broad topic, but here are a few straightforward suggestions to get you started!
Lifestyle and Dietary Suggestions to Support Better Digestion and Absorption:
1. Don’t eat late at night.
2. Eat regular, balanced meals and don’t snack when you are not hungry.
3. Don’t go for long periods without eating, do not suppress or ignore your hunger.
4. Have a bowel movement every day.
5. Do not drink cold liquids with meals.
6. Do not drink more than 6 – 8 oz. of liquid with meals.
7. Give thanks for the food you are eating, for those who grew it and prepared it and for anything else you want to honor.
8. Take a quiet moment before eating to relax and take a few deep breaths.
9. Chew slowly and mindfully.
10. Prepare and eat your food with love (no matter how simple or elaborate the meal).
11. Got bitter? Bitter is the most metabolically active of all flavors, it stimulates the entire digestive process, supports absorption and elimination and is excellent for liver health. Bitter foods include bitter lettuce, radicchio, dark leafy greens like dandelion greens and kale, and herbs like gentian, elecampane, angelica, artichoke leaf and dandelion root.
12. Support your digestive fire with carminative spices. Carminatives increase metabolism and the absorption of nutrients. They also help to relieve gas and bloating. All culinary herbs are carminative, so start cooking with herbs and spices!
13. Eat fermented foods. Fermented foods are full of probiotic bacteria that help support the health of our colon. They support absorption of B vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins and folic acid and play a large role in immunity. Healthy probiotic flora have also been linked to mental and emotional health. Fermented foods include: sauerkraut, kim chi, kombucha, plain yogurt, kefir, sour cream, crème fraiche, buttermilk, lacto fermented pickles, miso, and raw apple cider vinegar.