As a naturopath, I ask heaps of questions to gauge the state of your digestive system – no matter what you come to talk about, we will almost certainly end up discussing poo! What we eat is important to maintain robust health, but just as crucial is our ability to properly digest that food – extracting and absorbing all those nutrients that then go on to support the proper functioning of our body’s systems. The health of the gut has a huge effect on the health of the rest of our body. Poor digestion can interfere with the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, the health of our skin, and our immune response. PMS, low libido, fertility issues, anxiety, brain fog, insomnia, eczema, acne, psoriasis, joint pain, autoimmune conditions and food sensitivities are just some of the symptoms that can manifest when gut health and digestion are compromised. Let’s have a look at the process of digestion and how we can support the mechanisms in place to ensure we are extracting and absorbing as much goodness as possible.
Digestion starts in the brain
The cephalic response to food begins when we see, smell, or think about food. If you salivate when you smell delicious food – this is the cephalic response at play. This process starts the digestive juices following, stimulating the secretion of saliva and enzymes that will help to break down the food you are eating. Simply taking a couple of minutes before eating to stop and tune into the food you are about to eat – smell it, see it, think about it – can generate improvements in your digestion. This mindful approach to eating has additional benefits – it helps the nervous system switch into its parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode. When we rush around and shovel food in without stopping to really appreciate what we are eating, we are likely in sympathetic (fight or flight) mode. This part of the nervous system shunts blood away from our digestive system, so when we eat in this state, its like chucking food into a cold oven. The digestive system isn’t prepared to receive the food and this impacts its ability to effectively break down and absorb all the goodness. Activate the parasympathetic nervous system by breathing through the nose – in for 4 seconds and out for 6 seconds. Combine this with appreciating your food with all your senses and you have a double whammy – stimulating the cephalic response and improving blood flow to the digestive system.
Chew your food!
hewing breaks down food in two ways – mechanically and chemically. Using our teeth to break food into smaller and smaller pieces means there is a greater surface area for the digestive enzymes to get to work on. Our saliva contains enzymes that start to chemically break down the components in food – in particular, the enzymes in saliva work on digesting starchy carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules. Remember that your mouth is the only part of your digestive system that has teeth. Put them to work and chew thoroughly, breaking down food as much as possible before it is swallowed and moved down to the stomach.
Check your stomach acid
Stomach acid, or gastric acid, needs to be highly acidic so it can effectively break down food – from tough meat to fibrous plants and everything in between. Gastric acid is secreted from the cells lining the stomach and ideally the pH sits between 1-2 – consider that the pH of battery acid, which can dissolve bone and metal, is 0 and you get an idea of how strongly acidic it is! The secretion of gastric acid can be affected by certain medications and stress, causing changes to the pH. Stress also slows down the churning contractions of the stomach, and increases the amount of time that food is kept in the stomach before it enters the intestines.
The symptoms of low and high gastric acid can be very similar – burping, bloating, reflux, flatulence. There is a simple at-home test to see if you have adequate stomach acid – do this on an empty stomach, preferably first thing in the morning. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) in a glass of water. Before you drink it, sit for a few minutes and think about food to induce the cephalic response mentioned above. Then drink the water. Set a timer and time how long it takes for you to burp – it should be around 3 minutes. Any longer, and you may not be producing sufficient levels of stomach acid.
Once it leaves the stomach, the food, now called the bolus, enters the small intestine. This narrow tube is about 3.5 times the length of your body and is responsible for further digestion and nutrient absorption. The rate at which the bolus moves through the intestines is important – too slow and food can start fermenting, causing bloating, flatulence and discomfort, but if its too speedy, there is less time for nutrients to be absorbed. Garlic helps to regulate the speed by stimulating the contractions that move it along the tube; on the flip side, stress causes it to slow down. Next, the bolus is passed to the large intestine where water is removed and absorbed back into the body. Hydration is important to keep the bolus lubricated and moving through the intestines at a good pace, which is why constipation can often be caused by inadequate water intake.
Certain herbs and foods can support the digestive system by promoting the regular contractions that move food through, stimulating the secretion of digestive enzymes which break food down, and improving blood flow to the digestive organs. Stimulating our bitter receptors is one way to improve the functioning of the digestion system – foods like rocket, chicory, lemon and watercress, and gentle bitter herbs like dandelion can all be useful. This could be as simple as starting a meal with a small salad of bitter green leaves with a squeeze of lemon juice, or sipping a cup of dandelion tea as you prepare your meal. Enzyme rich foods like sprouted seeds, pineapple and papaya can assist in breaking down food so that it is more easily assimilated. Warming herbs like cinnamon, cardamon, garlic and fennel help to support the circulation to the digestive system, preparing your body to receive the food and absorb nutrients more effectively.
Putting it all together
Even if you don’t have digestive symptoms, I think everyone can benefit from taking steps to improve the efficiency of their digestive system. Here are my top tips for helping your body get the most out of every bite you eat
1. Whenever possible, prepare your own food to kick start the digestive system with the cephalic response
2. Take a few minutes prior to eating to switch into the rest and digest phase – try slow breathing, prayer, gratitude, mindfulness
3. Eat in a relaxed environment, putting aside work, to-do lists and stressful conversations
4. Chew, chew, chew. Then chew some more
5. Ensure you are adequately hydrated with water during the day, but limit fluids around meal times so you don’t dilute the digestive secretions
6. Remember to include bitter and warming herbs and foods whenever possible