Understanding digestion and simple ways to improve it

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

You may have heard the famous quote “you are what you eat” but the more appropriate saying may be “you are what you digest”. We are not taught to connect food with how we feel, however, what you put in your body three plus times a day can have a significant impact on how you feel and your overall health and well-being. Food can either fuel, energize and uplift the body or make it sluggish and weigh it down. So how does the digestive process work, let’s review the basics to get started.

The digestive system incudes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, pancreas and gallbladder. This may surprise you as we often think of just our stomach when we think digestion. As you can see this is a complex and amazing process that allows the body to assimilate nutrients from the food you are consuming. Digestion begins in the mouth through chewing and secretion of enzymes to break down starches. The food then moves down the esophagus into the stomach. The stomach then mixes the food with digestive enzymes such as pepsin and hydrochloric acid (HCl), which begin digesting protein. When HCl levels are sufficient the acid will also kill off any “bad” bacteria that may be present. The mixture then moves down to the small intestine where enzymes and bile from pancreas and gallbladder (through the liver) digest carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The small intestine absorbs water and nutrients into the bloodstream and the “waste” is moved down to the large intestine. The large intestine further absorbs water into the bloodstream and changes the liquid left over into a more solid form for elimination.

As you can see this process is complex and it’s amazing that our bodies know how to do this automatically multiple times a day. There are many opportunities for the process to become inefficient and symptoms such as heartburn, gas, bloating, fatigue etc. arise. Improving your digestion is one of the most important things you can do to improve all areas of your health. In simple terms, if nutrient assimilation is improved the rest of the body will benefit from this in many ways, including improved energy, balanced mood, better circulatory health and the list could go on and on.

Let’s get into some simple action steps you can take now to improve your digestion:

- Try to eat in a relaxed environment. When you are stressed your body goes into “fight or flight” mode and the digestive process is shut down as your body perceives a threat that it needs to deal with vs. breaking down food. This results is poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients.

- Chew your food well as this is the starting point of digestion and will alleviate some of the work the stomach has to do.

- Start the day with a glass of warm water and freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon to kick start the digestive process, flush out toxins and support the liver.

- Try 1 tsp. of apple cider vinegar diluted in a bit of water before your main meals, that include protein, to boost stomach acid (HCl) for better digestion.

- Focus on eating whole foods that do not come with an ingredient list and avoid foods that you suspect you may have an intolerance to.

- Include some raw vegetables and fruit in your daily diet as these contain live enzymes that help digest the food, which get destroyed in the cooking process.

- Increase fiber in your diet – soluble fiber creates bulk to improve elimination and insoluble fiber acts as a broom to clean the walls of the intestine. Some examples of good sources of fiber include ground flax seeds, chia seeds, legumes, whole grains and all fruits and vegetables.

- Include teas that assist digestion such as ginger, chamomile, fennel and peppermint.

- Regularly consume foods with live probiotics (the “good gut bacteria”) such as organic yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, miso, kimchi or try adding a probiotic supplement to your daily regime.

- Practice food combining in order to allow proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients for improved energy and overall health:

- Winning combinations: protein+non-starchy vegetables, fats+starches+non-starchy vegetables

- Combinations to avoid: starches+protein, fats+protein, fruits should be eaten alone in between meals

If the digestive system does not efficiently break down the food tiny particles can pass into the blood stream causing allergic reactions (including food intolerances), overworking the organs and depleting energy. The particles become “food” for bad bacteria to decompose and ferment resulting in fatigue, gas and bloating. Taking some of the easy steps above will significantly improve your digestion and lead to better health overall! If you find that you need more personalized guidance to improve your digestion it is a good idea to seek guidance of a Holistic Nutritionist or a Naturopathic Doctor who can create a customized plan to help you feel your best!

Try out my FREE 5 day Gut Healing Meal Plan to improve your digestion now!