“How’s your digestion?” As a Naturopathic Doctor, this is a question I ask every patient.
The typical answer I get is, “Um ... fine, I guess.”
But when I dig a bit deeper, most people have some digestive complaints—constipation, bloating, gas, acid reflux, or nausea, just to name a few—and are embarrassed to talk about it. These symptoms are not healthy (although very common), and are a signal that your digestive system isn’t functioning at its best. Poor digestion contributes to suboptimal vitamin and mineral absorption, which can interfere with weight loss. On top of that, I think we’d all agree that these symptoms can be pretty uncomfortable.
If you’re experiencing digestive upset, your first port of call should be to consult a healthcare practitioner to rule out any serious underlying causes of concern, such as thyroid dysfunction, ulcers, infection, inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and even cancer. Once you’ve been cleared of anything too serious, then there is a lot you can do on your own to optimize digestion and reduce your symptoms.
First, let’s talk about the most important system in regulating digestion, the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system consists of two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight-or-flight setting, the one that evolved from our need to run away from a saber-toothed tiger hundreds of years ago. As you can imagine, this system sends blood flow to your extremities, but shuts off digestion. (If you’re running from a tiger, your body’s more concerned about super-charging you to safety than processing what you had for lunch.)
These days, our sympathetic nervous system is also what dominates when we're busy or stressed, which is why digestion so often takes a backseat. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is our "rest and digest" system. It's the mode you want to be in before, during and after eating, to allow for optimal digestion.
With today’s on-the-go lifestyle, our sympathetic nervous system tends to rule the day. Many of us eat on the run or while doing work, so we’re not even giving our parasympathetic system a chance to work its magic.
Here are a few easy tips to help bring your parasympathetic system into balance and optimize the entire digestive process:
1. Breathe through your nose.
Our breath is such a simple but powerful tool in regulating our nervous system. Breathing through the mouth, as you often do when you’re working hard, nervous or anxious, activates our sympathetic nervous system. Breathing through the nose, however, does the opposite, and relaxes our body into parasympathetic mode.
So, before you even look at your food, close your eyes and take three deep breaths, in and out, through your nose. See? You’re more relaxed already.
2. Add apple cider vinegar.
For acid reflux, bloating, and constipation, try taking 1 tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar, in a small amount of water, 15 minutes before each meal. This gives your body a heads up that its time to eat, and your stomach will start producing all those enzymes and juices you need to break down your food. It’s not all that tasty, but it’s totally worth it.
3. Use all your senses to eat.
This is the mainstay of mindful eating. Look at your food, notice the colors, and way it sits on your plate. Smell your food before eating it. Pay attention to the texture of each bite, and taste all the flavors. Mindful eating helps to put your body into parasympathetic mode, and also encourages you to eat slower, therefore enhancing the overall digestive process.
4. Only eat when you're sitting down.
This might seem obvious, but how many of us shovel food while we’re running to a meeting, after the kids, or in between chores? When you eat, the only thing you should be doing is eating. And sitting. Nothing else. No TV, no computer, no work. This nudges your body into parasympathic mode, and sends blood to your digestive system to help break down and absorb all those vitamins and nutrients.
5. Chew your food at least 20 times for each bite.
Mechanical breakdown is the first step in digestion, and it’s an important one. Aside from physically starting the breakdown process, saliva contains amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch even before the food hits your stomach. Studies have also shown that people who chew their food more end up eating less.
6. Don’t jump up for a second helping.
It takes 10 minutes for your stomach to send your brain the message that you’re full, so wait at least 10 minutes before going for seconds. This will prevent you from overeating, a common cause of indigestion, and may even help you shed a few pounds, too.
7. Try tea.
After all of this, if your digestion is still off, try some tea, but be choosy. Peppermint tea can help calm cramping and bloating, but may aggravate reflux. For reflux, try chamomile. Feeling nauseous? Try ginger tea, and add a few slices of fresh ginger for good measure.
8. Do yoga: Hug it out
Well, kind of. Adding a few simple yoga poses to your dining experience can do wonders for digestion. This short series will follow the direction food moves along your colon, giving it a gentle nudge forward. About 15 minutes after eating, lie on your back and hug your right knee into your belly, with your left leg extended to the floor. This massages your ascending colon. Keep hugging your right knee in as you bring your left leg up to meet it. This stimulates the transverse colon. Next, extend the right leg, keeping the left leg in to massage and stimulate your descending colon. Take five deep breaths, in and out of the nose, in each position.
9. Do yoga: Twist it out
Gentle twisting also helps to stimulate the digestive organs and move the process forward. Again, lying on your back, hug both knees in to the belly. On an exhale, let your knees fall over to the left, stimulating the right side of your body. Extend your arms out onto the floor into a T and take your gaze over to the right. Stay here and breathe. Come back to center on an inhale and take a few more deep breaths. On an exhale, let your knees fall to the right and repeat the exercise on this side.
Note: If you’re incorporating yoga into your digestive routine, always compress the right side of the body first, followed by the left, since food and other toxins move through our body from right to left.
Still feeling a bit sluggish after a meal? Go for a short walk. This gets blood moving, and helps with peristalsis, the wave-like motions of the stomach and intestine that move food along. It also helps to balance your blood sugar.
I hope these tips are helpful .... Happy digesting, friends!
Written in consultation with yoga instructor and health coach Julie Weber of The Samana Project.