Most of us have a healthy appreciation for food, but when was the last time you paid attention to the well being of your digestive system? Unless it’s in distress, or you are actively going through a detox, chances are you haven’t given your gastrointestinal tract much thought lately. “Healthy digestion is a silent process,” notes Melissa Friesen, Executive Chef and Holistic Nutritionist at Grail Springs Spa. “Digestion in some form is taking place while we rest, eat, sleep or work. We generally only become aware of digestion when something goes wrong.”
Indeed, the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NIDDC)reports that 60 to 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from various digestive ailments, ranging in severity from constipation to Crohn’s Disease. And, like so many other health issues, preventing digestive problems is much easier than treating them, though prevention requires us to be more thoughtful about what we eat, as well as how and when we eat it.
John Joseph Immel, Ayurvedic practitioner and creator of Joyful Belly, notes that in Ayurveda, “Digestion is a key cornerstone of health.” He argues, “On it’s real basic level, after food is digested it becomes blood. So, all the organs of the body are swimming in the blood. And just from that simple fact alone, digestion plays a huge role in how we feel. In particular, the entire nervous system is very sensitive to changes in blood chemistry. So our emotional well being and how we feel is acutely sensitive to changes in our diet and our digestive strength.”
However unglamorous it may be, the process of digesting and eliminating food is literally the bedrock of good health. To understand why this is so, it’s helpful to trace the path of your last meal through your body. Digestion begins in your mouth with chewing and saliva, then proceeds to your stomach where the strong acids and churning further break down your food to make it useful to your body. As Friesen explains, “The food that you eat be it rice, chicken, bread, a piece of fruit or even orange juice, cannot be used by the body in its usual form. [It] needs to be broken down mechanically and chemically into very small particles and molecules. The nutrient molecules are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and transferred around the body via blood to nourish cells and organs and to provide a source of energy.”
The small intestine then sends whatever is not useful bulk fiber, toxins, etcetera to the various organs for cleansing and elimination. The kidneys handle fluids, the liver cleanses the blood of toxins and the colon (large intestine) eliminates the remaining fiber and bulk wastes. In short, digestion is a big job, and it requires big energy. Immel says, “One thing that people do not realize is that digestion is difficult. Digestion is like this all consuming metabolic monster. It can use up to 60% of our daily metabolism. So if we’re sick, guess where we can reclaim our energy to fight disease? We can reclaim it from the digestive tract.” He adds, “The best foods for restoring gut health are easy to digest foods. Ayurveda classifies these foods from experience, but we can measure it scientifically.”
“Soups are the fallback food,” adds Immel. “Anytime there’s stress, conflict, a cold or flu, we can reclaim our energy for the day by easing up on our digestive tract.” Other easy-to-digest nourishment comes from rice, teas, well-cooked vegetables and lighter proteins like chicken and fish. Spices are used medicinally in Ayurveda to help stimulate digestion and soothe upset. Coriander, cumin, ginger and black pepper increase circulation and therefore aid digestion. Friesen suggests, “Reduce the intake of processed foods, which generally have little nutrition or fiber and often contain large amounts of saturated fats, salt and preservatives.” She adds, “Refined foods clog up the colon and provide a breeding ground for unhealthy bacteria and parasites.”
As you may have guessed, water intake is also crucial to a healthy gut. But, Immel argues, skip the ice. “Warm water is the most powerful medicinal herb on the planet. Warm water helps the entire circulation improve and flushes the digestive tract.” Your second beverage of choice should be herbal tea, specifically ginger or fennel, which are excellent for digestion and a soothing way to start the day.
Regular movement, stretching and exercise are also important to maintaining a balanced and vibrant digestive tract. Exercise promotes circulation, which aids healthy digestion by bringing more blood to the digestive organs, but also reduces stress, which is another key component of good digestive health. Friesen says, “Stress effects the nerves of the digestive system and can upset the intricate balance of digestion.” What’s more, many people tend to hold their stress in their bellies, which inevitably leads to digestive trouble. Exercise is also cleansing and detoxifying, which helps to lighten the overall load on the digestive system.
Finally, both Friesen and Immel stress the importance of eating moderate portions, having regular meals (no skipping meals or snacking between them), and not eating in a rush. Eating too much is taxing on the digestive system, skipping meals often leads to over-eating at the next meal and snacking serves to never give the GI system a break.
Immel further admonishes clients not to eat while “talking, watching TV, driving in the car, working at the computer or walking anything that we do while we’re eating is going to steal blood flow from the digestive tract.” (Would that include the chocolate cookie I just ate while writing this? Undoubtedly. And the bowl of granola I consumed while standing at the stove fixing my toddler her egg this morning? Yep, I’m sure.) Another rule of thumb for Immel: “No heavy meals after 5 p.m.,” he says, noting that when we feel tired, our digestive organs are also tired. He offers something of a dietary mantra for good gut health: “Eat a spiritual breakfast, a joyful lunch and a gentle dinner.”
And when, inevitably, you do overindulge? “Honor the body when you have overeaten,” says Immel. “After the celebration, eat lightly for twenty-four hours.” Thankfully, our bodies are resilient, and our digestive system is no different. If you learn to work with it, to nurture and nourish it, it will continue to serve you well and be a strong ally in your good health.
10 Steps to Better Digestion
1) Do nothing but eat while you are eating
2) Drink plenty of warm or room temperature water daily
3) Exercise regularly
4) Take a hot bath at least once a week
5) Eat only when you are hungry, stop before you are full
6) Remember that, according to Immel, “anything that is hard to chew is hard to digest,” so choose foods wisely
7) Use digestive teas like ginger and fennel
8) Consider a true fast or week-long detox once a year to give your digestive system a break
9) Make lunch your biggest meal of the day
10) Find supplements that work for you. Probiotics and magnesium are two good choices for digestive wellness.
By Tanya Triber
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