Digestive issues are one of the main concerns I see with my clients, with my friends and family, and honestly with many people I happen to be randomly talking about nutrition with. It’s something I myself have struggled with for years, and it’s one of the main reasons I initially started studying nutrition.
There are many theories why digestive problems, and even digestive diseases are so prevalent now a days, and I can truthfully understand each one of them.
Some think that it’s our modern diets - high in refined foods, namely refined sugars and carbohydrates, and our lack of fiber that is contributing to this increase in digestive problems.
Others think that the overuse of pesticides on our food crops is wreaking havoc on our digestive systems due to the highly inflammatory chemicals found in these sprays.
There is a lot of talk about the increase in GMO’s affecting our health, as they are also seen to be inflammatory to the gut, and those crops also use a ton of pesticides.
Stress is another big one – the Western lifestyle consists of chronic stress, and we are constantly led to believe that being crazy busy all the time is the only way to succeed in life. Stress causes inflammation in the body and directly affects digestion. Additionally, if we are always on the run and eating in a hurry, our bodies don’t have the time or the resources to digest food properly.
Pharmaceuticals have also been said to be a contributing factor, especially antibiotics which wipe out not only the bad bacteria in our bodies, but also the good stuff - and this can cause severe imbalances within our gut and immune systems. Many prescription drugs have nasty side effects that can damage your digestive system, too.
Alcohol. We are a drinking society, but what often gets overlooked in order to “party” is how damaging alcohol is to our bodies. Chronic consumption can affect all body systems, but specifically can wreak havoc on digestion.
There’s also the thought that we’ve come so far away from our traditional practices of not only growing and producing food, but also how we prepare it. Fermented foods used to be staples in our ancestor’s diets, and they thrived off of these foods. Now, we don’t see these foods as often, and we lose out on their benefits to our digestive system and immune systems. We’ve also grown accustomed to eating canned foods and precooked foods, and have completely lost touch with traditional methods of soaking and sprouting anti-nutrient rich foods before consuming them. Things like phytates or oxalates found in every day foods have the potential to be very irritating to the gut, indigestible, and strip us of essential nutrients and minerals.
I believe that all of these are contributing factors, and there are likely a bunch more that I’ve forgotten to mention here. But the clear theme is that we’re living commercialized, industrialized, and very convenient lives and though they may make things less of a hassle for us in the short term – they are doing lots of damage in other, longer term ways. Our digestive health is one of the things we see plummeting due to our excessive consumerism.
I’ve seen this these lifestyle patterns do harm to many clients, friends, family members, and especially to myself. I’ve been learning and practicing for years how to heal my gut, sooth my digestive system, and improve my overall health and have compiled this list here of the best practices you can do to put you on the path to better digestion!
In no particular order...
1) RAW APPLE CIDER VINEGAR (AND HONEY)
Raw apple cider vinegar has not gone through any heating or pasteurization processes, and because it is a fermented product, it is considered to be ‘live’ and full of beneficial bacteria and enzymes – namely ones that are beneficial to our digestive system. Swigging back a tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar before a heavy meal will help you digest your food and alleviate some of the stress on your digestive system. You can also practice this daily to strengthen your digestion and prevent heartburn or acid reflux. Adding raw honey to the mix, you will introduce even more beneficial enzymes to further assist with digestion - plus you make it taste a little more tolerable.
2) INCREASE YOUR FIBER INTAKE
I’m sure this is a common one you hear, but that’s because it is essential for our digestive health. So many of us don’t get nearly enough fiber in our diets, and it leads to constipation and other digestive issues, and may even cause colon cancer. An easy way to increase fiber in our diets is to increase our intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and even some nuts and seeds. A whole foods diet supports a healthy amount of fiber consumption, and can help with regularity, digestion issues, and make you feel good all over!
3) INCREASE YOUR WATER INTAKE
And especially if you’re increasing your fiber intake. Water is essential to hydrate, and is especially important for forming stools along with that extra fiber. Constipation is a common symptom of dehydration, or simply just not drinking enough water (and eating enough fiber!). Water is crucial for hydrating the cells all throughout our bodies, including those important organs that play large roles in our digestion processes. If our digestive organs are not functioning properly, guess what? Our digestion doesn’t work properly. Drink. More. Water.
4) ADD FERMENTED FOODS & PROBIOTICS TO YOUR DIET
Fermented foods - like I mentioned with apple cider vinegar - contain live enzymes and beneficial bacteria to help us break down our food. They are also chock full of probiotics to replenish our gut’s bacteria and help us digest our food better and absorb the nutrients from it. Fermented foods are nourishing for the digestive system in so many ways, and adding things like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, natto, tempeh, kvass, kombucha, etc... to our diet regularly can have profound effects on our digestive health. For an extra dose of probiotics, try also adding a probiotic supplement to your daily routine.
5) SIP ON HERBAL TEAS
Many herbs have immense healing benefits to the digestive system, and we can drink these herbs in a lovely healing tea blend between meals to feel our best. Soothing plants such as lavender, chamomile, and lemon balm are even soothing to the digestive system, and can act as a wonderful base flavour to your beverage. Earthier tones like marshmallow root, licorice root, and slippery elm are all powerful gut-healers, and I also suggest peppermint, fennel, and ginger to light that digestive fire. The heat of the tea is also beneficial to your digestive system, but adding some of these herbs to smoothies is another a delightful way to get more of them in your diet.
6) CHEW YOUR FOOD
It sounds like something you’d say to a two-year-old, but what I mean by this is that you should really chew your food. So often we are just shoveling our food into our mouths, whether we are in a rush or not - we aren’t even thinking about it. However, if we are distracted, stressed, angry, or upset while we are trying digest our food, our body will be more concerned with nourishing other things and in a more parasympathetic mode than the sympathetic one that we need to be in to properly break down, absorb, and utilize the nutrients in our food. So, eat mindfully, chew your food WELL, and appreciate the flavours and nutrition that food is offering your body. If you are used to eating quickly, a good tip to start chewing better is to count between 30-50 chews for each bite. This may seem like a lot, and granted, when you first start doing it - it will be – but trust me, this is how our food is supposed to be chewed. Enzymes in our saliva start breaking down components of our food while we chew, and if you’re doing as much work as you can before it hits your stomach, then that much less work is required from your other organs to break down the food - thus leading to improved digestive function. Chances are you’ll be able to read your body’s signals better too if you slow down your eating. You’ll notice when you’re full and when you don’t need to eat anymore. Once you’ve practiced the 30-50 bites for a little while, you’ll become used to it and won’t need to count anymore!
7) AVOID POTENTIAL FOOD ALLERGIES OR SENSITIVITIES
This may be a difficult one if you don’t know what’s causing your symptoms. That’s why I recommend keeping a food journal, where you write down everything you eat, drink, and any feelings or symptoms you are experiencing, that way, you can look back on it and make connections between foods and possible allergies or sensitivities. If you’re working with a nutritionist or naturopath, they can help further by analyzing your journal for you. If you suspect any particular food to be a culprit, it’s best to avoid it and see if your symptoms clear up. If they do, then you know to continue avoiding it for optimal digestion and health. Some common ones are dairy, gluten, soy, and corn.
8) SOAK YOUR LEGUMES (BEANS), NUTS, & GRAINS
These foods contain an antinutrient called phytic acid, which binds to nutrients and minerals in our food and bodies so that we aren’t able to absorb and utilize them properly. Additionally, phytic acid requires the enzyme phytase to break it down, and humans typically don’t produce enough of this enzyme to effectively break down the phytates in these foods, so we oftentimes experience digestive upset when trying to consume them such as bloating, and gas. Soaking, sprouting, or fermenting your legumes, nuts, and grains activates the phytase that is naturally present in these foods (but unavailable without soaking) and starts the breakdown process of the antinutrients. After enough soaking time, these foods are rendered more nutritious and far more digestible. You can read more about the Science of Soaking here. You can also try taking a digestive enzyme supplement to help with digestion even more.
9) SUPPORT YOUR LIVER
The liver is a very important organ in your digestive system and plays critical roles in both breaking foods down and detoxifying excess nutrients and toxins from our bodies. With modern diets we see an increase in the consumption of processed foods high in refined sugars and chemicals (think preservatives and pesticides!), and though our livers are powerful detoxifiers, if we are constantly bombarding them with these “unnatural” compounds, they will eventually become sluggish in their roles and we will see this manifest as toxic buildup in our systems, hormonal imbalances, and digestive issues such as constipation. The best way to support your liver is with a diet rich in WHOLE foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, wild fish, and occasionally organic, pasture-raised meats if that’s a part of your diet. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day encourages elimination and helps the detoxification processes of the body. Regular exercise encourages detoxification as well. Not overloading your body with alcohol, caffeine, medication, processed foods, and even environmental or household chemicals are all important factors to consider, as well. You can also incorporate liver supporting foods into your diet such as dandelion leaf, radish, beets, apples, garlic, onion, artichoke, lemon, and even herbs such as milk thistle, burdock root, dandelion root, and chicory.
10) REDUCE STRESS
Chronic stress can cause imbalances within every body system, the digestive system included. During stress, our bodies are put into a parasympathetic mode, or “fight or flight” in order to help us through the stressful situation. Blood is shunted from the digestive system to go to other areas of higher importance during the stress, and increases things such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and oxygen to assist us. Oftentimes we see constipation after a particularly stressful day or week, or diarrhea during periods of anxiety or nerve-racking situations. On the other hand, when our nervous systems are in a sympathetic mode, this is when “rest and digest” happens. So, you can likely imagine that if our bodies are not in the right “modes” when they need to be – imbalance creeps in. Reducing stress can look different for everyone, but some general tips include deep breathing exercises, engaging in activities like yoga and meditation, getting more sleep, investing time in things that make you happy like hobbies, reading, travelling, etc., taking regular vacations, and getting regular exercise – particularly outside, in nature - which is a proven stress-reliever.
If you suffer from digestive issues, try incorporating the above tips into your regular routine. Working with a nutritionist can also make a huge difference, especially if you’re unsure about where your problems are stemming from. Even if you don’t suffer from gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion regularly, I always suggest giving your digestive system a little TLC – after all, it houses your immune system and is crucial for maintaining optimal health in every system!