It is estimated that over 3/4 of Americans suffer from regular digestive discomfort, such as bloating, acid reflux, gas, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea. And most of them (over half) don't discuss it. The problem here? 1) These digestive issues are not normal, and 2) Suffering in silence means never getting to the root cause of the issue, never remedying it, never reaching our best health.
Digestion matters. The health of the digestive system is a precursor for overall health. A healthy immune system, endocrine (hormone) system, neurological system, cardiovascular system- you name it- all depend on the health and function of the digestive tract. "All disease begins in the gut" is one of the truest statements when it comes to health.
Every cell in our bodies requires nutrients to function properly, and our digestive system extracts those nutrients from the foods we eat. You can eat the best diet in the world, but if you're not properly digesting it, you're not really reaping the benefits. And if you have digestive symptoms, it's a sign that digestion isn't working like it should... like it could.
So what do we do to fix this? We begin at the top.
The digestive system functions from north to south. Even if your symptoms occur lower in the digestive tract (i.e. constipation, a problem in the colon/large intestine), they actually have originated somewhere in the beginning. Think of digestive dysfunction (and function) as a domino effect- what happens in the mouth affects the esophagus, which affects the stomach, which affects the gallbladder, and so on.
For example, if there's a lack of acid in the stomach, food is not properly digested and can burden the small intestine. Carbs can ferment, fats rancidity, proteins irritate the lining and alert the immune system. Gas, bloating, and food sensitivities ensue.
To positively affect the entire digestive cascade, we start by focusing at the start. And where does digestion begin? In your head.
When we perceive (see, smell, anticipate) food, our brains releases chemicals to begin the digestive process. Saliva is released, which contains enzymes to begin the break down food. Then, when food enters the mouth, we begin mechanical digestion by chewing. Before food even enters the digestive tract, it's partially digested.
Hmm.. Aren't these are things we all do? Well, not really...
What would you say if I told you that our modern lifestyles negatively affect our digestion? That digestion is not getting off to the proper start because of certain behaviors and thought processes that prevent the digestive cascade from getting off on the right foot?
Let me explain. Our modern society is one that's fast-paced, high energy, and very demanding. We're constantly stimulated from every angle and as a result, are often in the state of fight-or-flight (the stress response that prepares our body to deal with a threat). Our sympathetic nervous system (which rules this stress response) is constantly on, because we're always perceiving some threat, some stressor. Our parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes rest, repair, and rejuvenation) is rarely tapped into! And both are crucial for health, but especially the latter in today's world.
We're all so overwhelmed and overworked that we forget to focus on the little things that matter the most to our health. We skip the gym because work is too busy. We stay home instead of meeting with friends because we're exhausted. We don't make time for self care because there's too much to do. We get take-out because we have no time or energy to make dinner. We stay up late for "me time" and sacrifice precious sleep. We skip breakfast or eat in the car because we're rushing out the door. We work through lunch due to a meeting or never-ending to-do list. We eat dinner while scrolling through social media or watching TV.
Think about this for a moment: Where do you eat the majority of your meals? How do you eat the majority of your meals? Many people would give responses such as "in my car," "at my desk," or "in between chasing the kids." They'd say their meals are "on-the-go," "rushed," "distracted."
Do you multitask when you eat? Don't feel guilty if you answered "yes." We all do it. Our modern, fast-paced society has pressured us into thinking we need to do everything, all at once. No days off. No breaks. Work through lunch. Sleep when you're dead.
This mentality is part of the problem. It's a big reason why so many people are struggling with their health. Digestive issues, but also other problems like fatigue, insomnia, IBS, weight gain, hormone problems like PMS, and even mental health challenges like anxiety and depression are all connected to this stressed out, "busy" lifestyle we live in.
Society primes us to think it's normal to eat while multi-tasking, distracted, and on-the-go. However, eating in the sympathetic state means eating becomes a stressful event. It actually prevents proper digestion from occurring. Fight or flight causes a release of hormones and chemicals that halt digestion. Think about it- if you're body is preparing to fight a bear, does breaking down that sandwich you just ate matter? No! Surviving matters.
Digestion occurs in a parasympathetic state- think "rest and digest." When we're in this "mode," our bodies undergo several responses- saliva increases, digestive enzymes are released, muscles relax, Therefore, getting into parasympathetic mode is crucial for good digestion.
So what is the #1 way you can improve your digestion, starting today? Slow down while you eat.
Eat while seated and relaxed. Minimize distractions. Take some deep breaths if needed to slow your heart rate and prepare your body for digestion. Take deliberate bites and chew your food well (20 chews per bite at least). Pay attention to your food and your company.
It's really that simple. Start here.
Even if you haven't started focusing on the what to eat, you can start with the how to eat. Watch how slowing down and getting digestion started off right will lessen your nagging symptoms. You'll better absorb nutrients. Food will likely taste better when you focus time and energy on enjoying it. Your hunger and fullness signals will even become a bit more reliable!
And don't worry- this is just the beginning (no pun intended!). We will continue the digestion discussion in upcoming posts. We'll touch upon the what, the how much, the when, and the why of food and nutrition to positively affect digestion and improve overall health. Stay tuned.
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Kim Jordan, NTP - Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, health educator, CrossFitter, nature lover, student of life, once-aspiring writer. Owner of Root and Branch Nutrition.