5 basic steps to improving digestion

1. I know you’ve heard this before, but it is so important that it bears repeating: Chew, chew, chew. This means both slowly and thoroughly. To be totally graphic about it, you want anything you swallow to be a soupy consistency. Especially meat.

For starters, digestion starts in the mouth. There are thousands of tiny neuro-receptors in the mouth that send messages to the brain about what is about to come down the pike. These messages “prep” the entire digestive system to gear up for the meal or snack that’s on the way.

Fatty foods will trigger the liver to produce extra bile, and cause the gallbladder to contract and squirt bile into the upper small intestine. Bile is potent stuff (so precious to the body that 95% is recycled—the other 5% is responsible for the wonderful deep brown color of a healthy poop bowel movement) and the main agent for digesting fat.

Unlike cows, birds and certain lizards, we mere humans do not have small sharp objects in our stomachs to help pulverize food into smaller morsels. We have those small sharp objects in our mouths. So, please do use your teeth to grind and pulverize every mouthful of food. Then, you mix the thoroughly pulverized food with as much saliva as you can muster. You want that saliva, which is loaded with amylase, the starch-digesting enzyme, to head down the esophagus and into the stomach where phase 2 of good digestion occurs.

2. Try to avoid antacids, and this includes TUMS, Rolaids, Nexium, Protonix, and so forth. Nature is not wasteful. You absolutely require stomach acid which serves three critical functions. It sterilizes food, it breaks down protein into amino acids which can then be absorbed into the blood stream, and it provokes the pancreas to dump “neutralizing” bicarbonate of soda into the upper small intestine to allow the absorption of nutrients into the blood.

Stomach acid is caustic—a pH of about 2, optimally, which starts being secreted right after swallowing food. The stomach is designed to handle this level of acidity. If you suffer from heartburn, you need to repair the sphincter between the end of the esophagus and the stomach. If you have gastric ulcers, you need to heal the lining of the stomach so that it can again accommodate the acid levels required for proper digestion.

Folks chronically popping antacids eventually impair their digestion, which leads to poor nutrient absorption, which ultimately leads to malnutrition including protein, mineral and vitamin deficiencies—despite getting plenty of calories.

3. Please don’t drink while eating. This goes along with rule # 2, above. Fluids will dilute your stomach acid and all the digestive enzymes—amylase for starch in the saliva, proteases for protein from the pancreas and lipase for fats in the bile. The best time to drink, and pure water is definitely the ideal drink, is first thing in the morning, during or around workouts, and between meals. Sure, you can have a sip or two with meals to lubricate your swallowing. But keep the fluids with food down to a minimum.

4. Try to eat sitting down and in a relaxed environment. Please don’t watch the news or have a heavy conversation during mealtime. Try to establish a “mealtime” pattern for yourself. Try not to eat within two hours of going to bed (four is better). Make sure to “fast” for 12 hours daily to give your digestive system needed rest. It is enormously “expensive” to digest food, especially protein. That’s why people usually lose weight on high protein diets. It takes almost all the calories in the meat to digest that meat. Extra digestion, over a lifetime, will wear you out sooner. To date, the only proven method of life extension remains calorie restriction. This doesn’t mean draconian self-denial, but it does mean no pigging out, and, as a general rule, stopping before you feel “full.”

If you feel peckish between meals, try drinking water before reaching for a snack. If you are hypoglycemic you may need to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Keep in mind that you need to be calm and relaxed for the digestive juices to kick in optimally.

5. Strive to poop at least once a day. Excuse me: Evacuate a large, easy-to-pass, dark brown, slightly fluffy, bowel movement — optimally three times daily but most of us can’t find the time for that kind of enjoyment. By fluffy I mean somewhat floating. If you have a “sinker” — just hits the bottom of the porcelain pronto — then it (the poop) has been in there too long, compacting and getting altogether too dense. My favorite poop fluffers include freshly ground flax seeds (1 to 3 tablespoons of the stuff in water or tea in the morning), or celery, or the good old apple a day. If you prefer to have sticky, foul-smelling BMs, then make sure to include plenty of refined carbohydrates (including candy bars) in your diet.

A quick mnemonic for improving digestion is HOPE:

H for high fiber. This can be ground flax seeds or acadia seeds added to soups, salads, oatmeal or yogurt, or an apple, or several sticks of celery.

O for Omega 3 oils such as in fatty fish. Eat SMASH fish twice a week: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring.

P for probiotics which ideally come from fermented foods like kimchee, sauerkraut, yogurt, pickles or kombucha beverages.

E for enzymes. I particularly like a “multi” enzyme that helps digest all the macros, such as “Similase,” which can be taken with every meal (1 to 4 depending on the size of the meal or the amount of protein).

Emily Kane is a naturopathic doctor based in Juneau. Contact her online at http://www.dremilykane.com.

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