Three Simple Ways to Improve Digestion
Article written by Shannon Woodcock for the Cambridge Food Co-op Spring 2021 Newsletter.
Good digestion is at the heart of our health and well-being.
Why is that? Well, when our digestion is functioning properly, we are able to efficiently breakdown and absorb all the nutrients from our food. These nutrients become the basis for ALL the functions in our body! However, what our body can’t break down (such as insoluble fiber, excess hormones, or toxic by-products from medications) gets eliminated with all the other bodily waste products. This is, in a nutshell, how a healthy, functioning, digestive system operates.
For many of us, our digestion is not operating at its best. In one survey of nearly 72,000 Americans, it was reported that over two-thirds experienced digestive issues on a weekly basis. These issues included heartburn or reflux, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, nausea or vomiting (Almario, 2018). If you are experiencing any of these aforementioned symptoms, your digestion may need a little love.
So what can you do to help improve your body’s digestion, and, ultimately, the way that you feel?
Relax. Have you ever gone on vacation and eaten and drank whatever you wanted with no unwanted side effects? That’s because digestion starts in your brain. Yes, your brain! You must be in a parasympathetic, or relaxed state, for your digestive juices to start flowing. Those digestive juices are imperative to you being able to break food down into its smaller particles for better absorption and utilization. Even low levels of stress (such eating while driving) can divert energy away from your digestive tract, making it difficult to breakdown your food. You have to somehow bring a little of that “vacation atmosphere” to your own kitchen. Make sure you set a place at your table (even if you eat alone) and dedicate some time to your meal. Take deep breaths or give thanks, turn off the TV, light a candle. Find whatever brings you peace and calm before digging in.
Chew. You get one chance to mechanically breakdown your food. If you don’t utilize it, you are making the rest of your digestive tract work much harder and opening the door for digestive issues further down the line. The breakdown of carbohydrates begins in your mouth with salivary amylase, but if we don’t chew, then these amazing enzymes do not get a chance to work their magic. You’ve maybe heard that you need to chew your food 30 times, which may be accurate. But if counting feels stressful (it does for me), then focus on taking a deep breath before each bite and not rushing through the meal. Aim for chewing your food until it becomes liquid…oh, and for all you smoothie drinkers, leave a few chunks of fruit whole so you are forced to stop and chew, too.
Bitters. Sometimes we still need a little bit of help getting our system up and running. Bitter foods or digestive bitters may be just the ticket. Bitter is a flavor profile that is highly underutilized in our culture. We tend to stick to more “salty and sweet,” which doesn’t do much for our digestion. Pick up a head of radicchio on your next Co-op/grocery visit or try digestive bitters. I recommend Urban Moonshine or local producer, Sweetbrier Farm’s bitters (both available at the Co-op). Tear a leaf off the radicchio or use a few droppers full of bitter before each meal. Chew or swish the liquid around your mouth. Slowly. Really taste the bitterness. You will feel your mouth start to water; this is a good thing. If your saliva is starting to flow, in general, it means your other enzymes and juices are moving, too.
Now that you have taken the first steps for good digestion, you can just sit back and relax; let your liver, gallbladder, and pancreas work their magic.
Above images: Bitters from local Sweetbrier Farms, Salem, NY (top) - courtesy Stephinie Miner, and Urban Moonshine Bitters, Burlington, VT (bottom).
Both are available at the Co-op.
Shannon Woodcock is a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner based in Cambridge, NY. She is certified by the Nutritional Therapy Association and is a certified RESTART® Instructor. Her love of all things nutrition began more than a decade ago when she started a farm with her husband and kiddos and experienced first hand the healing power of real food. She works to empower others to find their way back to a simpler, more intuitive way of eating and living. For more information on Shannon’s practice, visit her website: https://www.shannonwoodcocknutritionaltherapy.com
Almario, C. V., M. L. Ballal, W. D. Chey, C. Nordstrom, D. Khanna, and B. Spiegel (2018). “Burden of Gastrointestinal Symptoms in the United States: Results of a Nationally Representative Survey of Over 71,000 Americans.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 113 (11): 1701–1710. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41395-018-0256-8.
Haas, E., and B. Levin (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press