Digestion is the number one healing priority of the body. If we can’t digest the food we eat, we won’t properly absorb the nutrients in our food that we need for so many vital processes in the body.
We aren’t what we eat – we are what we absorb!
The Beginning of the Digestive System
Think of digestion as a North to South process (from the head to the anus).
Most people think that digestion starts in the mouth because that is where food first goes but it actually begins in the brain.
The sight and smell of food triggers the release of saliva and digestive juices. We need to be relaxed in order for our body to do this. This is called the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, state of the Autonomic Nervous System.
Take 5 deep breaths before you eat your meal so you can get into the parasympathetic state.
The next step is the mouth. When we chew, we are mechanically and chemically breaking down food.
- Mechanical – chewing, or mastication, breaks the food into smaller, more easily digestible pieces.
- Chemical – our saliva contains salivary amylase, which is an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates. Saliva also makes it easier to swallow.
You want to chew 30-40 times before you swallow. You shouldn’t be swallowing any pieces of food. It should be a smooth paste or liquid. Gross to think about, but true!
What Happens When You Don't Relax
Your body will either be in rest + digest (parasympathetic) or fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode. In order to digest properly, you need to be in a parasympathetic state. Period. You MUST relax before every single meal.
When you eat while feeling stressed, on the go, in the car, quickly at your desk while also doing work, or while multitasking (reading, watching TV…), your body won’t receive the signal to start preparing for digestion. When you are in fight-or-flight mode, blood is shuttled away from the organs of digestion to the limbs. This is why digestion is compromised when you are stressed.
When your body does not release enough saliva, there isn’t enough salivary amylase to begin the chemical breakdown of carbs. Your pancreas will eventually releases amylase in the small intestine to help, but it won’t be enough. This can cause the undigested carbs to hang out in your small intestine and ferment, which can cause dysbiosis in the colon.
What Happens When You Don't Chew
Not chewing your food well enough forces the stomach to do most of the work! This isn’t a good thing…
The stomach secretes stomach acid (HCl) that is primarily responsible for breaking down proteins. It also kills any bacteria or parasites that may be in the food. Think of the stomach as the first line of defense against pathogens. Stomach acid mixes with the food to create an acidic paste called chyme.
Most people are actually deficient in stomach acid due to stress, certain medications, and deficiencies in zinc and chloride. (Reflux actually occurs when the body produces too LITTLE stomach acid).
If we already have low stomach acid and we swallow larger chunks of food, the food won’t be broken down properly. This is an issue because there is a very specific pH that the chyme needs to be to trigger the small intestine to open – 1.5-3 to be exact. Then the chyme just sits there and putrefies since it’s not acidic enough to trigger the next phase of digestion.
Further down the digestive system, these undigested bits of food can irritate the lining of the small intestine which can cause intestinal permeability (also known as leaky gut). This irritation can lead to food sensitivities and dysbiosis. Issues like constipation, dysbiosis, acid reflux, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), bloating, and gas are more likely to occur.
Ways to Support Digestion
Get into a parasympathetic state before each meal:
- Take 5 deep breaths before you begin to eat
- You can use this blend to help get you into the parasympathetic state
- Give thanks for your meal
- Sit while you eat
Chew your food properly:
- Take smaller bites
- Cut your food into smaller pieces
- When drinking a smoothie or eating soup, do it slowly – too much liquid at one time will dilute your stomach acid
- Roast or steam your veggies to make it easier to chew and digest them
- Slow cook proteins like chicken and beef
Support your ability to properly break down food:
- Digestive bitters are one of my favorite supplements. Take a full dropper 10-15 minutes before a meal to stimulate the release of stomach acid. My favorite brands are Herb Pharm and Urban Moonshine.
- Digestive enzymes compliment the enzymes your body naturally releases to break down carbs, proteins, fats, and veggies. Enzymedica is my favorite brand.
- I recommend taking bitters and enzymes when you’re about to eat a larger meal full of proteins, carbs and fats.
- Take a high quality probiotic to support your microbiome and overall gut health
Support the production of stomach acid:
- Drink a glass of warm filtered water with lemon and a pinch of real sea salt every morning – the chloride in the salt will help build stomach acid
- Drink 2-4 ounces of warm water with the juice of 1/2 a lemon OR 1 TBSP of apple cider vinegar 20 minutes before a meal (instead of digestive bitters)
- Eat foods high in zinc like ground beef, oysters, dark chocolate, and pumpkin seeds. Zinc is necessary for the production of stomach acid.
- Saliva is 99.5% water
- Water is vital to avoiding constipation
- Take your body weight and divide it by 2 to get the ounces of water you should be drinking per day – this is your baseline, increase this number if you are exercising or drinking diuretics
- Drink filtered water and avoid too many diuretics
Lowering stress is key to improving digestion and supporting your adrenals, blood sugar regulation, and healthy sleep patterns. Eat in a relaxed state as often as possible and try adding in digestive bitters and enzymes when you’re eating out or on the go.