Most of us notice poor digestion when feeling stuffy after eating or having a heartburn. We remain unaware that the myriad of symptoms we experience in our daily lives are actually arising from poor digestibility. Since we don’t understand how critical this process is, we seldom realize the downstream adverse effects that a weakened digestive system can have on our health.
In traditional medicine, digestion is regarded as the most important process in the human physiology and for a good reason. It’s digestion, after all, that is responsible for extracting nutrients from food and supplying them to trillions of cells in the body. It is also responsible for eliminating toxins from the body, which is why traditional medicinal principles attribute most ailments to poor digestive fire.
What is Digestion
Digestion is primarily the process of absorbing nutrients from food to metabolize (i.e. generate energy) while discarding that which couldn’t be absorbed. The organs of digestion include those found along the digestive tract like the stomach and the intestines and also helper organs like the pancreas, liver and gallbladder, and kidneys and urinary bladder that together assist in digesting food and filtering out waste products.
Digestion begins in the mouth where we chew to break food down to a mush that can be swallowed. The stomach grinds the food to a liquid called chyme which then proceeds to the small intestines to be further disintegrated into glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids. These molecules of nutrients are then absorbed through the intestinal villi that line the walls of the intestines. The undigested food particles are moved to the colon from where they prepare to be eliminated through the feces.
As you can see, digestion is a multi-faceted function and digestive issues can be caused by just one weak link in the chain of events comprising it. To troubleshoot a digestive problem then is to ensure all links of the chain are strong in and by themselves. Let’s explore how our dietary patterns and lifestyle choices can affect our ability to digest what we eat.
6 Factors in Digestive Issues
Digestive problems are a daily occurrence for most of us. However, before you start popping pills or even natural supplements, it’s critical to take a look at how, what, and when you eat food. Most of the time you can nip digestive troubles in the bud by rectifying these factors alone.
#1 – What you eat
The very first consideration is what kind of food you eat and if it’s giving you enough nutrition to handle your essential needs. We recommend eating a combination of plant and animal foods and staying away from extreme dietary philosophies like veganism or paleo diet. That gives you the best combination of both macro nutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins as well as vitamins, phytochemicals, and minerals.
- Animal foods gives an easily absorbable source of proteins, fat-soluble vitamins, and minerals some of which may not be readily available in plant foods. For example, vegans are advised by American Dietetic Association to supplement their diet with various essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids because you can only get these vitamins in sufficient bioavailable quantities in animal products.1Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jul;109(7):1266-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.027. PMID: 19562864.
- A nice balance of whole grains, legumes, and vegetables gives you fiber that sweeps your intestines clean in passing and provides food for the symbiotic microbes (aka probiotics) to thrive. It also offers phytochemicals that have a myriad of beneficial properties that bolster your immune system, provide antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and nurture and support vital organs.
- Needless to say, when choosing your plant ingredients favor organically grown food, free of farm chemicals like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Likewise, choose farm-raised animal products raised free-range and without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or vaccines. Why? Because the residues of these chemicals find their way to your food causing harm to your health.
- Not eating a nutrient-dense food can lead to diseases caused by deficiencies, digestive issues, and even sugar cravings. It’s critical to obtain your ingredients from a clean source and consume a combination of animal and plant products.
#2 – How you prepare food
How you make food can make a world of difference in what you get out of it. You could take care to buy organic, farm-fresh foods but if you don’t prepare them properly, you’re not going to get the most nutritive bang for your buck.
- First off, always cook your food properly. There’s is not much merit in eating raw produce regardless of what some fad diets promote. The cellulose in plant foods is very hard on our digestive system; cooking breaks it down making it easier to be processed. If you like your salad, toss it in a saucepan over heat and cover it for a few minutes to let the leaves wilt and veggies soften a bit before eating.
- Cook your food in stainless steel utensils, preferably on stove top. It’s best to cook food with clarified butter for oil. Clarified butter or ghee allows the nutrients from all ingredients to mix in and penetrate the whole dish. It also assists in absorption of the food in the body when eaten.
- Never use microwave as it denatures food. Simple experiments have shown that when water is warmed in microwave then brought back to room temperature and given to plants, they die. The mega-frequency electromagnetic waves that microwave ovens emit are harmful to human tissue and any amount of exposure is best avoided.
#3 – How you combine foods
Different types of foods digest differently and it serves to be mindful about what foods you eat together and which you consume alone. This is a rather complex topic but following the few guidelines listed here will ensure you don’t burden your digestive system unnecessarily.
- Eat your fruits alone, at least 45-60 minutes before having your meals. You can combine cooked fruit in small amounts with other foods. Breakfast is the best time to have fruit, definitely avoid them at suppertime as they can tax your system with their sugar content. Fruit sugar isn’t bad especially when eaten with fiber as in a whole fruit, but sugar is still sugar and must be consumed sparingly. Avoid fruit juices unless you’re mixing small quantities to other foods or beverages.
- Keep your proteins simple and separate. Especially avoid dairy products with meats, legumes, and nightshades. If you can’t for any reason then cook them together and the alchemy of cooking will make them compatible with each other.
- Avoid drinking water with your meals since it can dilute your stomach acid causing food to not digest properly. When eating dry foods like a whole-grain sandwich, it’s okay to have 4-6 ounces of beverage between morsels. It’s best to consume wet foods like soups and stews.
#4 – How you eat
- Always sit down to eat your food in a relaxed environment. Having a nutritious meal on the go will only compromise your ability to digest it. When you’re not relaxed your sympathetic nervous system is active which keeps you in fight-or-flight mode. Eating in a calm atmosphere triggers the parasympathetic activity which puts your body in the rest-and-digest state.
- Chew your food properly. It greatly helps to break the food down so it’s easier to digest in the stomach. Your saliva contains enzymes to disintegrate food into smaller molecules for easier assimilation so you body doesn’t need as much pancreatic enzymes, supporting the digestion immensely.
- Not chewing food properly or eating on the go will ensure your food doesn’t digest well causing issues like gas, bloating, constipation, and fatigue. Digestion is a very resource intensive process, don’t make it any harder on your body!
- How much you eat also significantly determines how well you digest food. Remember that the stomach physically churns the food, as seen in the below video of an animal stomach in action2Source: https://youtu.be/YH3U_SLp9G0, and needs to have room to be able to do its job well. When you stuff yourself silly, you also set yourself up for a variety of digestive problems.
If you experience bloating, constipation, or fatigue after eating meals, you may be low on HCL or pancreatic enzymes and should consider seeing a holistic health practitioner for help.
#5 – When you eat
Traditional medicinal principles advise us to eat three meals a day – no more, no less. Your breakfast should be light, lunch heavier, and dinner the lightest. Most importantly, in all cases, the food of choice must be nutrient dense which, following the above guidelines under the section What to eat, should ensure.
- The best time to have your breakfast is between 7 am- 9 am, lunch 11 am – 1 pm, and dinner at 5 pm – 7 pm. It’s a good measure to leave 3-4 hours between supper and bedtime since you don’t want to still be digesting it when you go to bed.
- It’s also a good idea to wait 12-14 hours after supper and before the next day’s breakfast. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner should be separated by about 4-6 hours so you can digest the previous meal properly before having the next.
- Snacking should be avoided since every bit of snack jumpstarts your digestion and is hard on your body. If you must snack, eat a piece of fruit which is relatively easier to digest. Any milk based or sweetened beverages do count as food. Remember that each time you put food in your mouth, your body has to process it!
If you get a low blood sugar without snacking, your liver is not able to maintain your blood sugar levels properly and you’ll be well advised to seek the help of a holistic practitioner to regain its proper function.
#6 – How much you move
Aside from other physiological and psychological benefits, relaxed movement is also good for digestion. Conversely, lack of movement and sedentary lifestyle will adversely affect digestibility. It serves one well to walk after having meals, and a mere 20 minute walk would greatly assist in the digestive function.
It’s best to go for a walk outdoors in nature. Not only you get the benefit of fresh air and sunlight, if applicable, but also nature smells supplement with constituents that enhance your gut flora. Walking indoors doesn’t offer the same benefit but is better than no physical activity.
Digestion is a complex process and what you eat, how, and when determines how well your body performs it. Digestive upsets when acute appear as obvious symptoms but the troubles that could be brewing in the case of chronic digestive issues could range from any of the complex diseases of the colon, the heart, the liver or the kidneys. Even many psychological and degenerative neurological conditions could be traced back to a compromised digestibility. Parkinson’s disease, for example, has been associated with a history of long-standing constipation.3Source: https://www.israel21c.org/scientists-believe-constipation-can-be-early-sign-of-parkinsons-disease/
The issues of digestion must not be taken lightly. In the short term they could ruin your day and in the long-run they affect the quality and quantity of your life. In holistic viewpoint, the ways to reverse digestive issues are comprehensive and promise to improve every facet of your health.
- 1Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jul;109(7):1266-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.027. PMID: 19562864.
- 2Source: https://youtu.be/YH3U_SLp9G0
- 3Source: https://www.israel21c.org/scientists-believe-constipation-can-be-early-sign-of-parkinsons-disease/