Poor digestion is one of the most common issues I see in clinics. Rushed eating, stress, and medication can all lead to decreased digestion, and the modern lifestyle means these factors are present in abundance.
There are actually many ways we can improve digestion through the foods that we eat and the ways in which we eat them. When we consider digestion we often think of it beginning in the mouth, but digestion actually begins before we put our food anywhere near our mouth!
Digestion Begins in Your Brain
Stressful activity including physical activity or just day-to-day stress like work meetings can lead to our bodies entering a heightened state of stress or fight-or-flight mode. This mode is what allowed our ancestors to run away from danger. In this scenario, the body is designed to move all its energy into the act of surviving by fighting or running away from the danger. Blood and energy is moved away from our digestive area towards more important organs such as the heart and lungs – so our body is properly prepared to survive the danger.
Effective digestion takes place when we are in a relaxed state of rest and digest. If you want to digest your food properly you need to allow yourself a mental break and time to switch off.
The upshot of this is that our digestion is slowed down and does not work properly. A heightened fight-or-flight mode can impair salivary response to food, decrease stomach acid and enzyme secretion, and hamper the release of digestive hormones. This fight-or-flight mode is also heightened in modern man during times of stress, but unlike our early ancestors this stress is not a short-lived burst of energy which dissipates quickly. For modern man this stress is low-level but long-lived and ongoing, meaning digestion is compromised long-term. Stress is the last thing we need for effective digestion! Effective digestion takes place when we are in a relaxed state of rest and digest. If you want to digest your food properly you need to allow yourself a mental break and time to switch off.
What Can I Do?
Take the time to digest your food properly:
- Take a few minutes to relax and breathe when you sit down to eat.
- Do not eat in your car, while at your desk, or watching TV.
- Think about your food – this helps activate your salivary amylase which is important for the initial stages of digestion.
- Sit down at the table and take time to enjoy your food.
Once we actually begin physically eating the food, our mouth is the first site of digestion. The mouth is involved in both mechanical and chemical digestive processes. The mechanical processes involve the breaking down of food into smaller pieces. The food is then ready to be broken down by chemical processes in the body. The mouth is also home to three sets of salivary glands which release an enzyme called salivary amylase.
This is why chewing our food is critical to good digestion. If we don’t chew our food properly these enzymes cannot work effectively on the foods. Chewing also sends signals to our brains to initiate downstream digestion. Chew your food thoroughly before swallowing. The oesophagus then transports the food away to the stomach for the next stages of digestion.
Your stomach is a very acidic environment – adequate acid or hydrochloric acid (HCl) is required:
- As a first line of defence for microbes and adequate levels help to kill these bacteria off.
- The stomach is the site of digestion of proteins which are broken down by enzymes called proteases and peptidases; fats are broken down by gastric lipase.
- Low HCl is actually the cause of many reflux or heartburn complaints NOT high HCl. What you feel when you experience reflux is actually a backup of undigested, fermenting foods and bacterial overgrowth. Taking over the counter antacids (like Rennies, Gaviscon, etc.) may actually making the problem worse. Classic signs of low HCl include:
- Bloating, belching, burning and flatulence immediately after eating.
- A sense of fullness after meals.
- Indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation.
- Food allergies.
- Nausea after taking supplements
How to Improve Low HCL Naturally:
- Take time to properly prepare for the meal (as above) – this gets gastric juices flowing!
- Take a digestive bitter such as gentian or apple cider vinegar or fresh lemon juice 15–30 minutes before a meal. This helps to boost the acidity in the stomach and promotes better digestion.
- Take a HCl supplement such as HCl betaine or part of an enzyme combination. (Never take HCL if you have an ulceration or other diagnosed condition or are taking PPIs.) Eventually as your body begins to make more of its own HCL you will start to feel a warm sensation return to the stomach. Reduce the tablets by one tablet at a time until the sensation goes.
- Take some type of mucosal lining support such as slippery elm before meals, either as a tablet or by mixing 1 teaspoon of slippery elm powder in warm water. This will soothe and coat the mucosal lining.
Liver and Gallbladder
The liver is responsible for the metabolism of all fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. It detoxifies toxins and drugs and metabolises bile which is secreted into the small intestine and stored in the gallbladder. This bile is very important for the emulsification of fats. If you have no gallbladder, fat metabolism may be compromised and dietary fats may become difficult to digest. Supplementing with bile salts or ox bile may be beneficial in this case.
The small intestine participates in all aspects of digestion, absorption, and transportation. Food is either broken down into its constituents of amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose, or it isn’t. If it isn’t you may develop stomach or digestive disruption, irritation, or malabsorption. Food particles mix with enzymes, stomach acid, and bile and interact with the “brush border” of the small intestine as it passes through. It is here that the body decides whether it recognises the food particles as food or whether it views it as an enemy. If the small intestine views a food as an enemy it launches an immune attack which presents itself as digestive discomfort or pretty much any inflammatory response in your body. If you have digestive issues further up your body (e.g. low HCl, low enzyme secretion, etc.) you are more likely to experience digestive issues in the small intestine. To avoid these issues you should avoid all common allergens and hard-to-digest food such as grains and legumes.
This is the site for the absorption of water and the uptake of micronutrients left behind by the work of the small intestine. Additionally, the creation and compaction of faecal matter takes place here. Transit time through the large intestine varies from 10 hours (ideal) to 3 days (not good). A transit test can be carried out at home to see how long it takes you to digest – consume 3 tablespoons of whole sesame seeds or flaxseed followed by plenty of water. Keep an eye in the toilet for when the majority of the seeds appear.
The majority of gut flora is present in the large intestine and inadequate bowel flora is one the primary reasons for poor large intestine function. Small, dense, difficult to pass stools are a sign of poor digestion or slow transit. Ensure you drink adequate water throughout the day as this is required for the proper lubrication of food through the gastrointestinal tract. Finally, add fermented foods into the diet such as sauerkraut, kimichi, and fermented drinks, or take a good quality probiotic. Eat foods rich in soluble fibre such as sweet potato and butternut squash as these form important food for the gut bacteria.
How do you rate your digestion? How much time do you take over your dinner? Leave a comment below with your digestion stories!