6 Ways To Improve Your Digestive Health Right Now
Most of us don’t take the time these days to sit with a meal, chew it well or eat in good company. We are usually eating at our desks, eating on the run, multi-tasking or not eating at all. The joy and very nature of food as nourishment has been lost for many, and this is not helped by the popularisation of quick convenience foods and ‘food’ like foods, which trick us into thinking it’s okay to eat them as quickly as they can be purchased. The truth is real food takes time to prepare, just like it should take time to be eaten, and here is why –
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body's unconscious actions.
For starters, digestion begins in the mouth with the help of our teeth to break down food and our salivary enzymes to break apart molecules and signal other digestive organs to get firing. This is called chewing, we all know that, but how many of us really chew our food properly rather than dump-trucking mouthfuls before we've finished the first? I for one will admit I am guilty of this from time to time, including my partner. We suffer from youngest child syndrome, where dinner time growing up was always quick or the dead! Secondly, we have two divisions within our autonomic nervous system that typically function in opposite to each other; our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) “rest & digest” and our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) “fight and flight.”
In order to adequately digest, absorb and assimilate nutrients from our food our PNS needs to be activated. This means that we need our blood to move away from our skeletal muscles, where it likes to hang out in the sympathetic state, and move to our visceral organs to chill out and facilitate digestion. However quite often most of us are living in a constant state of sympathetic dominance due to our everyday (and often inappropriate) encounters with stressful stimuli.
Even the phenomenon of busy-itis or simply just not being in the now is adding to our inability to enter PNS dominance when necessary. This subsequent build up of stress and the continuous activation of SNS control has a multitude of metabolic and physiological consequences on our bodies (and minds), but for the sake of this post we will stick to its effects on digestion, which really barely scrapes the mustard.
So besides taking measures to reduce stress in day to day life, whether it be yoga, exercise or turning off the news; how can we promote PNS dominance to help our digestion?
Here are my top 6 ways to support your digestive health right now —
1. Choose Wholefoods
Reduce the intake of potentially harmful substances – foods laden with calories, additives, artificial sweeteners, refined sugars/starches. These substances are not only empty calories but they have far reaching effects on metabolic processes by increasing cortisol (your stress hormone and SNS buddy), interfering with hunger hormone signaling, creating a greater toxic load and stripping the body of essential vitamins and minerals. Long-term consumption can also cause a weakened immune system, weight gain and various other health conditions. Replace them with natural unpackaged foods, preferably organically grown.
When you prepare food, you are more likely to appreciate, feel the love and take the time to enjoy it. By preparing food – touching, tasting and smelling food before you eat it will help activate that PNS and prepare the body for digestion, which may also help prevent over eating and improve your psychological relationship with food. Also allow your kids to help! Yes it might take 10x longer but this is an incredible way to teach and encourage your children to have a lasting relationship with wholefoods plus it usually helps them to eat and experiment with foods when they have a hand at preparing themselves! My best advice is prepare well to prepare less. So think bulk meals, cooking up bulk quinoa and throwing in salad vegetables and a protein source such as an egg or chicken. Think ahead for your week. My rule of thumb with my family to ensure we are always eating wholefood nutrition without breaking my back in the kitchen for hours each day is no less than 2.5kg (when it comes to things like stew meat/bolognese) and no less than 6-8 servings for a family of 3. Freezing is something I do often with these types of meals – so bulk bulk bulk! Adjust for your family needs and experiment with what works for you.
3. Take It Slow
Eating quickly increases the amount of air and the size of food swallowed, which will lead to inadequate digestion, an increase in gas production, weight gain and stubborn weight loss. By eating your food mindfully and slowly until it is almost liquid you help all the little digestive guys out whilst also promoting blood flow to the viscera and enabling your stomach the time to signal your brain that you are full. It takes approximately 20 minutes for our brains to receive the signal of satisfaction during a meal, so pace it and enjoy it!
4. Eat With Company
Chatter, banter, sharing and being around the people you love or even just being in nature, tells your body that it can go into the growth and nourish mode and leave behind the ‘fear’. Conversation and laughter also allows for intermittent breaks, appropriate hunger hormone signaling, and puts the body in a very positive PNS state. So eat with your kids! Even if it’s at 5pm, this will ensure you do not keep surviving on their crumbs and leftovers and you also get to share quality time with them. Our kids reflect our behaviours, so their relationship with food resembles ours. If you eat and talk with your kids, you will be surprised just how much more nutrition you are both receiving.
5. Avoid Technology
In fact avoid all sorts of multi-tasking, including eating at your desk. If your eyes are in Instagram, or if your view is of your work computer with those looming deadlines, you can be sure that your mind is not on digestion and that your body is sitting in a dominant SNS state. Treat meal time as a sacred ceremony of nourishment. Eyes on the food and the food only. Prepare nature picnics if you are with the kids and make it fun! Just you and the plate (and the kids!), trust me your body will thank you.
5. Never Eat On The Run
Simply, our body recognises that there is something more important to do that isn’t eating. So what does it do? It helps you out, it says "hey, you need to be somewhere, how about I send this blood out of this digestive business and give you some steam in your muscles to get you going?" The body is intelligent like that.
The bottom line..
What we eat, the environment we eat in and the ways we choose to eat are all co-dependent factors that determine how well we assimilate our nutrition, especially important in post-partum health and replenishment. By practicing these mindful techniques each meal we can create vast impacts on our vitality, health and quality of thoughts. Not to mention we will teach our kids the importance of food and the ritualistic bringing together of family around a table to talk, share, nourish and be wholefully present. If digestive symptoms persist it may be beneficial to see your Naturopath or Clinical Nutritionist to get individualised dietary, nutritional and/or nutraceutical advice to optimise your health.
Without basic nutrition we would not be alive, with nutrition we will survive but with quality nutrition and the mindful practice of eating – we will thrive.