So, how’s your digestion?
Surprisingly, this is one of the first questions I ask when consulting with my clients. As a holistic health coach, I get a lot of people who come into my life with “issues” from all walks of life. However, whether a person is trying to lose weight, pursue their dreams, or just feel better achieving optimal digestive health is a constant. After all, the gut is a fundamental influencing force of human health.
The Gut-Brain Connection
There is an undeniable relationship between our gut and mental activity. Some have their first experiences with this during moments of intuition, that “I had a funny feeling about this”. We’ve been unconsciously experiencing this connection in multiple forms of expression just like this.
The popular “gut wrenching feeling” or “I feel sick to my stomach” and of course who can forget the popular “butterflies in my stomach”? These are all proven experiences of the bond between what goes on within our intestinal tract and our mind. It seems simple, if our stomachs are aching, it seems likely we wouldn’t be in the best mood.
The Lemon Exercise
If you don’t think that the metaphysical can strongly influence the physical then try this exercise. Witness how the mere thought of food can stimulate digestive juices. This is mostly for fun but will help give you an actual experience of the gut-brain connection – just in case you haven’t experienced a strong reaction yet.
Right now, with out any distraction, concentrate on the image of a lemon in your mind. Pretend you’re holding this lemon in your hand, freshly picked off of a tree somewhere in California. You can smell the fresh, sour citrus as it sits in your palm. You bring it closer and breathe in the lemon zest.
Now imagine taking a huge bite of that lemon, peel and all. Can you feel your mouth watering yet? If your imagination is strong enough, you likely were able to stimulate some digestive juices without even having the lemon present in real life. This shows you how powerful your mind is at controlling your digestive system.
A Holistic Approach
Science has explored this phenomenon further only to discover that our bodies are even more connected than we had ever known (at least here in the West). Though many other ancient cultures have been telling us that our reality starts from within, we in the West are coming to learn this from a more scientific experience.
In short, up to 80% of our brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) are manufactured in the gut. In fact, 95% of our serotonin is produced in the gut. This tells us a lot about how sensitive our intestinal tract is to emotions and mood. We are realizing we can no longer treat symptoms of impaired digestion; such as depression or anxiety, without addressing the gut.
Likewise, if we want to heal a distressed gut, we have to take account for our moods. This means working from both ends by managing our mental-emotional states as well as maintaining our physical bodies by being aware of what we put into our system.
10 Simple Tips for Optimal Digestion
Though the idea of digestion appears deeply complex, maintaing a healthy digestive system is really quite simple. Here are some tips for regaining and maintaining perfect digestive health that anyone can implement:
- Never watch TV (especially the news) while eating- Most of us grew up with a dinner table and a television not to far away. We even went as far as creating the TV Dinner, to make sure we were able to eat and enjoy our favorite shows at the same time. The news never produces a good feeling and is usually filled with negativity. This creates too much excitement in the body, which can trigger the flight-or-fight response (Stress). When we watch something over stimulating, our bodies cannot tell the difference between real life or a strong imagination. So when you’re watching the news about war or the failing economy, your body is likely to go into stress mode which will shut down the digestive system.
- Don’t read technical or stressful material while eating- Reading the newspaper is just like watching the news (see no.1). In fact, eating the newspaper somewhere relaxing would probably be better for your digestion than reading it while eating and hoping to digest your food. IF you wish to read, read something uplifting that makes you happy. Self-help books, inspirational stories, or something spiritually enlightening. Avoid your tax report, work papers, or school books. Additionally, using your eyes actually requires a good amount of energy, which takes away from digestion.
- Play relaxing music- Classical music, music with a one-second beat (Baroque Classical), or new age music with no beat (most meditation music). This is relaxing to the body and will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will turn on your digestion. Research from John Hopkins University and other Institutes actually shows that classical music has a higher energetic vibration which soothes the heart and assists you in relaxation. Where rock music shows very rigid vibrational patterns that cause people to eat in a rushed, tense pace.
- Drink two glasses of water before each meal- What is important here is the quality and timing. You want to drink chlorine and fluoride-free water always. The best is local spring water. You can get this by searching http://www.findaspring.com or asking local health conscious folks in your neighborhood. The second best option are glass bottled spring waters. Here is my top choice for water as far as mineral content, taste and purity goes. Next, make sure you drink the water 15 minutes before eating. Drinking water before a meal will ensure you properly digest your food by hydrating the stomach lining. This will assist enzyme production. Do not drink water while eating or any sooner than 15 minutes as this will dilute digestive enzymes and acids.
- Limit and aim to avoid dehydrated foods- This means crackers, chips, dried fruits, un-soaked nuts, seeds and grains and of course common processed foods (donuts, popcorn, cookies, pretzels, crisps, etc). Most people are eating too many improperly prepared grains and legumes. Beans, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, oats, etc. and even nuts and seeds all need to be soaked in water and rehydrated to be properly digested. They contain enzyme inhibitors that make them very difficult to digest. Not to mention, when not soaked they are very dehydrating foods. It’s a good idea to soak grains, legumes and nuts/seeds for 12-24 hours and rinse well to remove saponins and lectins. Dehydrated foods often get stuck to the gut wall where they draw moisture out of the colon. This causes pain, cramps and can lead to problems like diverticulitis. Instead, make it your goal to consume more water-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, organic meats and properly prepared grains.
- Avoid foods you are intolerant or allergic to- Many people are intolerant to foods and have no idea. This is a result of being ignorant to the first 5 steps in this post, lack of variety in diet, stress and other reasons. If you know you’re intolerant or allergic, make it a matter to pay extra attention to healing your gut with these steps and of course just avoiding a food that is taking away from your quality of life. If you don’t know if you are intolerant you can get tested, or even cheaper would be to eliminate common problematic foods for 2 weeks and see how you feel on and off. These foods are gluten, corn, soy, eggs, dairy, nuts/seeds, and most forms of sugar (including fruit).
- Chew your food until it’s liquid- No explanation needed.
- Eat smaller meals more often- A smaller meal is easier to digest than a bigger meal, that’s common sense. Digestion takes incredible amounts of energy, preserving it by eating smaller meals will keep you younger and more energized. Because we are all different with unique metabolisms, there may be variances in the size of your meals and frequencies. A good rule of thumb is to eat until your 80% full, leaving room for digestion. The goal is metabolic efficiency; you want to be able to take in the most amount of nutrients with minimal food required. Eating to 80% capacity will only be effective if you are eating real food, with healthy proportions of fats, carbs and proteins.
- Never suppress the urge- If you have to go, GO! Many people put off going to the bathroom until they are home from work, or in the most comfortable setting. Though this makes sense to a degree, you are also destroying your colon. The peristalsis mechanism in your intestinal tract controls your elimination, it’s your poop muscle if you will. Its been shown in little as 7-21 days you can entrain any physiological system. By suppressing your natural need to eliminate you can cause a permanent traffic jam in your intestines; chronic constipation! This is sure to impair digestion in a serious way by inhibiting nutrient absorption and leading to toxicity.
- Start meals with raw foods (especially fermented)- Raw foods, especially fermented raw foods, are incredibly dense with enzymes and healthy bacteria. These are very beneficial to digestion. They stimulate the digestive process and aid the body in producing it’s own enzymes and stomach acids. Raw sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar or coconut kefir both aid the body in producing stomach acid (HCL) which digests proteins. These are great to have with animal proteins. Pineapple and papaya also contain protein digestive enzymes and are great in salads. Raw foods and raw ferments establish a healthy gut flora, which are the base of your digestive system. They play many roles in food digestion and nutrient absorption. Try adding a few tablespoons of these fermented foods to each meal or sipping on a few ounces fermented drinks while eating for incredible digestion.
- CHILL OUT– If there is one thing you could do for better digestive health, it would be to relax. The digestive system is run by the atomic nervous system. There are two subcategories of our nervous system that mange our digestive health; the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed out or suffering, we are in a sympathetic state. Hence the name sym-pathetic. The word pathetic is derived from the Greek word pathos, meaning to suffer. Whenever we are stressed our bodies suffer and activates this sympathetic nervous system, telling our bodies it is in danger. In this panicked state, the body shuts down all digestive functions and used that energy for primal survival. The sympathetic nervous system activates the muscles and prepares the body for work. While this mechanism can be useful in life or death situations let’s face it, we are hardly in life or death situations anymore. I’m not saying life is anywhere near perfect; however, most people have no real reason to suffer or panic. It’s more likely that our problems today, and digestive problems are totally psychosomatic (created in our minds in the form of worry, anxiety and outdated mental constructs). When we are relaxed and chilled out though, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which is responsible for rest, repair and regeneration. We do not necessarily need to be in a constant state of relaxation or serenity – there is a time any place for work. However, most people are in a constant sympathetic state. If you have digestive problems then you are likely more stressed out than not. Stress is simply force-counter force, it’s pressure. So what can you do to relax? Stop trying to impress people, stop letting people pure-pressure you, stop letting people depress you (put you down) and get out of your head. Stop thinking so much and look around. There’s a major difference between thinking (consciousness) and looking (awareness). Be less conscious and more aware – get out of your thoughts and look around, life is fucking beautiful. Go for a walk, look into someone’s eyes, or paint a picture if you don’t believe me.
For more knowledge and holistic tips for optimal digestive health, see my online course Perfect Digestion, where I dive deeper into the anatomy of the digestive system, how it works and what we can do daily to support it’s functioning.