How To Support Digestion to Optimise Health
We are what we eat. This is true, but if we want to get scientific, we are what we can absorb and use. This means that you can eat the right diet, but if your digestive system isn’t healthy, you won’t be able to use the nutrients in your food as well as you could.
So, let’s take a look at digestion in a little more detail and how we can support it.
What is Digestion?
Digestion is the process of eating and absorbing food. Food gives us energy, but it also makes up every single cell in our bodies. So, breaking it down and using it is a huge part of how we live our lives.
The process of digestion starts in the mind. Before we even take the first bite, our brain tells our gut system to start working.
This is why it’s important to eat slowly and spend time cooking. As we prepare food, our senses are at their best. We can smell the spices and see the olive oil drizzling! This process produces more saliva, which contains enzymes that help your body break down food.
When we take that first bite, we help our stomach in a mechanical way. With each bite and chew, the food gets smaller. We know it’s a lot to ask you to chew each piece of food 50 times, but if your gut health is poor and you often find undigested food in your stool, you may find that going back to the simple art of chewing more helps.
When we’re done chewing, the food goes down the throat and into the stomach. Here, it finds the stomach acid! But if you have ever had acid reflux, you already know that. Even more food is broken down by the acidic climate, especially protein. It also takes vitamins like B12 from ready-to-be-absorbed protein.
Even though we think of the stomach as a pot of acid and a tough guy, this is often where things go wrong, especially if you have too much or too little acid. Most of the time, we end up with low stomach acid because of drugs like stomach acid inhibitors (for people with heartburn) or antihistamines (for people with hay fever). Food can’t be broken down properly if there isn’t enough stomach acid and as we get older, the amount of stomach acid we make naturally goes down as well.
The Small Intestine
From the stomach, food goes to the small intestine, where most of the nutrients are taken into the bloodstream. Here, digestive enzymes from the pancreas attack the food, and bile from the liver also makes its way into the small intestine. Bile is important for breaking down fat, and enzymes made by the liver help break down all macronutrients, including protein, fat, and carbs.
If your liver or pancreas don’t work efficiently, you may not be able to digest food particularly well. In addition, too many toxins can make the liver work harder. This can happen when you drink a lot of alcohol, but it can also happen when you are exposed to toxins in the environment. So, limit the number of artificial scents in your home, eat organic food if budget and availability will allow and choose low-toxic cleaning products.
The Large Intestine
The large intestine comes after the small intestine. This oversees four main things: keeping you hydrated, keeping your microbiome healthy, absorbing nutrients, and packing down waste. This last function deserves a little more attention.
The rectum is at the end of the large intestine, it stores and compacts the waste that the body makes. This waste must be excreted, but this depends on how mobile our digestive system is. We can improve our gut motility by eating a diet high in fibre and eating mindfully.
Stress and Digestion
The digestive system can work without help from the brain, which means it doesn’t have to be told what to do. This means that it can lose a lot of its function during times of stress, even if we don’t want it to.
When we face a stressor, which is something that upsets our internal balance, our bodies move our resources to deal with the stressor. In those times, digestion isn’t as important, so blood is taken away from it. This is why you get butterflies in your stomach or, if you’re worried, vomit or have diarrhoea. If the digestive system doesn’t work, the body just wants to get the food out.
When the stressor is gone, digestion needs to start up again, so resources are moved back. This is where the phrase “rest and digest” comes from.
The problem is that stressors are seemingly everywhere in modern life. So, our resources are often taken away from our digestive function.
The way we react to stress has a big effect on how well we digest and use the food we eat and even though we can’t get rid of all our stressors all of the time, there are some things we can do to lessen the effects.
Mindful eating means paying attention to what you eat. When you’re focused on what’s in front of you, it’s hard to think about other things, like those things that are making you stressed out. Mindful eating is a bit like giving your digestive system the time and room it needs to do its job well. It can be as simple as eating at a table with a chair instead of eating whilst answering emails or taking calls.
We can also spend time cooking. Getting lost in the process of making a meal takes our mind off life for a moment.
In an ideal world, we want to be managing our stress well enough that it doesn’t affect our bodies negatively, but this doesn’t always happen. If we have some strategies up our sleeve, we can mitigate its effects as much as possible.
So, if you feel you have a handle on your diet and nutrition but are still not quite where you want to be, consider whether your digestive system is firing on all cylinders.
Top Tips for Digestive Health:
Eat plenty of fibre,
Limit ultra-processed foods where possible,
Practice mindful eating,
Manage stress effectively,
Spend time cooking,
Check out our library of recipes if you’d like to start cooking more and let us know how you get on.