People often say, “you are what you eat” but the truth is “you are what you absorb.” Meaning, you can have the healthiest diet of properly prepared, nutrient-dense foods but you must also be able to adequately break down the nutrients you’re consuming. Here’s the good news: with a few small lifestyle adjustments, many people can experience a huge shift in the health of their gut. So how do you know if you’re properly absorbing these nutrients or if your gut is in an unhealthy state? Signs point to an unhealthy gut if you experience:
Belching, gas or bloating after eating a meal.
Heartburn or acid reflux.
Undigested food in your stool.
Stool that isn’t not well-formed.
Stool that is hard or difficult to pass.
Strong body odor.
Feeling better when you don’t eat.
The root cause of each of these varies a bit, however, each symptom you may be experiencing is a telltale sign that you have digestive dysfunction, aka, an unhealthy gut. The most common cause of the majority of these issues is low stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria. Stomach acid is a vitally important digestive juice that can be easily affected by unhealthy lifestyle practices such as antacid drug use, excess sugar, highly processed foods, chronic overeating, constant snacking between meals, excess alcohol consumption, or nutrient deficiencies, just to name a few (1).
Let's go back to the good news! There are many things you can do in terms of lifestyle changes to help support your digestive system.Digestion is a north to south process. Meaning, digestion starts in your brain with the sight and smell of food and ends with the elimination of that food in the form of feces. When it comes to rehabilitating an unhealthy gut, it’s very important to start from a southernmost point. By following these steps in the order they’re presented will ensure that each part of the digestive system is working optimally and the organs and systems to follow can rely on the health of the organs before it.
Rest to digest. The most important step you can take to improve digestion is to ensure you are in a relaxed state before you eat. Step away from the phone, TV, and any other electronics or distractions. Sit down, take a deep breath, and enjoy your food. By entering into this “rest and digest” mode of your body (called your parasympathetic state) you’re allowing your brain to activate the salivary glands and produce saliva, which begins the digestion process!
Chew your food. Aim to chew 20-30 times per bite, or until your food is in a liquid state. Many people find it helpful to put their fork down in between bites to avoid eating too quickly. As you eat, savor the taste, smell, texture, and colors of your food. Remember, your mouth is the physical gateway to the digestive system. The mechanical and chemical breakdown of food takes place here, so when we skip this step it enormously affects the rest of the digestive process. Chewing ineffectively or too quickly allows large particles of food to enter your stomach and intestines, potentially causing digestive dysfunction. Chewing your food thoroughly allows you to absorb more nutrients from your food, helps you maintain a healthy weight, allows for easier digestion, and leads to fewer digestive issues like gas and bloating.
Increase stomach acid. Hydrochloric acid promotes digestion and the absorption of many vital nutrients. Unfortunately, with the prevalence of the Standard American Diet and poorly managed stress, this critical digestive component is often negatively affected. Incorporating digestive bitters, raw apple cider vinegar, or even lemon in warm water before a meal will help prepare the digestive tract for digestion and encourage the production of digestive juices and enzymes. Additionally, following the two steps before this will set the stage for the production of stomach acid.
Whether you’re experiencing one, two, or all eight of the symptoms listed above, following these steps in order will provide the ultimate foundation for a healthy gut and optimal functioning digestive system.
As a reminder, this article is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure disease, and is for educational and informational purposes only. As always, before beginning any nutrition program or lifestyle adjustments, consult with your doctor or licensed healthcare provider.
“Upper Gastrointestinal System.” SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS ANALYSIS FROM A FUNCTIONAL PERSPECTIVE- 2ND EDITION, by DICKEN WEATHERBY, WEATHERBY & ASSOCIATES, L, 2004, p. 139.