If you’re having trouble with digestion, poor health is not far behind. As Hippocrates is often quoted as saying more than 2,000 years ago, “All disease begins in the gut.” Your organs, blood, eyes, hair, bones, thoughts and feelings are literally built from the food you eat. Your ability to break down food to form the essential building blocks of life determines your ability to thrive.
An impaired digestive system is not only uncomfortable (and potentially embarrassing, in the case of frequent gassiness), but also endangers your health. Experts estimate that approximately 75 percent of the immune system lives in the gut, so taking care of your tummy is vital to avoid disease.
Being able to effectively break down and absorb nutrients is also paramount in avoiding the inflammation that we now know is behind so many major diseases and causes of death. Chronic illnesses, such as allergies, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, arthritis, autism and depression, have been solidly linked with gut health and digestion.
If you want to resolve a plethora of health issues, digestion is a great place to start. Here are 10 rules to follow for optimal digestion.
1. You are what you eat — or what you digest
Your digestive system isn’t just a trash compactor or blender. It’s a living environment with sensitive tissues and an ever-changing bacterial microbiome. Look out for foods that are damaging to your gut, even despite a healthy reputation.
Dietary sensitivities are increasing as our food supply becomes more saturated with pesticides, chemicals, additives and processing agents. At the same time, meat and produce that is farmed on a large commercial scale is derived from nutrient-depleted soil. It’s vital to choose foods that provide optimal nutrition and do not cause irritation in the gut. Avoiding processed foods, grains (especially those that contain gluten), commercial dairy products, corn and soy is the first step toward cultivating a healthy gut and robust digestion.
2. Reduce or eliminate caffeine
Many people find that caffeine causes intestinal distress. For a gentler alternative, try herbal coffee, which may also have other health benefits. Other alternatives include green tea and herbal teas, which provide anti-inflammatory power and may even help boost digestion. Peppermint, chamomile and fennel tea are all touted for digestive benefits.
3. Work on your posture
Your mom was right when she nagged you about your posture! Slouching can seriously impede digestion and contribute to constipation.
Bathroom posture is also important. Human beings were built to squat for optimal excretion of waste, but modern toilets are in conflict with our biology. Using a small stool or purpose-built squatting device that sits in front of the toilet is beneficial for many people who otherwise suffer from constipation and other digestive woes.
4. Add more fiber
Fiber has long been touted as a digestive panacea, adding bulk to stools and helping to cleanse the colon. These superfood seeds are rich in fiber — try sprinkling them on top of salads or yogurt.
Although this may be true, recent research indicates that the main benefit of fiber is actually something different altogether. Fiber-rich foods are largely indigestible by the human gut, so they tend to pass through to the lower intestine. This is where our friendly bacteria get hold of the fiber, which is their ideal food source. Consuming lots of fermentable fiber (also known as resistant starch), such as green plantains, cooked and cooled potatoes, and roots including yucca and burdock can help support a robust and thriving intestinal microbiome.
These little guys are instrumental in digestion — they break down food and extract nutrients, and also form a large part of your immune system.
However, it is important to note that fiber may cause intestinal distress and constipation in some people. Consumption should be dialed up gradually to prevent discomfort and gassiness. Cue point number 5…
5. Or add more fat
Simply adding more fiber on its own may block up the works. We need to drink enough water and also consume healthy fats to keep the excretory system well lubricated. Good choices for healthy fats include those that are naturally sourced and minimally processed:
Fats are like WD-40 for your gut. Try making your own salad dressings with healthy fats, and adding a few tablespoons to smoothies and stir-fries.
6. Stimulate stomach acid production
Stomach acid is to digestion what gasoline is to a fire. Digesting food isn’t just about the mechanical mashing-up motion of the stomach and intestines — the acidic medium of bile and stomach juices are also required to break everything down.
Unfortunately, many of us today have weak stomach acid, and suffer because of it. Try stimulating stomach acid production with natural supplements such as fresh ginger (made into a tea or added to foods), raw apple cider vinegar with the culture intact, herbal bitters, or dandelion root tea (you can find these at your local health-food store).
7. Get into digestion mode
Have you ever heard the term “fight or flight”? This refers to the survival mode we go into when we are under threat. Many of us live in this mode on a fairly permanent basis, with the never-ending stresses of board reports and bills hanging over our heads.
The problem is, survival mode is not conducive to digestion. A simple fix is to take a few deep belly breaths before sitting down to eat. Remember to continue to breathe deeply as you savor your food as well.
8. Move your body
Similar to a slouchy posture, sitting still all day tends to get digestion all backed up. Not only does regular exercise help work gas out of your system so that it doesn’t cause discomfort, it also stimulates the digestive process and helps you excrete waste more regularly. A further benefit of movement is that it can be a great way to relieve stress, so that you find it easier to get into “digestion mode”! (See the previous point.)
9. Consume friendly bacteria
Along with providing fibrous foods as fuel for the probiotic bacteria living in your gut, you should also continue to develop the “community” by consuming bacteria-rich foods. These include fermented and cultured products such as kombucha, kefir, kimchi, kvass and sauerkraut. Many people find that regular consumption of these foods and beverages goes a long way toward keeping digestion optimal.
Avoiding antibiotics and other medications such as oral contraceptives is also important in order to foster a healthy gut microbiome. Studies show that these chemicals damage beneficial bacteria in ways that are not reversed without external intervention.
10. Heal the gut lining
In order for digestion to work, the “machinery” has to be well maintained. This means avoiding things that damage the intestinal lining, and adding foods that heal it. Many of us suffer from a disease called “leaky gut syndrome,” which is thought to be caused by too much processed food, chronic stress and overuse of pharmaceuticals.
Luckily there are a few key foods you can add to your diet to bring the intestinal tract back into good health.
It’s easy to find better digestion naturally, without resorting to over-the-counter drugs, prescriptions or surgeries. Try incorporating these 10 key ideas one at a time — you will find that many chronic health issues will melt away, and you will gain energy and vitality.