Holiday season has passed and most of us are likely back to our standard eating patterns. So, how are you feeling with regard to your digestion day-in and day-out? For many, including myself, belly size can fluctuate on a fairly steady basis. At times our gut is flat or bloated and other times hard or soft. Or, we might have a comfortable feeling inside our bellies compared to other times when there is a sense of discomfort or pain.
The first step for each one of us is to pay attention and become more mindful about our bellies and how we feel. When is it that we feel most comfortable? What time of day? What have we eaten? Likewise, when is it that we feel less comfortable? When, where and what have we eaten? We want to be aware not just of the individual foods that may bother us but also of the food combinations our personal digestion experiences as challenging. Perhaps we’ve had a stressful event take place and our digestion has locked down? Well, what about if we’re chronically stressed? What will that do to us and how we feel?
All of these factors and more count with regard to our overall health, body size and feeling in or out of sync with ourselves. Most importantly though is for each of us to take into account how often we feel like ourselves versus feeling out of sorts. This requires mindfulness and embodiment. Being our own witness to what’s going on in our lives, as well as to what and how we are eating and feeling is critical. It’s time to start connecting the dots with regard to our lives, the events that take place and the impact all of that has on our digestion and eating.
Part 1 of this article left off with the promise of a discussion on the:
• Enteric Nervous System
• Other factors that assault our digestion
• Key tools for enhancing our digestive outcomes.
Let’s take a look at all of these right now!
◊ The Enteric Nervous System (aka the gut brain): Our guts are loaded with neurons, (brain cells), and were actually the first type of brain to evolve prior to the brain proper. The gut brain or Enteric Nervous System is located in our esophagus, stomach, intestines and colon. If you’re not sure about what the gut brain feels like, think of the times when you’ve been nervous and had “butterflies” in your stomach. That’s your gut brain in action.
The gut brain and brain proper are directly connected via the vagus nerve. This allows both brains to communicate constantly back and forth. So, this gut brain actually has a “mind” of its own and records experiences. Feeling uneasy about a particular situation or person? That is your gut brain’s wisdom and it adding its own 2₵ to your decision-making process. The gut brain also responds to our emotions and how we’re feeling. When we’re relaxed, calm, happy, or coherent our digestion has a chance to flourish. On the other hand, being stressed will always lead to digestion and nutrient assimilation interference. Cortisol and insulin are released. Fat is stored and muscle is depleted.
Back to Part I of this piece. It is absolutely in our best interest to improve our relationship with our personal digestion. We need to address and work through the difficult life situations we may have encountered at any point in our lives. If not, the body and digestion will create a place holder of those undigested experiences. Many will hesitate to face their hurtful life experiences and instead question, “But, that happened such a long time ago. What does it matter now? How can it possibly help to rehash all of that?” It helps because your gut brain remembers and until you’ve given your attention, time, focus, energy and trust to working through the event(s), your digestion will most likely be off.
◊ Other factors that assault our digestion: In addition to difficult life situations both old and new, (divorce, death, betrayal, abuse, financial loss, injury, medical challenges and treatment, job loss, housing difficulties, etc.), in order to create a healthy relationship with our personal digestion it really is important to become aware of the following assaultive factors that surround each of us daily. Any one of these could negatively impact us, how we feel, and therefore how we digest.
Poor food quality – This includes processed foods such as cookies, cakes, crackers, hot dogs, and more. Moreover, when we buy conventionally raised meats, fish and produce sold by the giant food manufacturers we can count on food quality plummeting. Consider buying clean and healing foods from a local farmer even once a week. Grass-fed, pasture-raised, non-stressed animals, as well as organic or local, seasonal produce, etc. all truly nourish. Eating clean, healthy food will support our bodies and digestion through and through.
Drinking excess water with our meals - The guideline is to drink approximately 1/2 ounce of water per body pound we weigh. If one weighs 180 lbs., they should drink about 90 ounces of water. Our drinking, however, should be done in between meals. If we drink heavily while eating, we risk diluting our stomach acids which are essential to proper and healthy digestion.
Eating too much food – If we over burden our bodies with excess food whether for 1 meal a day or throughout the day, we are causing digestive distress. It’s best to eat until about 80% full. This allows our bodily system to not be overwhelmed while also not having us leave the table hungry.
Challenging food combinations – There is actually a lot written up on this topic! Feel free to Google it for yourself. For now, let’s stick with 1 simple concept –don’t eat fruit after a meal. The reason is that fruit contains simple sugars that require no digestion. It won’t stay long in our guts. However, foods rich in fat, protein and starch require far more time to digest and will stay in our bellies longer. So, if we eat fruit after a meal or another food, the fruit sugar will stay too log in our guts and actually ferment! I can’t imagine this feeling or being good for anyone. If you want a piece of fruit, eat it by itself.
Poor meal timing – I’ve written in past articles about the Bio-Circadian-Nutrition Rhythm. This involves timing our meals with our body’s peaks in metabolism. If we eat when our metabolism is strong- in the morning within an hour of waking, between noon and 1:30pm, and again between 5:30pm and 9pm, (but finishing our last bite at least 2 hours before we go to bed), we are supporting our digestive system. If we eat at other times, or hold off on eating the majority of our food until the end of the day, etc., we are putting great, unnecessary stress upon our metabolism.
Medications – Many medications including antibiotics impact our digestion. Antibiotics in particular wipe out our intestinal “bugs”, both harmful and helpful. It’s always a good idea therefore to consider replenishing the healthy bacteria lost while taking antibiotics by using a probiotic. Key to remember though is to take these 2 biotics at least 2 hours apart from one another.
Excess alcohol, sugar, smoking, caffeine, and more is assaultive to our digestion.
Food Allergic reactions – There are 8 foods that account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions. They are: Eggs, (in particular the whites), Milk, Peanuts, Shellfish, Soy, Corn, Nuts, and Wheat. More food suspects that are responsible for adverse food reactions include: Additives and preservatives, including colorings, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sulfites. (This suggests that we need to be aware of any and all processed food we eat as a suspect in our digestive assault!) Also on this list are gluten, sugars – fructose, (fruit sugar), lactose, (milk sugar), and sucrose, (table sugar), and yeast.1
While the above list of potential food allergens may seem overwhelming, if you suspect that 1 or more of the above foods are bothering you, it’s actually quite simple to figure out. Conduct an Elimination Diet and your body will let you know. For at least 2 weeks, cut out all of the above listed foods. The first few days you probably won’t feel great because your body needs time to adjust to being without them. Towards the end of the 1st week, you will start to improve. When the 2 weeks are up, take note of how you’re feeling. Then 1 at a time with at least a 3-day time lag, begin adding the above listed foods back into your diet. If you’re feeling okay, then you most likely don’t have a sensitivity to that food. Go on to the next food and reintroduce. Eat and wait 3 days. You may have a quick or delayed negative reaction. If so, your body and that food don’t go well together. It is in your best interest to avoid or reduce consumption of that food so you give your body and digestion a chance to recover and heal.
Finally, in addition to what has already been mentioned above, here’s a glance of the ABC’s of some key tools for enhancing our digestive systems. We need to (a): consider slowing down how we live, work and eat. If we’re constantly on the go and never in the relaxation mode, our digestion will always be in overdrive and stressed. We can slow things down with deep, mindful breathing which is always a great way to start any meal! Let’s add pleasure, joy, fun, novelty, intrigue and whatever else we can think of to our lives! One need only to go back to our childhood days and remember what we enjoyed and loved doing! Take time to re-capture some of what’s been lost and forgotten! Bringing pleasure, joy and love to our world today will unequivocally enhance and support our digestion and all of us!
Moreover, (b): Move in ways you relate to and enjoy! If you like to walk, walk. If you love dancing, yoga, pilates, biking, stretching, playing a sport, etc., go out and do it. Movement greatly supports peristalsis during the digestive process. Pleasurable movement releases wonderful, positive and healing hormones throughout our body. The combination of movement and pleasure is amazing for our digestion!
I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of (c): good sleep with regard to good digestion and all of our bodily systems. When we stop eating at least 2 hours before bedtime, we actually help ourselves more than we may know. First, allowing ourselves to digest while awake is key to sound assimilation of the nutrients ingested. Second, if we are digesting while sleeping, (this occurs when we eat too close to bedtime), we will not have a sound sleep. Digestion is not an easy task. We’ll actually be working rather than resting during the night.
What should occur during sleep is re-charging and re-cooperating from the long day before. It’s also during sleep that we release growth hormone which supports the development of lean body tissue. If instead of resting, we are digesting, our body will not release growth hormone. As a result, our muscle tone will deplete. And awakening on a full belly, (our body will not be able to fully digest a late night meal since metabolism is at its absolute lowest), will interfere in our desire to eat breakfast. It’s this first meal of the day eaten within an hour of waking that sets up a strong foundation for the events to come in the new day.
I hope this article convinces some of the importance of having a healthy relationship with our personal digestion. By raising our awareness to what is going on for us both presently and in the past, by becoming more aware of the ways to support ourselves both by avoiding digestive assaults and by promoting healing activities, we have a much better chance of gaining and maintaining health and looking and feeling fantastic! Trust, love, honor, respect – our souls and bodies are all worthy of such treatment!
If you’ve enjoyed this articles please feel free to pass it on to friends, family and colleagues! If you have a comment, please leave it below. Thanks!
1 G. Mullin, MD and K.M. Swift, MS,RD, LDN, “The InsideTract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health,” (New York: Rodale Inc., 2011).