Most of the time, we take our digestive system for granted. But when it goes out of whack it’s a whole different story and digestive issues can quickly become all-encompassing. Stomach pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, frequent bowel movements, constipation, even night sweats and unexplained weight loss or gain are just some of the signs of poor digestive health that people regularly live with. We may start to believe these conditions are “normal” for us. You may be surprised how gut health affects the entire body.
The Prevalence of Digestive Issues
A 2013 study revealed that 74% of all participants had experienced digestive discomfort for six months or more, yet only 37% sought help from their doctor. Additionally, 56% of those who experienced discomfort didn’t seek medical help because they didn’t believe their symptoms required medical attention.
Ignoring the Signs
Ignoring digestive issues is a dangerous approach to take. Sometimes digestive distress is symptomatic of a deeper medical issue that requires medical attention. It is important to talk to your doctor if you experience ongoing or severe digestive symptoms to understand what is really going on and ensure it’s nothing serious.
What if it’s Nothing Serious?
The good news is that if a diagnosed digestive disease is not the reason for your symptoms, it’s often possible to get your digestion back on track by making a few targeted diet and lifestyle tweaks.
Digestion and Mental Health
The brain-gut axis refers to this relationship between the GI tract and the brain. Mental health is affected by gut health. Your microbiome and the diversity of bacteria in your GI tract plays an important role in both physical and mental health. Disrupting the balance of this bacteria can lead to symptoms in the brain. Researchers are examining how caring for the bacteria in the gut can improve mental health symptoms.
Good Digestion: It All Starts With Chewing Your Food
When your digestive system is acting up, the first step should always be to go back to the basics. Simple but effective, chewing your food properly supports the digestive process and makes nutrient absorption easier for your body. That is because chewing starts the digestive process. Mechanically, it breaks food into smaller pieces to increase its surface area so that your digestive enzymes can get to work more effectively. Chemically, chewing also triggers the production of saliva which contains the first enzyme in a cascade of different enzymes, each triggering the next to achieve complete digestion and absorption of nutrients from your food.
Eating too quickly, while distracted or on the go are often reasons we don’t chew our food well enough. It is more important than many of us realize to set aside ample time to enjoy your meals. If this is new for you, try scheduling meal times like any other priority to help fortify the habit in the beginning.
Digestive Health Tests Can Uncover Imbalances
Optimizing digestive health is an area where integrative and functional medicine excel. We can run laboratory tests to see what is really going on, even if your regular checkup did not give you a diagnosis of digestive disease. We have a full toolbox of strategies to evaluate your digestion and uncover issues that may be at the root of your symptoms, including:
- Stool testing to check your unique microbiome of bacteria and yeasts
- Testing for markers of inflammation
- Checking pancreatic enzyme levels
- Checking for food intolerances and immune markers, as well as celiac antibodies
- Testing for nutritional deficiencies, diabetes indicators, liver function, stress hormones and more.
4 Steps to Supporting Good Digestion
1 – Eat a Digestion-Focused Diet
What you eat matters. Nutrient dense, fiber-rich foods filled with enzymes help your meals move through your digestive system. We are spoiled for choice, and have a variety of vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit available to us year round.
High fiber foods absorb water and other fluids to form a gel-like substance that feeds the good bacteria in your digestive system and soothes the gut wall. This helps provide bulk, which eases the passing of waste through your system.
Reducing sugar and caffeine also aids in the digestive process by reducing irritation that is often caused by gas and unfriendly bacteria – the bacteria that causes gas and cramping feeds off sugar and multiplies. Stevia is a good alternative to sugar and consider Rooibos tea to give you a bit of energy midday rather than that extra cup of coffee, as caffeine can be irritating to the digestive tract.
Eating probiotic rich, fermented foods like unsweetened probiotic yogurt, kimchi, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut helps as well. Probiotics battle bad bacteria in your digestive system and lower the ph levels in the colon which supports your gut lining and aids in absorbing nutrients.
Lastly, fats encourage gallbladder function and thus support the absorption of minerals from your food. Healthy options including avocados, nuts, seeds and their oils as well as fatty fish are all great ways to support your digestive cascade while nourishing your body the right way.
2 – Drink Plenty of Water
Dehydration and constipation go hand in hand. Water is needed to produce digestive enzymes, it helps move nutrients from your food into your cells, it supports your fiber intake by keeping soluble fiber hydrated and puffy so it can do its job of “sweeping” the digestive tract, and it is a crucial part of muscle movement – remember that your gut is a long tube made up of muscles that need to contract in a co-ordinated wave-like motion.
3 – Reduce Stress at Mealtimes
In “fight or flight” mode the body redirects water from your digestive system to serve the immediate survival need, so high stress over time causes constipation and a host of digestive symptoms. Small moments of mindfulness throughout the day help bring the body to a more parasympathetic state. Keeping stress low is particularly important during mealtimes as the body needs to be in a state of calm for digestion to occur at all.
Slow down and make a conscious effort to sit down at a table to eat your meal. Turn off any screens, take slow, deep breaths and pay attention to the pleasure of good food, and if you’re lucky, good company. This will help put your body into “rest and digest” mode and enable the body to do what it needs to do next in the digestive cascade. Listening to hunger cues and savoring each bite can bring more mindful awareness to mealtimes.
4 – Make Sure to Move
Digestive health pioneer Dr. Bernard Jensen famously said “After your meal, sit a while, then walk a mile.” Research has shown us that exercise can indeed improve the rate at which you digest food. Gravity and movement stimulate peristalsis by helping to trigger various “fullness” receptors in your colon, which triggers healthy peristalsis to push your digested food through the digestive tract at a regular pace. Exercise is also a great stress reducer, which may explain how hearty your appetite for a healthy meal can be post-workout. More movement and regular exercise is a common health goal that many people struggle with. Reframing setbacks and unlocking motivation can help make exercise goals more attainable.
Helping Out Your Digestion with Supplements
For many of us these days, eating well, chewing well and relaxing are not quite enough to bring balance back. If meals still have you feeling overly full, your enzymes may need some support. Your healthcare practitioner can help you to find the right enzyme supplement for your symptoms. Alternatively, digestive enzymes can be found in papaya and pineapple and their mild support may be enough.
Designs for Health offers a high quality digestive enzyme. Digestzymes are used by a number of our patients.
The good bacteria in your digestive tract supports gut health by breaking down specific carbohydrates, soothing the gut wall and producing hormones such as serotonin, the “feel-good hormone”. Maintaining that microbiome is essential for avoiding digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea – and for mental health.
A good quality probiotic supplement can help replenish and balance your gut bacteria, and research suggests they can help support a healthy gut and digestion even with existing digestive problems. Make sure to get a recommendation from your healthcare practitioner as not all probiotic supplements are created equal.
We are Here to Help
Don’t let poor digestion cramp your style! If you’re experiencing digestive distress or are wanting to optimize gut health for greater overall health, book an appointment with us. Together, we’ll get your digestion back on track. Call or text us at 314-721-2140. We look forward to hearing from you.
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