Can you improve your digestion without changing your diet?
What you put – or don?t put – in your mouth is undoubtedly important for gastrointestinal health. Not just food, but drink as well, medication and supplements, alcohol and drugs.
Nutrition is a cornerstone of a functional, healthy, happy and pain-free digestive system, but we would be amiss if we were to think nutrition painted the entire picture.
There are many things we can easily embed to our daily lives that can greatly enhance the function of our gastrointestinal systems. While this sounds like a tall order because it seems like our guts only do the business of food intake, assimilation and elimination, there are many things at work that can enhance the process that have nothing to do with food at all.
Here?s how it works: it?s not simply the food that we consume, but the way in which we consume it, that is important. Our ability to break down and digest the different components of food, our ability to absorb and assimilate the imparted nutrition. The health of our gut flora, so critical in many aspects of digestion and the balance of our ?second brain? – the enteric nervous system (ENS) must be in step and coordinated in order to best maximize the nutrition in our food.
When we tease out these categories and look at non-food related habits, interventions or behaviors we can create, we will notice there is an enormous possibility to help our guts feel better without even changing a morsel. We will also notice that many of these behaviors overlap in different benefits, making them all the more worthwhile to have a look at.
Habits/Hacks to boost digestive fire:
Why this is important: digestive fire is my term for the body?s ability to break down the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate into their constituent building blocks of amino acids, fatty acids and starches. These building blocks are what gets absorbed to the body. When macronutrients are not broken down well, absorption suffers, the immune system is more likely to be provoked unfavorably, and the unbroken molecules are highly fermentable. This creates gas, bloating, spasm, distension and if left unchecked for too long, has the ability to promote leaky gut syndrome.
Do this: When you eat, be mindful of your food. Look at it and notice the color and texture. Pay special attention to the taste as you chew.
Speaking of chewing, do it well. You don?t have to count bites or anything but make sure you are not swallowing great hunks of food.
Habits/Hacks to improve the health of your gut flora:
Why this is important: the 100 trillion cell colony of beneficial bacteria is collectively known as the microbiome/microflora/gut flora. These guys help us break down foods, humanize the nutrients extracted therein, keep the immune system steady, hunt, fight & kill invaders and impact measures of health in virtually every system in the body. From the circumference of your waistline to your mental game to your blood pressure to your risks for certain chronic disease, your microbiome is behind the scenes, getting their tiny fingerprints on everything. An imbalance of the microbiome, called dysbiosis, can create a variety of distress in the body not simply confined to the gut, as evidence of their vast reach.
Do this: Only take antibiotics if absolutely necessary. Antibiotics kill your good guys too, and thus create a doorway for dysbiosis. If you need an antibiotic, ask for a C&S test. This stands for ?culture & sensitivity?. The lab cultures out and identifies the bacteria causing your illness and determines which antibiotic it is sensitive too. This saves a lot of antibiotic-hopping, which is not good for your microbiome and promotes antibiotic resistance.
Wash your hands with warm, soapy water instead of always reaching for the hand sanitizer. Hand washing is just as effective at cleaning you off in your every day life, and it does not have the negative consequences for your gut flora that hand sanitizer can.
Habits/Hacks to balance the second brain (the enteric nervous system/ENS):
Why this is important: the ENS is a plexus of nervous tissue residing in the GI tract, second in volume only to the brain. It coordinates virtually every aspect of digestion, including motility and production of digestive factors. It monitors millisecond by millisecond the conditions of your GI tract, from the pH to the dilation or the stomach, to the contracture of the smooth tissue making up the lining and so forth. It can impact your mood and how frequently you use the bathroom. The disruption of the ENS has been identified as a key feature of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Do this: As you sit down to eat, take 6-10 deep breaths. This not only soothes the ENS but also autonomic nervous system, pushing it more towards ?rest and digest? mode. Mindful eating, as described in the ?digestive fire? section also applies here.
Habits/Hacks to help maintain integrity of the lining of the GI tract:
Why this is important: the lining of the GI tract is the avenue through which you absorb nutrition and take it inside of your body. The lining is also a very smart barrier, letting some things in and some not. The lining houses the microbiome and is the interface between the food you eat, the bacteria that inhabit you and the immune system. It sees a lot of action. Imbalance here can lead to immune imbalance, inflammation and ultimately leaky gut. Ulcers, gastritis, hemorrhoids and diverticulosis are also issues with the lining of the GI tract.
Do this: use NSAIDs (aspirin, Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Excedrin, Alleve, Naproxen, etc) sparingly, most especially if you have a history of GI distress.
Incorporating a variety of different exercise into your life, from walking to weight lifting to aerobic exercise helps keep your lining in shape, too. Some exercise (endurance-based) actually makes the lining more permeable, but not in a bad way. It is an adaptive response that is then self-correcting. It lets your lining practice moving down the permeability spectrum in a controlled way. Uncontrolled/unchecked permeability is indeed the very definition of leaky gut.
By supporting the very facets that when well coordinated lead to excellent digestion, better function of the gut – and less symptoms – is indeed possible without even changing a morsel of food. This is good news for those of us who may be suffering from GI distress but are feeling overwhelmed about making dietary change. If we can begin to feel just a bit better, that can lead us into making the next small step, and the next, and the next.