Eating well is obviously at the heart of improving your health through nutrition, but even the most nutrient-dense diet in the world won’t be of much help to you until you make changes in three other equally important areas. In the next few posts, I am going to cover how to set up your body to truly get the most out of your food before you even choose what to eat.
Part 1 – Digestion
The goal of digestion is to reduce food to molecules so small that the nutrients can be absorbed and used by the cells of our bodies. Thus, you aren’t just what you eat, you’re what you absorb! A properly prepared, nutrient-dense, whole food diet is essential to good health, but you must be able to properly break down and absorb those foods through your Digestion. Human digestion is truly really amazing (honestly, I could write many, many posts on it!) and while I know that statement probably elicited an eye-roll and you’re quietly hoping I don’t give you a big anatomy lesson here, I do want to talk about the basic process of digestion because without proper digestion your body cannot absorb the nutrients in your food. What that means is that no matter how well we eat, when our digestion isn’t functioning our health will suffer.
The Basic Process. A really simple outline of digestion would be as follows: we put food in our mouth where it mixes with some saliva to help break it down while we chew it up into smaller bits. Muscles in our tongue and mouth move this ground-up, moistened food into our throat and down our esophagus through a little flap that opens up to our stomach. Once the food is delivered to our stomach, acidic gastric juices are released to kill any parasites and help further break down this mush of food while our stomach muscles mash it up even more. Via signaling from those acidic juices, another little flap opens and the mashed food slides into our small intestines where, with the help of enzymes and bile from our pancreas and gallbladder, nutrients in the food are extracted. Then, with the action of little brush-like villi along the lining of our small intestine as well as fluids from our liver, all those nutrients are sent off into our body to be absorbed and utilized. Once most of the nutrients have been released, anything not yet digested moves through a valve into the large intestine where what is left is recycled in order to pull out water and make some vitamins. Any excess is then formed into waste which of course leaves our body through our bowels.
Again, that is a VERY basic walkthrough of Digestion but did you notice how its many steps make it anything but basic? Did you see how without one step there isn’t the next, creating a dependent cascade of events? Did it occur to you that all of that is going on without you ever even thinking about it? You may have heard the phrase “Digestion is a North to South Process” but that doesn’t mean Digestion starts in the mouth where most people think, rather it means that Digestion actually starts in the Brain. Every step of the process from our saliva secretions, gastric juice production, and muscular contractions to the opening of little valves, the release of organ fluids and the recycling and removal of waste is triggered by signals from our Brain. But if we are not “thinking” about it, how can that be?
The Brain’s Role. Our body has an internal control system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as heart rate and breathing. Controlled inside the Brain, the ANS has different branches that operate differently – one acts quickly while the other reacts slowly, and one activates bodily functions while the other suppresses them. The parasympathetic branch is the one responsible for activities that occur while the body is at rest – the most important being….DIGESTION. What that means is that while all those many steps of Digestion happen unconsciously to us, they are not part of an automatic reflex that “just happens” every time we eat – rather, the process of Digestion occurs only when in our brain we are AT REST. Said another way, the entire cascade of events responsible for us getting the nutrients out of our food is wholly dependent on us being RELAXED when we eat. Put really simply, we must rest to digest.
Have you ever noticed the difference in how your stomach feels after a rushed meal where you’ve “inhaled” your food compared to a relaxed meal where you’ve sat and savored your food? How about the difference between eating while watching TV or scrolling on your phone compared to a meal without distractions? Or standing while eating (or eating in the car!) versus sitting at a table meant for meals? How about having a meal under a stressful situation, like at a job interview or with a disgruntled spouse or child? You’ve probably felt a bit bloated or achy in the stomach, tense and extra “full” when you’ve eaten under less than ideal conditions, and that’s your digestive system telling you that it is not working optimally.
So you might be thinking “so I get a little bloated, it’ll go away” but that ignores the most important part of Digestion – getting the nutrients out of your food. If you’re bloated, that means your food is not being processed and broken down which means that you’re not getting all the nutrients from that food, and what is the point of our food if not nourishment? In order for your body to get the fuel, vitamins, minerals, and hydration that it needs, your Digestion must be functioning properly. When digestion doesn’t work right and you miss out on the nourishment that your body depends on, you will face a host of issues from low energy, brain fog and bowel issues to nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, infections and leaky gut, all of which lead to chronic health disorders that strip you of good health. This is why eating well is not enough – you must digest and absorb what you eat to get the benefit of the food you choose. So, what to do?
RELAX. Ok, but how?
- the next time you eat, turn off the TV, leave your phone in another room, sit down (ideally at a table), take 3 deep breaths before even touching your food, give thanks, and have the intention that you are going to enjoy your meal.
- Then, let your senses get a whiff – look at your food, smell it, allow your brain to tune in to what is about to happen. As you take bites, chew your food, slowly – try putting your fork down between bites and use those pearly whites!
- As for fluids, keep it minimal. During Digestion your body provides all the fluids it needs to break down your food – don’t go flooding your gut and diluting those important gastric juices with water and other drinks while you eat – drink 30 mins before or an hour after a meal, but not during.
- As you enjoy your food, check in with your body. Is it satisfied? If so, stop, there’s no need to clean your plate no matter what your mother told you! Enjoy some last moments at the table, talk to your meal partners and savor what you just gave your body.
Following these basic tips will help not only improve the functioning of your digestive system but also will ensure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs. If you still experience discomfort after a meal or feel as though you eat well and are digesting your food but still don’t feel well, then it is time to look at what you are eating and the messages your body is sending about that food. I can help with that! Reach out to me using the contact form here or schedule a free consult so that I can help you identify what your body needs for optimal health.