You may have heard the saying “the gut is our 2nd brain.” This is because, just like the brain, your gut is so central to the body as it affects every single part! Of course there are the obvious factors we know our gut health affects such as how often we go to the bathroom, but did you know that it also directly impacts your mood, energy levels, skin, inflammation in the body, and immune system?!
When we don’t provide our bodies with the proper nutrients, we can get irritable and feel fatigued. When we eat foods that aren’t good for us or that we may have a potential allergy or sensitivity to, we can develop skin problems like acne and experience flare ups of pain in the body. Overtime, if we continue to eat foods our bodies cannot tolerate, we end up sending our immune systems into overdrive as they work to fight off the offenders. Eventually, this can lead to a compromised immune system or autoimmune condition where the body attacks its own cells as it can no longer distinguish between its own cells and foreign invaders.
There are many other factors that can cause these health conditions, such as poor lifestyle habits, but combine this with poor gut health and you are setting yourself up for moodiness, fatigue, skin conditions, pain, and immune dysfunction.
Luckily, there are some simple fixes that you can implement today to help improve your gut health—and that starts with improving your digestion. Good digestion is important because if we can’t digest our food properly, it can lead to a ton of issues, including: fatigue, bloating, indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation to name a few. And if you’ve experienced any of these stomach problems, you know just how much enjoyment they can take out of your day!
Here are 5 simple tips for healthier digestion to help you feel your best and improve your overall health long-term:
1) Eat in a “parasympathetic” state.
This is one of the most important things you can do to improve your digestion (hence why it’s number 1!). In today’s world, we are constantly on the go, running to work, running to appointments, running errands… always running (more like driving, but you get the point!). And while on the go, we tend to take our food with us because, well, there’s just no time to sit down and have a nice, relaxing meal anymore. But, when we eat on the go, our bodies are in a stressed or “sympathetic” state which doesn’t allow us to digest properly. The reason for this is because when we’re stressed, our brains are unable to send out the proper signals to the digestive system to prepare for digestion, hence causing some trouble in paradise. On the other hand, when we are in a “parasympathetic” or relaxed state, our brains send out all the right signals so we can digest our food and feel good doing it! Some simple tips to help us slow down and eat only in a relaxed state are:
Schedule time for meals so that you aren’t eating on the go
Take deep breaths before meals
Have a gratitude practice before meals—For example, simply saying, “I am thankful for the food in front of me.”
Chew thoroughly while eating (20-30x)
2) Eat a whole food, nutrient-dense diet.
Have you ever read the ingredient label on the back of a pre-packaged food? If you have, I bet you’ve notice there are plenty of ingredients you can’t even pronounce! That’s because processed foods are filled with artificial ingredients that are in no way good for us. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you can’t pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it!
Today, many of our diets lack nutrient-dense whole foods, such as vegetables. Instead we are eating the Standard American diet (SAD) which consists of processed and pre-packaged foods, sweets and candies, fried foods, and refined grains (bread, pasta, muffins, etc)—all of which have minimal to no nutritional value. Unlike processed foods, whole foods have tons of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that are bodies need to survive and thrive. In fact, many whole foods contain nutrients that we cannot make in the body or get anywhere else! Which explains why you end up experiencing symptoms such as fatigue when not eating the right foods.
Foods to include in your diet:
Organic, grass-fed meat (beef, lamb, pork, etc)
Pasture-raised poultry (chicken, eggs, turkey, etc)
Wild-caught fish & seafood
Organic vegetables & fruit
Soaked, sprouted, or fermented grains & legumes (wild rice, quinoa, black beans, chickpeas, etc)—if tolerated
Soaked & sprouted nuts & seeds (if tolerated)
Organic, raw, grass-fed or pasture-raised dairy products (milk, cheese, etc)—if tolerated
If it comes in a box or bag, it’s best to only eat it sparingly.
3) Avoid water consumption around meals
So I’m sure you’ve thought to yourself before, “If I chug a glass of water right before I eat, I’ll eat less!”…Well, maybe that is true because it’ll fill you up, but what it will also do is disrupt your digestion (and eating less isn’t necessarily a good thing)! When you drink water right before eating, the water actually dilutes your digestive enzymes and stomach acid, which are both needed to breakdown food properly. In turn, you’ll end up with symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, acid reflux, or heartburn…and nobody wants that! The best thing to do is:
Limit water intake to 30 minutes before meals
If you need to drink while eating, take small sips of water
4) Eliminate Food Allergens.
Food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances are extremely common in today’s society. They can be caused by certain lifestyle and environmental factors which, overtime, trigger our immune systems to recognize foods as foreign invaders. The cascade of events that often occurs starts with some lifestyle or environmental factor, such as stress, high refined carb diets, diets high in processed foods, excess alcohol consumption, or overuse of medications such as antibiotics, NSAIDs, acid blocking drugs, and steroids, causing the body to produce less stomach acid. As adequate stomach acid is needed to properly breakdown food, maldigested food particles end up getting left behind, breaking through the intestinal barrier and into the bloodstream. Here, the immune system recognizes these particles as foreign substances and sends an attack on them. Overtime, the body will continue to attack the specific food particles causing an allergy or intolerance to develop! Eventually, the food particles end up mimicking the body’s own cells, confusing the immune system. The immune system will then attack its own cells out of confusion, also known as “cell mimicry” which is how autoimmune conditions develop.
You may notice that you have symptoms of GI distress when eating certain foods which can include: bloating, indigestion, stomach ache, nausea, and diarrhea. Other symptoms of food intolerances that are not GI related are: fatigue, irritability, acne, rashes, headaches, excess mucous, canker sores, anxiety, joint pain, muscle pain, and more. By eliminating foods that you suspect are causing any of these symptoms, you may notice relief! The most common food allergens are:
Dairy & cow’s milk
Nightshades (eggplant, bell peppers, potatoes, tomatoes)
Nuts & seeds
Unfortunately for many, it can be difficult to navigate exactly which food(s) are causing you problems. The best course of action to take would be to do a full elimination diet of all the top allergens for a minimum of 30 days and then slowly, one by one, reintroduce each food group to see if you experience symptoms. This can help you to figure out which food is the culprit so that you can safely enjoy the other foods. The goal is to have the largest variety of foods in your diet so we shouldn’t need to eliminate particular foods forever.
5) Optimize stomach acid production.
As I previously mentioned, stomach acid is 100% necessary to digest food. Your stomach acid is very particular and needs to be between 1.5-3.0 (very acidic) in order to breakdown food. Contrary to popular belief and what conventional medicine conveys, acid reflux and heartburn are not caused by too much stomach acid, but rather, too little, thus preventing us from breaking down food, causing it to reflux back into the esophagus! So when you consistently pop those little acid reducer pills like Nexium or Zantac, you are doing more harm than good for your gut. Rather than use quick fixes and band-aid treatments, we need to work on addressing the root cause. To do this, we can support our guts by optimizing stomach acid production. Some simple ways to do this are:
Digestive bitters—Bitters are a traditional method for stimulating stomach acid production. I recommend Urban Moonshine bitters. Take a dropperful in a tiny amount of water about 15 minutes before meals to get those digestive juices flowing.
Lemon juice—Half a lemon in 8oz of water 30 minutes before meals to create acidity.
Apple cider vinegar—Start with 1/2 tablespoon diluted in 1/4 cup water and increase up to 1 tablespoon as tolerated to create acidity.
If you notice any burning sensation with the lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, there may be damage to the gut lining and need support to heal before introducing acid.
The gut is the root of many common and chronic health conditions. Our overall well-being truly relies on its health and function. By supporting our guts, we are in turn supporting our overall health so that we can enjoy life. If you are struggling with poor digestion, you are most likely suffering from other health issues, but by implementing these 5 tips you can feel your best again!
*If you have any concerns, please always consult with your doctor before beginning any new regimens.
Jenn Horowitz, FNTP, CPT is a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Certified Personal Trainer who works to address the root cause of illness. Jenn is the founder of JTH Wellness, a holistic health nutrition counseling practice specialized in helping people with stomach problems take control of their health through nutrition and lifestyle changes. Jenn works to support and educate others so that they can enjoy life again, pain and worry free. Learn more about Jenn’s nutrition counseling services and schedule a free 15-minute discovery session by visiting her website, http://www.JTHwellness.com.