Us naturopaths will often spend a lot of time talking about your diet and your digestive function. That is because this is the cornerstone of good health. Believe me.
When your digestion is working well, your body is able to break down the food you eat, absorb essential vitamins and minerals, process waste products and expel whatever’s left over. You will be able to taste and appreciate the food and drinks you consume, feel a sense of hunger when appropriate, and feel a sense of satiety and wellness after eating.
Good digestive function means adequate production of hydrochloric acid, enzymes and bile when you ingest a meal. But before you can use the nutrients in the food, your body needs to break it down into smaller particles, easier for absorption – which will nourish cells and be used as fuel for energy. This enables your body to effectively process the food, passing it through to the next stage of digestion.
When your digestive function isn’t up to scratch, you can’t break down food efficiently, meaning you won’t get the nutrients you require. Your digestion may be sluggish, resulting in reflux, bloating and a sense of heaviness after food. You may also experience pain or gas in the abdomen, along with constipation or diarrhoea.
Poor digestion plays a role in many other diseases. If your nutrient needs are not met, due either to inadequate diet or poor digestion, then your body’s ability to function and repair itself will gradually deteriorate and, ultimately, poor health with follow.
So… be aware of what you eat and how you eat. Below are some key points to bear in mind:
Think about what you’re eating – what are you putting into your mouth? The quality, quantity and variety of food you consume is paramount to health. This is the fuel your body uses to function and the basis of your nutrient and mineral intake. Processed foods are often lacking in fibre and nutrients, while containing large amounts of saturated fats, salt and preservatives that can be harmful to the body.
Look at your environment – the place you sit when you’re eating affects your mood and digestion of food. Eating in a relaxed environment (e.g. not at your desk, in front of the TV or while standing) will promote better digestion.
Try not to eat in a rush – The process of digestion starts in your mouth. Take time to enjoy your food, eat slowly, chewing each mouthful well. Relaxing while you eat helps the nerves of the digestive system, stimulating enzyme production, and food that is well chewed is easier to digest than larger pieces.
Avoid overeating – eat moderate portions to avoid putting too much stress on the digestive system. When too much food is consumed at one time, it has to stay in the stomach longer than usual, slowing down the whole process, causing bloating and discomfort. Smaller, more frequently meals are better for digestion and for your metabolism.
Eat regularly and try not to skip meals – this will prevent overeating due to hunger and prepares the digestive system for regular meals.
Fibre – this helps keep the food moving through your body. Fibre also softens the leftover parts of your food, making them easier to excrete. Make sure to combine increased fibre with plenty of water, another essential component of healthy digestion.
Drink plenty of fluids – especially water. Water is essential for all body processes; it helps to dissolve and absorb certain nutrients, encourages passage of waste through the digestive system and helps soften stools.
Drink less alcohol – some is fine, lots is not. Alcohol can inflame the lining of your stomach or oesophagus causing symptoms of heartburn. Excessive intake of alcohol can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.
Stop smoking – stop it right now! Smoking lowers the pressure at the junction between the stomach and oesophagus, promoting backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus (reflux) – this can result in heartburn and other complications. Smoking also aggravates peptic ulcers and inflammatory conditions of the bowel, and is linked with an increased risk of many cancers.
Manage stress – stress affects the nerves of the digestive system and can upset the intricate balance of digestion. In some people stress slows the process of digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation; while others may find they are more frequently emptying their bowels, with a tendency to diarrhoea. Stress can also worsen some conditions such as peptic ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome.