I've been reading the book Gut recently by Giulia Enders, and it's got me thinking. How often do we talk about the simple, every-day behaviors that lead to good digestion?
Nine times out of ten when we talk about curing our digestive ailments, we're either discussing foods to eliminate or foods to incorporate into our diets. We read about countless ways to alter our gut bacteria, decrease our inflammation and treat our unsavory symptoms. But how about practicing plain old good gut hygiene? We rarely focus on the non-food specific behaviors that promote healthy digestion. These are things that EVERYONE and every gut can benefit from, whether we're talking about someone who gets stomach aches every now and again or someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Disease.
Don't get me wrong, I know food can be healing and therapeutic to a damaged gut, but I also know that each individual's body and healing process is unique. The foods that work for one person with a certain set of symptoms may not work for another person with those same exact complaints. This is why it's important to start with the basics, to practice good gut hygiene first. So before you dive in gung hoe and eliminate ALL the foods, see if you can incorporate some of the following strategies.
Here are 10 non-food specific ways to optimize digestion:
1. Take 3 deep belly breaths before eating
Deep breathing has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve originates in the brain and innervates our heart, stomach, kidneys, liver, & intestines to name a few. It's responsible for creating a sense of calm by us activating our parasympathetic nervous system and putting us in 'rest and digest' mode. This is imperative for optimal digestion.
In today's fast paced, high anxiety world most all of us could benefit from consciously activating this nervous system before we eat; if we don't we're signaling to our body that digestion is not important. As a result our body shifts its focus away from digestion and on to whatever item is currently 'stressing us out', leaving us with all sorts of stomach upset, indigestion and malabsorption of nutrients.
2. Gargle, Sing or humm
A few more effective tactics for activating the vagus nerve and getting into 'rest and digest mode' are gargling, singing and humming. Taking the time to stimulate your vagus nerve helps your body 'de-stress' and increases the blood flow to the digestive tract. This in turn prepares your body to receive and process nutrients efficiently.
I prefer singing at all times (albeit off-key singing), but if you need to be a little more considerate of others, gargling water of humming before a meal does the trick.
3. Practice Yoga Before and/or after a Meal
Beyond just deep breathing, you can practice yoga to improve digestion. Practicing yoga before a meal has been shown to relax participants and thereby increase blood flow and function of the digestive system. Further, certain yoga poses may help with peristalsis, or wave like movements of the intestine that push food along it's path. Pushing food along it's path is definitely a plus when for decreasing constipation & stomach upset. In fact, one study of adolescents with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) showed decreased gastrointestinal symptoms after 4 weeks of daily yoga (1).
Want to get started, but not a master yogi? Here's a 25 minute at-home yoga routine focused on digestion from one of my favorites, Adrienne Mishler.
4. Eat on a regular schedule/interval
Eating at regular intervals throughout the day makes you predictable; you're body loves predictable. Our bodies run on what's called a circadian rhythm. This is our normal 24 hour rhythm regulated by light and darkness (morning and night) and influenced by regular eating times, rest times, exercise times, etc. Eating on a predictable schedule gets your body primed and ready to receive and digest food smoothly.
In effect, regular eating promotes efficiency and that's what we're all about! So whether you feel best eating every 3 hours or every 5, whether you enjoy snacks or just meals, the key is to stick to a semi regular routine.
5. Sit Down for a Meal in a calming environment
Setting the stage for a relaxing meal will aid in reducing anxiety, which - you guessed it - promotes better digestion. Eating in a hurried or stressful state can increase stomach acid and cause the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus to relax, allowing stomach acid to make it's way up your chest and throat; hello, acid reflux. Stress can also slow the first stages of digestion causing food to sit in your stomach longer than usual, making you feel bleh. Beyond that, anxiety/stress signals to the large intestine to push it's contents out fast, resulting in frequent bowel movements and/or diarrhea.
Help combat this by sitting down to a meal at the table, eating outside in a relaxing environment, or at the very least, turning the computer screen off for five minutes to enjoy your meal at your desk.
6. Eat full meals to satiety
Eating full meals vs. grazing all day send the signal to your intestine to that it's time to "make room" for more nutrition. This is the reason the Regular Rogers in your life have routine bowel movements immediately following meals. Grazing all day, on the other hand, doesn't have this same effect. Additionally, there is some research to say that your stomach and intestine prefer rest in between meals and snacks so that they can clean themselves out and prepare for the next meal. This process is termed the migrating motor complex (MMC), and it is not fully understood. However, what we do know is that the body needs some amount of time between meals for this process to work properly. The absence of the MMC has been associated with gastroparesis, intestinal-pseudo obstruction and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) (2), no thank you.
There is no proven 'ideal' interval to wait between meals. Time between meals varies based off a couple factors, including meal composition and gender. Just like everything - don't be rigid here! Instead, realize that whatever interval of eating feels best to you is good, whether it means eating every 3 hours or eating every 5. If you're a grazer and want to take advantage of this digestive process, try eating full meals to satiety. If you eat more robust meals vs. unsatisfying snacks they'll supply you with enough energy and mental focus to avoid the 'nibbles' (as I have lovingly termed them).
7. Eat Mindfully
Mindful eating involves being present during the eating experience. It involves noticing details, like the appearance, smell, taste and texture or your food. Looking at, smelling and tasting your food in a purposeful manner stimulates the release of digestive enzymes from those found in saliva to the pancreatic enzymes released in your small intestine. Those enzymes make sure food is properly broken down and absorbed by the body. Don't overcomplicate this step. Eating mindfully here just starts with allowing mental space in your day to look at, taste, smell and enjoy the food you eat.
8. Chew food well & take some time
"Chew your food!", I bet you can hear your mom saying it now. It turns out her words had wisdom. Chewing your food thoroughly gives your salivary enzymes more time to properly break down food in your mouth. Well chewed food makes for less work for the stomach and small intestine. This allows for easier absorption of vital nutrients. Further, chewing your food to a nice semi liquid, semi mush consistency along with taking time between bites may decrease the amount of air you swallow and thereby decrease uncomfortable bloating and burping following a meal.
Again, don't be perfectionistic here. I would never prescribe a set number of chews or designate an allotment of time to chew your food, but sitting down to a meal and taking some time to eat (even if it's only 5 minutes) goes a long way!
9. Keep things Low key immediately after eating
In our fast-paced world, we prepare/purchase food in a rush, eat food in a rush and then rush off to do something right afterwards. Echoing the above suggestions, it's important that you get into "rest and digest mode" during and after eating (am I annoying yet?). But this doesn't mean you have to take an after lunch siesta.
Maybe instead of going on an intense run right after you eat or instead of jumping right back into a stressful work situation, you take some time to do something relaxing. If that's not an option, at least try delegating some of your less demanding work tasks for after lunch, your GI tract will thank you!
10. Use a squatty potty or a stool
And so here we are, ending this post where digestion ends, with the toilet. Sorry, can't write about digestion without eventually talking Number 2. In many countries around the world people squat when they go to the bathroom. And it's not just because they are more "primitive" than the western world. Heck, in many parts of France (supposedly the center of high class and culture) people squat over a hole to go number 2. What's the deal?
Squatting has been shown to require less time and less harmful straining . Further, squatters report having a more complete bowel movement and decreased rates of constipation compared to seated toilet users. According to Giulia Enders in her book Gut, rates of diverticulosis are almost non existent and rates of hemorrhoids are minimal in countries where people squat.
Good news though -- you do not need to go dig a hole in the ground out back to capitalize on this info. You can simply put a small foot stool at the end of the toilet. By placing your feet on the stool and leaning forward with your torso you put your large intestine and rectum in a better position to, uhm, do their thing. AND if you want to totally nerd out, you can always buy a Squatty Potty, which is essentially a wider foot stool.
It is my hope that by trying some or all of these non-food specific strategies you can improve your digestion without the stress of eliminating all your favorite foods. On the other hand, if you still have digestive ailments after you've tried these things, it's a good idea to seek individualized help from a doctor or dietitian.
The benefit of practicing good gut hygiene first is that you will likely decrease, if not eliminate many of your symptoms. PLUS if you choose to add in therapeutic foods for healing you'll be able to better absorb and process all of those rockstar nutrients!
I'd love to hear from you. What non-food tactics do you use to reduce stress and/or optimize digestion?
1. Leora Kuttner, Christine T Chambers, Janine Hardial, David M Israel, Kevan Jacobson, and Kathy Evans, “A Randomized Trial of Yoga for Adolescents with Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” Pain Research and Management, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 217-224, 2006. doi:10.1155/2006/731628
2. Deloose, E., et al. (2012). "The migrating motor complex: control mechanisms and its role in health and disease." Nature Reviews Gastroenterology &Amp; Hepatology 9: 271.