These days, we’re all searching for balance in our lives, and gut health is no exception.
You put that forkful of food into your mouth, and 24 to 36 hours later, it comes out – voila! -- transformed into something very different looking. But what happens along the way? Plenty!
Your food is broken down step by step and turned into energy and nutrition. But if you’re not properly breaking foods, you’re not absorbing all the nutrients. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, toxins, and undigested foods entering your system, causing myriad health issues.
Here I’ve rounded up six digestion facts, as well as helpful tips for balancing your gut health.
1. That’s a Mouthful!
It’s go-time the minute you start chewing your food or even start thinking about food. (Like when your mouth waters just thinking about that upcoming delish meal!) Your body secretes enzymes that mix with saliva to break down foods. From there, food goes into the esophagus and into the stomach. Want to make this process smoother? Chew more! When you don’t chew your food enough, the rest of your digestion system gets derailed, leading to digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhea, gas, indigestion, and more. Experts say to aim for 32 times per bite, depending on the type of food.
2. Rest to Digest
The body needs to be in a parasympathetic state to release enzymes required to digest, or as I like to think of it, rest to digest. When stressed, the body puts smooth digestion at the very end of the priority list. That lunch you gobble at your desk while trying to hit a deadline will likely not be broken well, leading to gut issues and health complications. Next time, make a conscious effort to distance yourself from the stressful situation, if only for a few minutes. Avoid eating while stressed or in a hurry. Instead, take time to breathe deeply before you eat and chew slowly.
3. Enzymes Decrease with Age
Research shows that digestive enzymes begin to decrease at the age of 20. That’s why it’s essential to supplement with enzymes, especially with larger meals, to ensure fats, proteins, and carbs are adequately broken down. Certain foods – dairy, meat, raw veggies, and fats- are particularly tough to digest with waning enzymes. However, enzyme supplementation can help. A couple of my favorite enzyme supplements are No Bloat and Digestive Enzymes from Zenwise. I like them because they contain probiotics and several essential enzymes to break down all foods.
4. Acid Reflux Doesn’t Always Mean What You Think.
While most people assume occasional or consistent acid reflux must be a sign of having too much stomach acid, that is not necessarily the case. It can be a symptom of low stomach acid. As Dr. Jonathan Wright explains in his book Why Stomach Acid Is Good for You, “What has come to be called–– incorrectly––‘acid indigestion’ is almost always associated, not with too much stomach acid, but with too little.”
Decades of research backs up his claim, especially research linking aging and low stomach acid. Without enough stomach acid, microbes that would normally die quickly in the stomach multiply, causing increased pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). That increased gas and pressure coming from the overpopulated microbes, as well as any undigested food, forces the LES to open and allow small amounts of stomach acid into the esophagus.
What can you do to mitigate acid reflux? Start taking note of foods that seem to trigger your acid reflux and reduce your intake of those foods. While on the flip side, some foods are worth increasing in your diet, such as bitter foods (including dark chocolate!), green vegetables, fruits, and high-quality proteins. Finally, there are some easy lifestyle changes you can make to keep the burn at bay, such as eating more mindfully, chewing your food fully, and making sure you move your body with daily low intensity exercise.
5. Enzymes Deficiency Linked to Gut Issues
Not enough digestive enzymes can contribute to a compromised gut like an overgrowth of pathogens (aka dysbiosis) and a leaky gut. Essentially, digestive enzymes in the stomach and small intestine go to town breaking down nutrients into small molecules that your body uses for energy, growth, and repair. The intestines do double-duty by also protecting your body from harmful bacteria and toxins. Like a digestive traffic cop, the walls of the intestines control what can and cannot enter the bloodstream to pass to your organs. Symptoms of enzyme deficiency tend to first show up in the gut. That’s why you’ll experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation as your body struggles to break down food. To help balance your gut microbiome, eat less sugar, and eat a healthy diet with lots of fiber-rich fruits, veggies, and fermented foods. Consider a digestive enzyme/probiotic supplement if things are out of whack.
6. Lifestyle Impacts Digestion
A growing body of research shows how stress, medications (antibiotics in particular), and a high-sugar, processed food diet can inhibit our body’s ability to break down foods properly. That’s why it’s essential to be mindful of these lifestyle habits when addressing digestive woes. The first step is to recognize the impact of those stressful times, crazy travel schedules, changes in diet, lack of sleep, and medication use. Manage that stress, prioritize sleep, and try to slow down a bit. The next step is to support your gut during challenges with appropriate digestive enzyme supplementation.
In our modern lives, optimum gut health may seem harder than ever. However, it’s never been more critical as it impacts everything from your immune system to brain and heart health. Put these tips into practice and prioritize gut health for general well-being.
As for balancing the rest of your life? You’re on your own!
Wright, Jonathan. Why Stomach Acid Is Good for You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux and GERD. M. Evans, 2001.