In my last post I wrote about how I am changing my diet to make it plant based. However what we absorb or digest properly has equal and if not more importance than what we eat. And key to this is health of the digestive, or Gastro Intestinal (GI) tract.
I’m referring here to avoiding the worst that can happen: malabsorption and the lack of absorption of nutrients and food. And you can read more about how to recover from this in my post on the four R’s of digestive health
For me personally, all this is a real issue right now. In my post on getting my blood tested I mentioned how my hormones have been out of balance. This has impacted my digestion.
So in this post I’m going to go into some tips and rituals to take care of your tummy!
Mise en place
To optimize absorption and get the most from your food, firstly make sure you’re calm and in a good mood before eating – stress will shut down and stop the digestive process, so make sure you wind down. If you are hurried or stressed, consider having something sweet, like a banana: the sugar may well calm down your adrenals and fire up your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) for rest and digest mode. Additionally, consciously slow down, become more aware, and breathe deeply into your lower belly. Again this will down regulate stress and get you ready to digest properly.
In addition, create a ritual to feel grateful for your food: this will help to trigger your body into a receptive “rest and digest” state. My favourite ritual is saying a prayer of grace whilst touching my hands in prayer to my forehead. “Grace” and being gracious is a wonderful way to describe how we can be when we are deeply nourishing ourselves at our meals.
Next, smell and appreciate the smell of your food – as you do you’ll be unconsciously liberating digestive fluids ready to go to action on that food. And have a digestif, such as lemon juice in water, or bitters – these will help the stomach become acidic enough to digest food properly.
Now, most importantly, remember to chew! Not only does this break down food mechanically, chewing also stimulates the release of digestive juices. So it helps to chew whilst having a smoothie or juice!
Finally, allow yourself to begin absorption after your meal. Create at least a 30 minute pause before grabbing a cup of coffee or a tea. Caffeinated drinks like these will simply fire up your adrenals and take you out of rest and digest mode. So get into the habit of taking a break after a meal and even treating yourself to a nice gentle walk. Your body will be much happier for this!
In the end, the Gastro Intestinal tract is an orchestra of different parts that all act in a wondrous symphony to absorb nutrients. And it can be assisted with tastes that are out of this world – such as inspired dishes using health promoting super spices and herbs (detailed in my post here). In addition, dietary sources of fiber (from whole grains, legumes, beans, vegetables and fruit) are also key to GI health and are detailed in my post here.
The process of digestion
- Digestion begins in the mind with the Cephalic phase, whereby sensory awareness prepares the body for digestion by promoting release of digestive enzymes throughout the body.
- The second phase is chewing in the mouth, a mechanical process which breaks down the food and mixes it with enzymes in the mouth. Swallowing takes the food to the third stage of digestion – in the stomach, where food is mixed with Gastric Acid, a chemical process of breaking down the food into smaller parts ready for absorption.
- The third phase happens as bile from the liver and digestive enzymes from the Pancreas are added and further break down the food.
- The fourth phase occurs as food passes through the Small Intestine where nutrients, now small enough, are absorbed.
- The next stage occurs as all the blood from the digestive tract is fed to the Liver for filtering.
- The final stage occurs as food passes through the Large Intestine, where food is processed for elimination.
The liver plays such a pivotal role in digestion. When i realised this, i did an in depth study about it to learn how to optimise liver health. Put simply, all the blood from the digestive tract passes firstly through the liver for filtering and the initial stage of processing the nutrients before it travels to the rest of the body. So give your liver some huggy love – its doing an amazing job!
- Milk thistle: helps protect liver from toxic damage. Milk thistle is traditionally used for liver disorders. This herb contains Silymarin, which is an antioxidant, to help prevent free radical damage in the liver due to toxins. Silymarin also increases the glutathione content of the liver. The most interesting effect of milk thistle in the liver is its ability to stimulate protein synthesis. This results in an increase in the production of new liver cells to replace the damaged old ones.
- Dandelion: increases bile flow, thus helping liver to detoxify, as well assisting fat digestion. Dandelion root has an extremely high nutrient content, increasing bile flow, improving liver congestion, bile duct inflammation and gallstones.
- Schisandra berry: liver protective as well as calming to the adrenals
This post is adapted from a study paper I have posted which has complete details about digestion
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Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schlitz, B., Schmidt, M., Lerman, R., Quinn, S., Jones, D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Second Edition. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.