Whether you’re someone who lives to eat or eats to live, there’s no getting around it—our digestion is central to our being. In fact, the center of our digestive system is located at the body’s center point. When digestion is going smoothly, we’re rewarded with a sense of wellbeing. And when it’s not, the stomach lets us know.
Digestion affects our lives on many levels. For example, there’s the obvious physical discomfort that occurs when the digestive process is going awry. This is an evolutionary safety mechanism—the body telling us that something needs to be fixed.
However, poor digestion can have much deeper consequences than a stomachache. The digestive tract’s primary purpose is to extract nutrition from food and discard the rest. How efficiently the stomach, intestines, and other digestive organs process nutrition has a profound impact on quality of life. People who eat healthy diets but have poor digestion may be allowing nutrition to pass them by. Those who eat primarily processed foods and have other unhealthy habits are just making a bad situation worse.
In addition to poor nutrient absorption, bad digestion can lead to acid reflux, indigestion, irritable bowel disease, and other uncomfortable conditions. It can also have a direct impact on the nervous system, emotional health, immunity,
and hormones. In other words, nutrition offers a bounty of health opportunities. If we take care of the center, the rest will quite often take care of itself.
The Importance of Bacteria
We’ve been trained to believe that bacteria are the enemy. We see this in our overreliance on antibiotics and antibacterial soaps and our sometimes obsessive focus on cleanliness. While this phobia can be justified by some dangerous bacteria—E. coli, Staphylococcus, and Salmonella, to name a few—we should never forget the crucial role friendly bacteria play in maintaining our health.
Humans and the bacteria that inhabit our guts have developed a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years. We provide them with a home and they help us with digestion, immunity, and other functions. They manufacture vitamins, boost immune cells, and prevent us from absorbing harmful pathogens.
Top Foods and Supplements for Digestion
Given that good digestion and good bacteria protect against disease, it only makes sense to ensure that we’re getting supplements and foods that enhance and support these two features.
Probiotic and prebiotic supplements support the growth of healthy bacteria in two critical ways. Probiotics provide live strains of friendly bacteria that are crucial to digestive, immune, and neurological health. Prebiotics ensure that friendly flora have a nourishing environment in which to thrive.
Digestive enzymes support digestion and help improve nutrient absorption. In addition, enzymes, which break down proteins into their component parts, increase digestive capacity. For best results, use a combination enzyme formula with enzymes such as protease, lipase, and amylase.
Zinc is a critical nutrient required to make many digestive enzymes. It is also involved in hormone regulation, immune health, and neurological function.
Herbs can also play a role in digestion.
Fish oil reduces inflammation and helps heal the gastrointestinal tract lining, improve nutrient absorption, balance hormones, bolster neurological function, and boost immunity.
Fiber keeps things moving, which prevents your colon from collecting toxins that can build up and cause disease. Fruits, such as prunes, and gluten-free grains, such as quinoa, legumes, and flax seeds, all include ample amounts of healthy fiber.
Cultured, fermented foods (see “Feast on Fermented Foods,” p. 42), are rich in digestive enzymes and probiotic bacteria that can help improve digestive function.
Alkaline foods: One of the most common digestive complaints is acid stomach. An ideal way to neutralize acidity is to eat alkaline foods. The body has mechanisms to restore alkaline/acid levels, but a chronically acidic state can tax these mechanisms and impair digestion. Alkaline foods include kale, kelp, spinach, parsley, broccoli, and sea vegetables. Keep in mind that in many cases, too much stomach acid is due to a lack of sufficient hydrochloric acid (HCL). Low HCL causes food to stagnate in the stomach resulting in acid reflux and a feeling of hyperacidity. Taking digestive enzymes that contain HCL can help.
A combination of enzymes, herbs, and nutrients such as ginger, pomegranate, cardamom, chromium, zinc, protease, and amylase will help alleviate occasional digestive discomfort and improve long term function.
Foods to Avoid
Some foods are notorious for causing digestive discomfort, and eating them can lead to long-term digestive problems.
Dairy is one of the top offenders because it’s just so difficult to digest. Specifically, the lactose found in dairy products contributes to gas, bloating, diarrhea, and digestive dysfunction, especially in people who have trouble metabolizing the enzyme. One way to get the nutrition of dairy without the gas and bloating is with yogurt, which is much easier on the digestive tract.
Gluten-containing foods, such as wheat, barley, and rye, can interfere with digestive capacity. They have also been found to contribute to inflammatory conditions, heartburn, autoimmune disorders, neurological and behavioral issues, skin diseases, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue, and other conditions.
If you have chronic digestive or immune issues, it’s possible that you may have a gluten sensitivity or even celiac disease, an autoimmune condition where any intake of gluten damages the intestinal lining. Interestingly, however, a strict gluten-free diet sometimes clears up symptoms even in people who have tested negative for gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
Processed food, with its artificial ingredients, can definitely cause digestive problems. Sodas, coffee, alcohol, and certain pharmaceutical drugs can kill beneficial bacteria and generate acidity. Avoiding these substances can improve digestive health significantly.
How You Eat
It’s not enough to change what we eat; we must also address how we eat. Along with a poor diet, late meals, rushed eating, and stress can contribute to digestive issues. Simply taking the time to slow down and chew thoroughly can improve digestive health and relieve tension. To support digestive health:
The foods you eat and the supplements you take can make all the difference when it comes to improving your digestion—and alleviating common symptoms such as gas, bloating, poor nutrient absorption, and indigestion
Feast on Fermented Foods
One of the easiest ways to enhance beneficial bacteria in the digestive system is with fermented foods. While the name may be a bit off-putting, the foods themselves are rather commonplace. Cultured, fermented foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi (a Koreen vegetable dish). These foods are rich in digestive enzymes and beneficial probiotic bacteria strains. In addition, because these foods are “pre-digested” to some degree, they put less strain on the digestive system. Boosting our good bacteria has been shown to enhance immunity, as well as boost mood.
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