Heal Your Gut Series: 8 Habits to Improve Digestive Health
Last week I talked about foods to improve digestion (if you missed it, read it here). This week I wanted to discuss habits that improve digestion. Its really easy to ignore all the functions of our digestive tract and to think that the only thing that will really affect it is the food we put into it. But this simply isn’t true. I have a ton of patients with a super healthy diet who still experience digestive issues. This is because it’s not just about the food. The mental and physical state that you’re in while you’re eating is incredibly important and that’s where these good habits can help you improve your digestion and overall health.
Eat 3 meals per day...not 5 or 6 small meals: Eating constantly throughout the day taxes the digestive system, it’s constantly having to secrete and move. With that being said, everyone is different. If you have blood sugar issues, or feel like you need to eat more than 3 times per day, then definitely listen to your body and do it. But don’t do this because you heard it was good for weight loss. It's not good for digestion and healthy digestion is essential for weight loss.
Slow down and chew well: Essentially don’t inhale your food, no one is going to take it away from you, I promise. The first steps of digestion take place in your mouth. Not only does mastication tear the food into smaller pieces, but you have enzymes in your saliva that breakdown food as well. Slowing down is also really important to prevent over eating. Have you ever eaten a meal and noticed you got more full as time passed even though you’d stopped eating? This is because it takes a little while before you body registers that you’re stomach is full.
Don’t do anything else while you’re eating: Don’t walk down the street (I’m talking to you New Yorkers), eat at your desk while simultaneously working on a project, watch TV, argue with your spouse, etc. When you’re eating, just eat. This is called mindful eating. To understand this you need to understand a little bit of anatomy and physiology, so stay with me here. To put it simply, your nervous system has two settings: one is flight or fight (this is the sympathetic nervous system), the other is rest and digest (the parasympathetic nervous system). When your flight or fight setting is on, your body isn’t dedicating any of it’s resources to digestion so the nerves that stimulate digestion aren’t stimulated. So be mindful and present as you eat to allow your body to rest and digest. And savor just how great your food really tastes!
Take some deep belly breaths before you eat: If you’re not sure what a deep belly breath is, check out this video. This relates to #3 and is especially important if you’re feeling stressed. When you take a deep belly breath, your diaphragm lowers and a nerve called the vagus nerve (which travels all the way down from you brain through the diaphragm) is stimulated. The vagus nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system and plays an essential role in digestion. Its functions include: expanding the stomach as food enters, contractions of the stomach, secretion of stomach acid, emptying the contacts of the stomach into the intestines, and secretion of pancreatic digestive enzymes. It also controls sensations of hunger, satisfaction and fullness. As you can see, this process is really important. If you are super stressed out, working or distracted, you’re not going to digest your food well.
Don’t drink a ton of water (especially ice cold) with your meal: Although this is not an issue for everyone, if you have bloating, indigestion or other digestive issues give it a try. It’s been beneficial for many of my patients. Although I haven’t seen any studies that explain the underlying mechanism, in Ayurvedic medicine, it’s believed that cold water dampens digestive fire needed for proper digestion. Instead, have a warm drink like tea and reserve the majority of your water intake for between meals.
Abdominal massage: Massage brings blood flow to the area, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, relieves tension, and promotes movement of the intestinal muscles. Start at the belly button and move out and around in a clockwise direction. Spend extra time on any areas that feel tender or hard. Try this for 2-5 minutes while you’re lying in bed in the morning. Who doesn’t like a belly massage in the morning?
Exercise: When you exercise you’re massaging your digestive organs, especially when you do yoga twists and abdominal exercises. Regular exercise improves circulation, even to the digestive tract. It therefore aids process and elimination relieving constipation, gas and bloating.
Eat your veggies! Okay fine, I know I said this last week, and I’ll say it again in the future, because I really wanted to drive it home. Vegetables help stimulate digestion, especially bitter ones (artichokes, endive, arugula, radicchio, escarole, kale etc), and they are rich in nutrients, antioxidants and fibers that keep your gut healthy. Vegetables don’t have to be the main star of the dish but at least make sure you’re getting a hefty side.
Stay tooned for the best herbs and nutrients for gut health, the top foods to avoid and more…