When it comes down to it, digestion might be the most important function of our body. Why? Well... Digestion is the break down of food, giving our body access to vitamins and minerals which are all required as part of millions of chemical reactions that happen in our body every second. If we’re not digesting our food efficiently, we're also not absorbing nutrients efficiently which means our body doesn't have what it needs to able to perform those chemical reactions and function optimally. Due to this reason, digestive dysfunction can lead to a number of health conditions.
Symptoms of digestion dysfunction can be tummy pain, bloating, wind (above and below!), constipation or diarrhoea. There are endless causes of poor digestion that can lead to these symptoms. If you have on-going digestive problems I will always suggest that you get professional advice, but here are a few simple tips which may help in the mean time…
1. Apple cider vinegar.
If you experience bloating after eating, it may mean that the digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid in your stomach (both of which work to break down your food) are not being released effectively. To stimulate the beginning of digestion add 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar to half a glass of water and drink before a meal. This enhances the release of those digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid into your stomach in preparation of receiving food. Another suggestion is to add a side salad to your meal with a drizzle of apple cider vinegar (around 1 tsp) and extra virgin olive oil (around 1 tbsp). This is especially effective when eating heavier meals. When buying apple cider vinegar choose organic and look for those which contain the mother (the mother is what creates the vinegar through fermentation).
Although there is not a lot of literature to show the exact mechanism of action of apple cider vinegar, or to prove its efficacy, the symptoms of the subjects in these studies and the study settings are likely to be quite different from those of us who experience symptoms of poor digestion. Or... They may have used animals as subjects who can't express how they're feeling! Some studies actually show burning of the throat due to apple cider vinegar ingestion... It's quite simple to avoid this, only use 1 tsp and dilute in water!
Using apple cider vinegar has shown great results in easing symptoms of patients I've seen. I believe the mechanism of action to be similar to that of bitters. Keep reading below for more info on this...
2. Bitter leaves.
Bitter is a taste which is commonly used in naturopathy to improve digestion. The bitter taste sends a signal to the brain which stimulates the digestive process and release of digestive enzymes into the stomach to break down food. The Mediterranean diet has been shown in many studies to be highly beneficial for many health conditions and it's interesting to note that bitter leaves are regularly included in many Mediterranean meals. Pairing a regular meal with bitter leaves no doubt plays a beneficial role in this diet due to their positive effects on digestion. So what are bitter leaves? They include rocket, radicchio, watercress, chicory, dandelion and endive. As suggested in the previous point, it’s quick and easy to add a side salad to a meal which includes these leaves with an apple cider vinegar and extra virgin olive oil dressing (...add shavings of parmesan and apple too. Yum!). If you’ve not heard of some of these leaves, take a look at your local fruit and vegetable store to see what they’ve got and give them a try.
Many cultures around the world regularly add a small amount of fermented foods to their meals. These fermented foods are another way to improve digestion through the stimulation of digestive enzymes. Sauerkraut, kimchi, naturally pickled vegetables and miso are all fermented foods that are easily added to a meal. Fermented foods contain bacteria which create the fermentation process. These bacteria also help to digest your food whilst also supporting your gut health by colonising in the gut. When buying fermented foods ensure they haven’t been heat treated as this heating process will kill off the beneficial bacteria. In some digestive conditions fermented foods are not well tolerated so if symptoms are exacerbated, try the other 5 suggestions.
Take your time to eat! If you’re rushed, your stomach fills too quickly which can lead to burping and tummy upset. Just as you can't eat an entire meal in one gulp, your stomach can't digest an entire meal in one go either. When we eat a meal we take bites then chew and swallow each one separately which allows our stomach to begin digesting a little bit at a time. If we eat too quickly our food isn't able to digest well in the stomach and it may reach the small intestine partially un-digested. Here it can ferment causing further pain and flatulence (the official name of farting!). In order to better digest your food and allow your body to get the most nutrients from each meal, take small bites and chew each bite properly before swallowing. Put your fork, spoon or food down between bites and eat with friends and family. This can also help to slow down to digest your food better.
5. Herbal tea.
In many cultures it’s also common to have an aperitif or aperitivo following a meal. These are commonly alcoholic drinks which enhance digestion as they’re often bitter and made from herbs or citrus fruits (Aperol Spritz anyone?!). A more healthful alternative to this is drinking an herbal tea after a meal. Peppermint and fennel are my favourites for calming and soothing a bloated or upset tummy after a meal. Chamomile can also be soothing and anti-inflammatory for the gastrointestinal tract. Give these a try if you experience bloating or tummy upset after eating.
Chai, a favourite of many, was originally created to aid in digestion as it contains many spices which can warm the body and soothe the gastrointestinal tract. Chai, however, usually contains black tea which may inhibit the absorption of some nutrients so if choosing to drink chai, drink an hour before or after a meal.
Every single cell in your body needs to be optimally hydrated in order to function efficiently. Dehydration is a major cause of constipation and also helps the smooth muscles of our gastrointestinal tract to function. Water is also important for digestion as it helps to break down foods, move our food through our body and absorb nutrients. Aim to drink at least 1.5 litres of water each day on top of any other drinks you may have. A simple trick is to use a 700 ml bottle (glass if preferred) and fill it at least twice.
For optimal health we need optimal digestion. And as previously stated, on-going digestive upset can lead to a number of health conditions or it could also be a symptom of a more serious health condition. See an accredited health professional if you experience on-going symptoms.