1) Identify and eliminate food triggers
Food allergies and sensitivities commonly cause heartburn, stomach pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea (and many non-digestive symptoms, including effects on skin, mood, and joints, too).
I offer IgG food sensitivity testing in order to speed up the process, take out the guesswork and the human experimental error, and help my clients determine what is the most nourishing diet for them.
Why wouldn’t you want to know what works and what doesn’t for YOUR digestion?
2) Manage stress
Since the gut is intricately connected to the nervous system, AND has a nervous system of its very own, stress matters. How you feel about your workload is intricately connected to how smoothly your digestion is operating. In fact, if we need to be in a parasympathetic state (the so-called “rest and digest” state) in order to optimally process, absorb and break down our food. The sympathetic state (aka “fight or flight”) is designed to help us escape threats, and prioritizes physiological supports for this. When you are stressed, blood supply is directed to your muscles, away from your digestive tract, to help you move faster. Additionally, digestive enzyme production slows, and peristalsis, the rhythmic contractions in your intestines that help food break down and move along, is also affected.
To simplify: When you are stressed you can’t digest
So, managing stress matters. This may look like setting boundaries with family members re: availability to take care of things. It may involve committing to leaving work on time in order to fit in a workout and prepare a meal. It may be developing a consistent stillness practice. And it may be getting together with a good friend who “gets” you.
3) How you eat (vs what you eat)
Taking time to sit down, chew, and ENJOY the food you are consuming will make it much easier to digest. Truly.
Many of us are guilty of eating standing at the kitchen counter, or eating while sitting at our desks, working, or even while commuting from A to B. Ideally, take a conscious break to eat. And sit down. If you are having a treat, savor it. Regret, guilt, and self-recrimination not only feel bad emotionally, but can literally give you a stomach ache.
Finally, note that most people don’t do well with a large meal close to bedtime, particularly those who get heartburn.
Moving your body helps to regulate your digestion and ensure that your bowels move regularly, too. Enough said.
5) Herbal Support: Soothing and Carminative Teas
Note: herbs are best matched to a person’s whole constitution. For someone like me, who tends to be cold and have poor circulation, ginger is an excellent digestive support, with its warming and moving action, whereas for someone who runs hot, ginger could cause a sensation of burning in the gut. For them, peppermint’s cooling carminative capacity would be a better choice. Licorice is soothing and in fact healing for ulcers, but is contraindicated in whole form when blood pressure is elevated. Consult with an herbalist or naturopathic physician to get the right combo for you.
6) Herbal Support: Bitters
“Bitters” refers to any combination of bitter-tasting herbs. Around the world, bitters have been used as digestives or aperitifs, and in many places they still are. Some examples of herbs used as bitters include Dandelion, Gentian, Angelica, Yellow Dock, Yarrow, Centaury, Wormwood, Mugwort and more. One commercially available blend of bitter is Angostura.
Note that the bitter herb(s) must bind to taste receptors on the tongue to be effective. So, no, you can’t take them in a pill and avoid the bitter flavor. Sorry ! 🙂
Bring back the bitters! Bitters for better digestion!
Bitters stimulate the vagus nerve, and the vagus nerve controls the entire digestive tract. Thus, bitters increase salivation, increase peristalsis, increase digestive enzyme production in the pancreas, enhance production of bile for fat digestion, and relieve symptoms of heartburn, gastritis and dyspepsia. Bitters can address both diarrhea and constipation, and through their digestive-enhancing capacity, relieve intestinal pain.
Interestingly, people consume fewer calories when they have bitters before a meal. Bitters help regulate appetite and fullness.
Bitters also improve liver function and enhance detoxification capacity, including reducing allergy symptoms and asthma. Finally, bitters help balance blood sugar.
I regularly use bitters in my clinical practice to help enhance digestion from top to bottom. Sometimes I recommend an existing combination product, but more often I choose 1-3 herbs that best fit for that person’s whole picture.
NB: If you have an ulcer, consult with your ND or Herbalist before using bitters.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria. They are beneficial for our immune system (research finds lower incidence of colds and flus, and faster recovery time, recovery from infection), for our digestion (research supports use for IBS symptoms, crohns, colitis, gastritis), for mood (helpful for decreasing mood lability, and associated with less anxiety and depression), for skin (acne, eczema, and more). Probiotics are found in naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kosher-style pickled cucumbers, yogurt, kefir, and miso. While regularly eating fermented foods is great for maintaining healthy digestion, most of us are far from in balance with respect to our gut bacteria, and we need higher doses of probiotics to regain this healthy flora mix. Professional quality probiotic supplements are invaluable in healing the gut and occasionally in managing symptoms while healing progresses.