Doc’s note: Today, I’m sharing an essay from my friend Dr. Param Dedhia. Param is continuing his series on one of the keys of good health… digestion. In today’s issue, Param explains why you aren’t only what you eat…
We are told “you are what you eat.” But this is a lie.
Our food choices matter. But it’s only the first step. It’s one thing to eat well, but we also need to digest well.
The digestive process actually has three parts: digestion, absorption, and elimination. Today, I will focus on the first step of digestion, the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into nutrients. You know these nutrients as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. These are the raw ingredients that let food be our medicine – we need these nutrients for energy, repair, and growth.
The breakdown process begins even before we sit down to eat. We need to pay attention to our mouths, our stomachs, and our intestines. Particularly, we want to focus on stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Both of these are essential for good digestion.
But starting in our twenties, we make less acid and fewer enzymes in each decade of our lives. So the older we get, the more attention we have to pay to the whole digestive process. You probably feel the effects every day, though the symptoms may not be obvious. Have you ever felt any of these?
- Belching or burping
- Stomach bloating
- Belly pain
- Undigested food in the stool
If you’ve dealt with any of these problems, you might have been tempted to try one of the many supplements out there that promise a solution. In my experience, my patients are left unimpressed with the results. That’s because these supplements are typically hit-or-miss. But the basics work better, so that’s why I prescribe these four key steps for better digestion instead…
1. Sit, breathe, and relax at the beginning of a meal. Personally, I heard this for years and dismissed it as being too simple. But simplicity is often the best practice. Our nervous system responds to stress and fear in what’s called a “fight-or-flight” response… We run away from danger or we prepare to fight it.
Today, our bodies don’t have the same physical threats as our ancestors did, but we do create a world of stress, and our bodies pay the price. During the fight-or-flight response, digestion is a luxury. In other words, the body will not put its energy into digestion when it needs that energy to flee or to fight.
So, before you eat, sit down and be present with your food. Take a few deep breaths before the meal to de-stress and shut off the fight-or-flight mentality. This transitions you into relaxation. And with this relaxation, we are able to digest more effectively.
2. Chew your food. The joy of eating is to fully taste the food. And the goal of digestion is to break down food. Both start with the process of thoroughly chewing your food. Chewing starts the production of amylase, an enzyme in your saliva that breaks down starches and sugar. You need to produce amylase to break down your food, but it also acts as a trigger to signal the rest of your digestive system to get going.
But it’s not just the enzymes at work here. If we don’t start the mechanical breakdown process in our mouths, the rest of our system has to work much harder to digest the food. Since we make less acid and enzymes as we age, those larger pieces of food lead to bloating, discomfort, and other symptoms. So you need to chew to make things easier on the rest of your body.
As we age, we get away from chewing properly. We rush, we try to gulp down our food, and we pay the price. It’s hard to pin down the exact number of times you should chew – so try to stay mindful of your eating. Try about 10 chews for softer foods and 30 chews for more dense foods. The important thing is to not rush. A good meal should last awhile… twenty minutes is the minimum.
3. Start with bitters. In traditional healing practices around the world, bitter foods have long been encouraged. Bitter receptors are located on the tongue, as well as in your stomach, gallbladder, and pancreas. Once these receptors are activated, they can stimulate the release of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
Many cultures around the world start a meal with a bitter to prepare the digestive tract. Common sources of bitters include kale, spinach, cucumber, dandelion, and artichoke. Consider trying a starter salad with bitters before the main course – I know Doc Eifrig loves an arugula salad before his meal.
4. End with peppermint. This is a darling for digestion. A fellow medical student introduced me to peppermint tea one night when I was having a rough time with my stomach, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Peppermint promotes acid production in the stomach. In addition, it promotes the release of bile. (Bile is a fluid made by our liver and stored in the gallbladder. It breaks down our food, particularly fat and sugar.)
Peppermint also reduces spasms in the digestive tract, especially in the lower part of the esophagus before it connects to the stomach. This can relieve painful gas buildup. Peppermint contains menthol and limonene. Menthol is well known for its cooling properties. Limonene coats the esophagus from injury, reduces inflammation, stimulates digestive motility, and regulates enzyme production. I recommend ending a meal with peppermint tea as a way to relax and aid in digestion. (I love to carry peppermint tea bags in my briefcase.)
My friends, our bodies change as we age. And we need to pay attention. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms I mentioned, start with one or all of the above suggestions. See what changes you notice and let me know what works. You can write to me at [email protected]. And keep an eye out for more from me on this topic. As we promote our digestion, we ultimately find our best health.
All the best always,