6 Ways to Improve Your Digestion Naturally
Why Digestion Matters (A Lot!)
Digestion is life. Seriously…when it comes to being healthy, digestion is where it’s at. Literally every cell of the body depends on nutrients - so proper digestion is necessary to every bodily function.
Put simply, digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food. The role of digestion is to reduce food to small molecules so that nutrients can be absorbed and used by the cells. It’s a really big deal and the first place we start with clients when tackling any health issues.
Gut health is all the hype right now and for good reason. It is estimated that 70% of our immune system lives in the lining of our digestive system (!) (source). So when you have digestive issues, your immune function is often compromised. And 90% of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, is produced in the gut. Serotonin is largely responsible for mood, appetite, sleep, and even regulating the movement of our intestines. Without healthy digestion, you’re missing out on many benefits of this powerful hormone (source).
Even if you’re experiencing a health issue that doesn’t seem to be directly related to digestion (like skin issues, hormone imbalance, or sugar-cravings), chances are it can still be traced back to some digestive dysfunction. You can eat all the most nutrient-dense food (and take all the natural supplements) to address a specific health issue… but it’s pointless if your body is unable to absorb those important nutrients.
How Digestion Works
A Short Overview of How This Whole Thing Goes Down (Pun Intended)
BRAIN & MOUTH
Digestion actually begins in the brain! The sight and smell of food trigger your salivary glands to begin producing saliva in the mouth where the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food begins.
In the stomach, gastric juice is secreted from millions of tiny gastric glands located in the mucosal lining of the stomach. This gastric juice is made up of mucous, pepsinogen and pepsin, and stomach acid (also known as hydrochloric acid or HCl), which further breaks down the food into a paste called chyme.
The idea that stomach acid is “bad” is a big misconception! Good digestion depends on adequate (and very acidic) stomach acid (…in fact, low stomach acid is often what causes heartburn). Hydrochloric acid disinfects the stomach, kills bacteria and parasites, activates the enzyme pepsin so that we can digest proteins, and breaks down food into smaller molecules. Without enough stomach acid, large undigested food particles travel south through the digestive system and have many detrimental effects on our health.
From the stomach, the partially digested food moves into the upper part of the small intestine. The small intestine works both as a digestive organ and a gland. As the chyme enters the small intestine, the intestine walls release mucous, secretin, and cholecystokinin. Secretin stimulates the pancreas to release bicarbonate, which is necessary to raise the pH of the chyme so that the chemical digestion of carbs, proteins, and fats and be completed. Cholecystokinin stimulates the gallbladder to release bile, which is absolutely essential to emulsify and absorb fats.
At this point, carbs have broken down into glucose molecules, proteins have broken down into amino acids and polypeptides, and fats have broken down into fatty acids and glycerol molecules. Millions of villi and microvilli in the small intestine absorb the nutrient molecules into the bloodstream where they are carried to the entire body.
The leftover chyme from the small intestine (indigestible fibers, bile, water, and sloughed off cells) gets passed on to the large intestine to be eliminated. The large intestine recycles water, waste, and captures any lost nutrients that are still available (with the help from bowel flora). The large intestine also converts nutrients to vitamins K, B1, B2, B12, and butyric acid before forming and expelling feces.
Digestion is wonderfully complicated. Which means - a lot can go wrong if we are not mindful, which can lead to a host of health issues ranging from acne to hormonal imbalance. So here are our top tips to improve your digestion naturally.
6 Ways to Improve Your Digestion Naturally
As a culture, we are stressed (like, really stressed). Because digestion starts in the brain, you need to be in a parasympathetic, relaxed state to properly digest food. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” function whereas the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” function (source). If your sympathetic nervous system is activated, your body will not devote the proper amount of energy necessary for the digestive process. Just as you can activate your sympathetic nervous system by thinking about something stressful (ummm Free Solo?), the parasympathetic system can easily be activated as well.
What To Do: Take several deep, long breaths before eating a meal. Enjoy your food sitting down and free of distractions (errr… screens). Avoid stressful conversations and thoughts.
If you don’t take time to properly chew your food, the brain won’t trigger an adequate production of saliva. Saliva is a complex mixture of electrolytes, hormones, and enzymes necessary to breakdown food. Without proper saliva excretion, undigested carbohydrates eventually end up in the colon, which can cause dysbiosis such as candida. Chewing also impacts how efficiently your body is able to absorb nutrients (sources here, here, and here).
What To Do: Chew about 30 times per bite! It’s as simple as that.
Increase Stomach Acid
Yes, you read that right. Many people don’t have enough stomach acid (Jonathan Wright, MD estimates that about 90% of Americans produce too little stomach acid!). Stomach acid (aka hydrochloric acid or HCl) production can be inhibited by stress, eating too many processed carbs, nutrient deficiencies, allergies, and/or excess alcohol consumption. (Take this simple test to see if you may have low stomach acid.)
Without adequate HCl, your first line of defense against pathogenic microorganisms is gone, foods do not get properly broken down (which can actually cause acid reflux), and partially digested food stays in the stomach longer than it should causing carbs to ferment, proteins to putrefy, and fats to rancidify.
As these large food particles travel to the small intestine, nutrients from this undigested food cannot be sufficiently absorbed by the villi and microvilli that line the walls of the small intestine. The body can actually view large food particles as foreign invaders, which can cause the immune system to launch an immune attack - the root cause of many autoimmune conditions.
Once in the large intestine, poorly digested food particles cause dysbiosis and disrupt healthy flora which can cause inflammation leading to issues such as IBS, Crohn’s Disease, and colitis.
What To Do: There are a few ways to increase stomach acid naturally. First you may want to try this simple Baking Soda Stomach Acid Test to gain insight into whether or not you have low stomach acid.
The gentlest way that may help stimulate acid production is to drink a glass of warm or room temperature lemon water upon waking (squeeze 1/2-1 organic lemon into a glass of water). Alternatively, use a capful of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in the same way.
Our preferred, most effective way to increase stomach acid naturally is to use digestive bitters. Bitters, made from bitter herbs, naturally enhance the body’s secretion of HCl. Take 1/4 teaspoon before meals. Learn how to make your own digestive bitters or try our favorite brand of bitters, Urban Moonshine.
The third and most powerful way to increase HCl is to take Betaine HCl, a naturally occurring amino acid compound usually derived from beets. While this can be done safely on your own with care, it is best to work with a practitioner to determine appropriateness and correct dosage. Betaine HCl should not be taken by anyone who has ulcers, gastric inflammation, and/or is on medications, especially anti-inflammatory medication (e.g. corticosteroids, aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAIDs). In general, we recommend herbal bitters over Betaine HCl.
Hydration is imperative for healthy digestion. Not only does pure water help the body flush toxins, but it also is essential for the body to produce adequate stomach acid (see tip #3 for more).
What To Do: Drink half your body weight (lbs) in ounces of pure water each day. If you drink diuretics (alcohol, coffee, caffeinated tea, soda), drink an extra 12 ounces for every 8-ounce diuretic beverage in addition to your baseline ounce requirement.
Add In Fermented Foods
Almost every culture in the world has traditionally enjoyed fermented foods on a consistent basis. Think of fermented foods as an ancient secret to good health. Naturally fermented foods help strengthen the gut microbiome because they are full of beneficial probiotics and digestive enzymes. Sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, organic raw yogurt, and kefir are all great options to include in your daily diet. (Note: if you suspect you have SIBO or candida, avoid fermented foods until the gut is fully healed - opt for a quality soil-based probiotic instead of one containing lactobacillus or bifidobacterium).
What to Do: Enjoy 1-2 servings or fermented foods per day. Quality sauerkraut (refrigerated kind only), kombucha, kimchi, organic raw yogurt, and kefir are all great options.
Eat Whole Foods (and Eliminate Processed Ones)
This goes without saying, but eat fiber-full, nutrient-dense foods and avoid processed foods. Adequate stomach acid production depends on key nutrients, like zinc and thiamine, which come from whole foods. Processed foods (and stress!) actually deplete your body of these important nutrients that your digestive system depends on.
What To Do: Eat whole, nutrient-dense foods and avoid processed foods. If your digestive system is already impaired, remove inflammatory foods from your diet, like gluten, dairy, low-quality fats (processed vegetable oils and all trans fats), alcohol, and all refined carbohydrates (including sugar!) so that the digestive system can heal.
We’d love to hear what’s helped you improve your digestion naturally. Feel free to share your holistic tips or questions about digestion in the comments below!