We often hear the phrase, “You are what you eat.” We innately know that if we eat doughnuts for every single meal, we’re going to feel it in our bodies, minds and energy levels, while if instead we choose whole, nutrient-dense foods that fuel us properly, we’re likely to show up (and look and feel) like completely different people. To a certain extent, we really are what we eat.
The phrase, “You are what you eat” assumes, however, that everyone’s body processes food the same way. Food goes in one end and comes out the other. Sounds simple enough, but what happens in between? Why can one person eat a bowl of ice cream happily, but just walking by an ice cream shop might send another person sprinting to the bathroom? Why can I enjoy spicy Mexican food but it causes you to have some serious heartburn afterwards?
Or even in the case of an AIP diet, why might eliminating inflammatory foods help immensely, but still leave you with uncomfortable digestive issues and/or nutrient deficiencies?
The answer? Our digestion. Or what our bodies can do with what we eat.
The processes of digestion, or the breakdown, absorption and assimilation of the food we eat, is a vitally important piece of the puzzle. It’s a big player in determining which nutrients we actually receive from our food and how our body uses them as fuel. So I like to take the phrase a step further and say instead, “You are what you body can do with what you eat.”
Here are 5 simple ways to improve the important process of digestion and, in turn, your overall health and wellbeing:
1. Track your bowel movements.
The first place to start is to get a good sense of how your digestive system is operating. Are you constipated? Experiencing loose stools and urgency? Are you noticing symptoms of bloating, fullness, or indigestion after meals?
Using a food and symptom journal to track your symptoms and bowel movements is a great way to understand more about how your digestive system is functioning so you know how best to support it. You can download my guide to symptom journaling here.
Normal bowel movements are expected to happen 1-3 times per day. They should ideally be a medium brown color and have a soft, well-formed consistency. Does that surprise you? What is your digestion telling you?
2. Slow down. Get present. Chew your food.
The process of digestion starts in the brain. When you simply look at or think about food, it activates the production of saliva, stomach acid and enzymes which are needed to properly break down food into usable nutrients.
If you’re eating on the go or in front of a computer (raising my hand!), your body isn’t ready to start the process of digestion, so it’s not going to break down food effectively.
Another simple way to help our body is to support mechanical digestion and chew our food! It’s important to chew food thoroughly to help break it down into smaller pieces that are easier for our digestive system to absorb.
If you’re experiencing issues such as bloating, burping, heartburn or nausea after meals, try chewing your food really well and see how that helps. Aim for 20 chews per mouthful and see how you do!
3. Optimize your stomach acid.
The pH or level of acidity in our stomach is meant to be between 1.5-1.7, which is very acidic, in order to fully break down all of the food that we eat into a form that can be absorbed by our small intestine.
Contrary to popular belief, many cases of heartburn or acid reflux are not caused by the overproduction of stomach acid, but rather from having too little stomach acid preventing us from fully breaking down our food [https://nutritionreview.org/2018/11/gastric-balance-heartburn-caused-excess-acid/]. If you’re noticing indigestion, heartburn, or undigested food particles in your stool, it could be a sign that you need some extra digestive support.
Try drinking one of the following 15 minutes before meals to get those digestive juices flowing:
- 8oz glass of water with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice
- Apple cider vinegar: Start with 1/2 tablespoon diluted in 1/4 cup water and increase up to 1 tablespoon as tolerated
If you feel burning when drinking lemon or vinegar, proceed with caution and consult with a practitioner. It may be a sign that you have some inflammation and damage and need some soothing supplements or herbs prior to starting.
You may also want to consult with a practitioner about bringing in some enzyme support to help break down food. Digestive enzymes help to break large macromolecules into particles that our guts can absorb and our bodies can use as fuel. If our digestive process is compromised in any way, enzymes may be a helpful and necessary tool to help us break food down into more absorbable forms. Digestive enzymes are naturally occurring in raw fruits and veggies, but supplementing may be necessary to get the full benefits.
4. Hydrate well.
Our digestive system needs water to function properly. When dehydrated, our digestion slows down and our stools become harder to pass. A good rule of thumb is to divide your weight in half and drink that many ounces of water per day. This will of course vary depending on your individual needs, climate and how much you sweat!
5. Incorporate probiotics.
Having a good balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut is crucial for the overall functioning of the digestive system. Depending on your individual needs, you can bring in a probiotic supplement or use probiotic foods. I love fermented veggies, kimchi and sauerkraut and drinks like beet kvass and low-sugar kombucha. I like to include a small amount of these with most meals!
With probiotic foods or supplements you want to start with a low amount/dosage and slowly build up your tolerance and assess your symptoms.
As you likely know, the gut is the root of many health conditions (especially autoimmunity!) and if we can work to support our digestive process from top to bottom we’re doing ourselves a huge favor. If you’ve tried AIP and noticed big improvements but are still experiencing bloating, constipation, heartburn or other systemic issues, these 5 tips will help you to support your digestive process, your gut, and in turn your overall health.