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Digestion

Digestion, what’s the big deal?

Digestion plays a critical role in our overall health picture. Optimal digestion means that several functions throughout our body can perform as they should. So, as you would imagine, poor digestion means that several roles within the body are set up for inadequate performance. From the outset, we can influence our body’s performance by focusing on improving digestion.

Digestion, by definition, is the complex process of turning the food you eat into nutrients, which the body uses for energy, growth, and cell repair needed to survive. (1)

In today’s modern world, eating tends to be a thoughtless process of practicality or a by-product of social interaction. It is rarely a mindful practice where we focus our attention as we eat. We eat on the run, eat at our desks, shovel in snacks between appointments and errands, and indulge on social occasions. Often we only sit at the dinner table long enough to consume a meal while distracted by children, electronic devices, and the noise in our heads. Our lives have become so fast and so unforgiving, and sadly our digestion is just one of many things to suffer as a consequence.

The initial digestion process begins as we think about, see and smell food. Our body is designed to register the feeling of hunger and start the process of building saliva within the mouth. Ever have the salivating sense when you think of yummy food, smell the aroma of something cooking, or lay eyes on something that looks inviting? This function is the body’s ingenious way to initiate the first step of digestion. Pay attention at this point. Building saliva levels is critical; enzymes from the salivary and the lingual glands digest carbohydrates and fats; this is important.

From here is the single most significant process you can actively improve, you guessed it, chewing. Chewing correctly and crushing our food aids in both swallowing and digestion. Studies explain it also helps to relieve stress and regulate cognitive functions, including alertness and executive function. (2) I often giggle when I think about chewing. As a kid, you were scrutinised and told to take smaller bites, chew your food correctly, close your mouth to chew, cut your meals into small, easy-to-chew pieces, and don’t talk with your mouth open, and sit down while you’re eating. All constructive suggestions remain applicable as we grow, yet somehow the importance is lost.

While hydration is another critical role we can influence in our health, drinking water at meal time can negatively impact the performance and quality of your digestion. People’s best efforts to remain hydrated often align with meals; I understand it is easy to remember, and eating and drinking appear to go hand in hand. The problem is that drinking during a meal negatively impacts your digestion by reducing the acidity levels in your stomach.

Our stomach contains digestive enzymes (gastric acid) that help digest and break down food. These enzymes also kill any infectious bacteria that might be ingested along with food. By consuming water with meals, we can inhibit and dilute these enzymes. If we fail to produce enough gastric acid, then food can remain in the stomach for longer and slows the process of passing digested food into the small intestine to absorb nutrients. The consequence of this can lead to a range of further digestive issues. Ensuring you don’t drink water for 30 minutes on either side of a meal will ensure you don’t compromise your digestive enzymes – hydrate outside eating windows.

So, in principle, you can see why the building of saliva, adequate chewing, and ensuring we don’t dilute our digestive enzymes are all essential for good digestion. While the topic of mindful eating appears to be on trend and can seem a little woo-woo, it’s not without good reason. If you think you don’t have the time, discipline, or clue to slow down, be present, and not be distracted while eating, perhaps it’s time to re-think.

The ramifications of poor digestion might not be immediate, but be assured over time, they will compound and likely lead to a range of undesirable health expressions. On the contrary, good digestion and mindful eating practices can also have additional benefits like ensuring you don’t overeat and help relieve stress and regulate cognitive functions, including alertness and executive function. Creating good digestive habits now will ensure you don’t pay later.

Handy tips to support healthy digestion;
    1. Give thought and attention to the smell and look of your food as you prepare it, and allow your sense to help build saliva before commencing a meal;
    2. Take a few deep breaths before beginning a meal. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system;
    3. Take time to enjoy your meals, step away from your desk, turn off distractions, and eat a meal at a designated location, i.e., dining table, park bench, etc.
    4. Eat your meal slowly and mindfully, taste and appreciate your food;
    5. Chew your food; this doesn’t mean count how many times you chew one item; it simply means chew and chew well;
    6. Take time to put your utensils down between mouthfuls; this will actively help slow you down;
    7. Eat until you feel 80% full. Chances are, within a short time after the end of a meal, you will reach 100% full as your body and brain make the connection;
    8. Hydrate outside of mealtimes.

References;

1. Physiology, Digestion. Justin J. Patricia 1, Amit S. Dhamoon 2. 2021 Sep 18.

PMID: 31334962 Bookshelf ID: NBK544242

2. Brain Nerve. 2014 Jan;66(1):25-32. Chewing and cognitive function.

Yoshiyuki Hirano 1, Minoru Onozuka. PMID: 24371128

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