It could be argued that the root of all health starts with digestion. Our bodies need nutrients to function and our digestion is how we get those nutrients from our food. Digestion actually starts in your mouth. As you chew your food you are not only breaking it down into smaller, easier to digest pieces, your saliva is a digestive juice that starts the process of breaking down the food. It also moistens it so it’s easier to swallow. Your food then goes through the esophagus to the stomach where it’s mixed with more digestive juices as well as stomach acid and enzymes. Next is the small intestine where the gallbladder adds bile, a digestive juice made in the liver, as well as digestive juice and enzymes from the pancreas. The healthy bacteria in your small intestine also help with digestion. Water is moved from your blood stream into the small intestine to help break the food down further and some nutrients are absorbed there as well. Finally the food moves to the large intestine where the good bacteria help break down any remaining nutrients to be absorbed and waste products are removed as stool.
Digestion is a complicated process and there is a lot of debate on what foods we should and shouldn’t eat. Naturally everyone’s system is different. Some people have food allergies and sensitivities that other people don’t so it’s hard to say a food is good or bad for everyone. It just depends on how healthy your digestive tract is.
That said, there are foods that are traditionally more difficult for people to digest.
- Dairy products tend to be difficult for most people to fully digest. Despite what the dairy association would tell you, the proteins and fats in cow’s milk are designed for baby cows, not necessarily for humans. Many people find they feel bloated, gassy and uncomfortable after eating or drinking dairy.
- Red meat can be a problem for digestion. It takes a lot of time and digestive energy to break down red meat and many people feel heavy and even a little tired if they eat a lot of it.
- Corn is one I think many of us know it hard to digest because we’ve seen evidence that it can go through the entire digestive process intact. The combination of sugars, starches and fiber in corn make it particularly difficult. Even popcorn can be a problem for some people.
- Fried foods are often overwhelming for the digestive tract. That bloated feeling you have after eating a heavy meal with lots of fats and carbs is the food sitting in your stomach while you valiantly try to produce enough digestive juices and energy to break it all down.
- Sugar is not a friend to the friendly bacteria in your gut that helps with digestion. Sugar is the favorite food of the unhealthy bacteria that also is in your gut and can cause it to outnumber the “good guys” which can lead to constipation, diarrhea, bloating and other health issues.
- Artificial sweeteners are not a good sugar substitute for your digestion either. The fact that they are artificial alone should be a clue. Your body was not meant to try to digest chemical ingredients and they can cause inflammation, diarrhea, gas as well as headaches.
There are some foods that are particularly good for your digestion and can help increase your ability to digest other foods.
- Yogurt. Even though it is often made of dairy (although you can get a wide variety of non-dairy yogurt) it is easy to digest because it’s fermented. Fermented foods have their own enzymes and good bacteria that can add to your digestive arsenal and help your digestive tract stay healthy.
- Kimchi and sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables provide the enzymes and good bacteria in the same way yogurt does without the dairy and with extra fiber.
- Fruits such as banana, apple and avocado are very good for digestion. They are easy to digest and they each add specific nutrients your body needs such as potassium in bananas, malic acid in apples and omega3’s in avocado. They all have fiber your digestive tract needs as well.
- Raw vegetables contain a host of healthy nutrients as well as fiber. It is important to make sure you chew them thoroughly however so your body can break them down properly.
- Digestive enzyme supplements can help you get your digestive tract running smoothly especially if you are having some trouble. Taking a digestive enzyme after each meal can really make a difference.
- Probiotics are recommended for everyone who has had digestive issues, been on antibiotics or has had a high sugar, junk food diet. It’s important to replace the good bacteria in your gut regularly and then fee them with healthy foods.
Speaking of chewing your vegetables thoroughly, that is good advice for everyone with every food. A good rule of thumb is to chew at least 30 times before you swallow. Make sure you are not swallowing chunks of food. It can be weird at first to think about and even count how many times you chew but your digestive tract will thank you for it.
Taking antibiotics can really do a number on your digestion.
Your intestinal tract is the home of billions of bacteria, some good and some bad. The good bacteria are very important for your overall health. They not only help to keep the bad bacteria in check, they also help break down your food so you can access the nutrients. When you take antibiotics they kill bacteria indiscriminately, the good and the bad. That’s why people often get yeast infections, diarrhea and intestinal discomfort when taking them. The good bacteria gets killed off along with whatever bacteria the antibiotics where meant to kill and opportunistic, unhealthy bacteria can then begin to flourish. It’s important to take a probiotic when you take an antibiotic to replace the good guys right away. Recent studies have shown that taking probiotics while you take antibiotics actually helps the antibiotics work better.
Stress is another factor to look at if you are having digestive issues.
Your body reacts chemically to all stress the same way. It takes energy away from certain systems in your body and routes them to other systems in case you need to fight or flee. That does sound a bit dramatic but it’s true. Imagine you are being chased by a bear. Your body is going to use all the energy available to go to your heart, muscles and lungs. The first thing it’s going to do is shut down systems that aren’t necessary right then like your reproduction and digestion. You don’t need to digest your lunch if you are trying to escape a wild bear. Obviously the day to day stress you encounter isn’t as serious as running from a bear but your body only has one reaction to stress, reroute the energy so it’s available just in case. Our society is geared towards stress and most people are in a constant state of fight or flight physiologically and our digestion can suffer for it. Calming activities like meditation, yoga, or massage can help your digestion by calming your body down. There are also herbs that can help calm your nervous system such as valerian, passion flower, chamomile, lavender or mint. You can also find supplements that are geared towards helping your body handle stress. Relaxation isn’t just good for your mind, it’s good for your whole body, especially your digestion.
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Dr. Ron Ledoux is a licensed Chiropractor from the midwest who has been practicing since 2001. He’s also certified in clinical nutrition and has extensive training in nutritional therapies and is enthusiastic about educating and offering natural health care to his patients and the community.