Gastrointestinal discomfort, or tummy trouble, is one of the most common health conditions I encounter in my nutrition practice.
Some of the more familiar symptoms include: bloating; cramping; heartburn; gas; constipation and/or diarrhea. The associated discomfort levels can range from mild to debilitating and the causes, consequences and potential cures, are equally diverse.
What I want to talk about today are some of the founding principles and practices we can put in place to help lay the groundwork for gastrointestinal health.
These strategies are not meant to be mutually exclusive but rather work together to inform the overall picture of health. Often with digestion, our bodies will accommodate a certain amount of flux (and tolerate a certain amount of abuse) before things start to come undone. As things deteriorate, we are often visited by clear — and sometimes loud — signs of trouble.
The founding principles are just that — the basis upon which healthy digestive habits are formed. At first blush they may seem simple but, like all things, the trick is to practice them. The results don’t come instantaneously or from a single act of intensity. Rather, they are achieved through regular practice over time.
1. Slow Down & Change the Focus — our digestive system does not like to be rushed, which is very different from the way most of us live our lives. By slowing down we help calm our nervous system and support proper chewing, the first critical step in the digestive process.
Trying to imagine mealtime in more ritualistic, even celebratory terms ~ as it was once practiced ~ can be very helpful for transforming our approach. I don’t mean making things complicated or fancy, quite the opposite, I just mean shifting our mind so that we pay attention. Setting aside, even momentarily, the usual distractions and focusing instead on the smell, taste, textures and nourishing properties of the food we are about to eat. We might even imagine how our food serves us by providing energy, growth, repair and rejuvenation and how fortunate we are to receive it. It’s hard to imagine this kind of singular, uncorrupted focus – I know. But if we can manage it, even intermittently, we begin to see how the act of shifting our attention to our food allows us to slow down naturally. Other simple elements such as candles, field flowers and pretty cloth napkins can also enhance the dining experience by transporting us out of our electronic fields and bringing our focus back to the joy and celebration of eating.
2. Chew, Chew, Chew — digestion begins in the mouth ~ it is initiated and facilitated through the act of proper mechanical chewing. As we chew our food, digestive juices from our saliva further assist in the process of breaking down our food. The more thoroughly chewed our food is, the more exposed surfaces there are for enzymes to work on as our food moves through the intestinal tract.
It has been said that many intestinal conditions could be significantly improved if people chewed their food
Proper chewing is made difficult by the fact that we are not always aware of how quickly we are eating our food. Shifting our focus will help with this but in the initial stages, when our minds are more prone to wander, the following strategies can be very helpful for slowing down and promoting proper chewing:
- the fork rest — simply put your fork down between bites and wait until your food is properly chewed and swallowed before picking it up again. You might be amazed to discover how this small step will make you aware of just how quickly you eat your food (you may also find it rather annoying which is also informative);
- chopsticks — I encourage the use of chopsticks wherever and whenever possible; they are a natural speed and quantify tamer and a great way to promote proper chewing and digestion.
3. Identify your Tummy Triggers — certain foods can promote inflammation in the body and intensify tummy trouble. Cleaning up the diet is a very helpful, often essential, step in improving gastrointestinal comfort (not to mention systemic health). Triggers (and symptoms) will be different for each of us and keeping a food journal is a very helpful tool in pinpointing individual trouble spots. With this in mind, some principles:
whole foods — often the simplest and most important step we can take towards promoting an anti-inflammatory diet is to increase our intake of whole foods and decrease our intake of manufactured foods. By whole foods, I simply mean food that looks the way it did when it was growing in nature – on trees, in our gardens and on the farm. These foods deliver the greatest concentration of nutrients for our bodies (vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals) as well as enzymes which help break down our food and facilitate digestion.
manufactured foods — manufactured foods (processed/refined foods and fast foods) by contrast, contain a disproportionate amount of sugar, sodium and unnatural fats relative to whole foods which can bog down digestion and undermine systemic health. These same foods also tend to contain a host of artificial preservatives, colorants, flavor enhancers as well as binders, emulsifiers and/or other ‘gums’ which can further act as triggers in a host of different ways (digestion/migraine/mood) depending on individual susceptibility.
the sugar load — excess sugar can put our immune systems on alert and increase levels of pro-inflammatory messengers (cytokines) in the body. Sugar is abundant in processed foods and often hidden in “low-fat” and “no-fat” dressings and sauces. Keep in mind that although honey and pure maple syrup may be less refined sources of sugar than white sugar (and carry tiny amounts more of trace minerals/vits), they are still very much sugars and operate like sugars in the body. I happen to enjoy their taste but nutritionally there is very little difference between them so the focus should really be on the overall load/quantity used.
4. Be aware of the role of Stress – this is possibly one of the most important and least appreciated keys to digestive vitality. Proper digestion depends on the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” branch of our nervous system). During times of stress, it is our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response) that takes over and digestion begins to shut down.
Stress is one of our body’s most powerful, adaptive responses. It triggers the release of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol which prepare us for fight or flight. When this happens, certain body systems become more acute or higher functioning (blood pressure, visual acuity, mobility reflexes) while others, deemed not essential or unsafe, begin to shut down. When there’s a saber-toothed tiger on the scene, the stress response makes a great deal of sense and may well save our life. The difficulty is when we start seeing saber-toothed tigers on every corner (in our home, at the office, in our cars, etc) — we begin to live in situations of chronic stress where we are continuously triggering the stress response in our bodies and preventing the rest and digest branch from doing its job. The last thing that is safe for us to do when preparing for fight or flight is to spread a picnic blanket and enjoy a relaxing meal.
Whether our saber-toothed tigers are real or imagined, they have the same effect on our bodies
5. Engage the Relaxation Response — once we become aware of the link between stress and digestion, the next step is to engage the rest and digest branch of our nervous system. There are many effective ways to promote this response and each of us will have our preferences. Experimenting with different modalities is often the key. I touched on many relaxation techniques in this feature, but the one I want to highlight today is breathing.
Breathing techniques have been an integral part of wellness practices throughout Asia for centuries. Lauded for their ability to calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve sleep, digestion and mental clarity, breathing exercises do not require any special equipment or membership and you can practice them anywhere — while you’re stuck in traffic, standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for takeoff or trying to fall back to sleep in the comfort of your bed.
The idea with breathing exercises is that when practiced regularly, we start to feel the benefits not only during the directed breathing itself (voluntary nervous system) but also eventually in our day-to-day actions and reactions to things (involuntary nervous system) – and that is the true gift. Here are two methods for consideration:
◊ Diaphragmatic/ Belly Breathing — most of us are chest breathers (thoracic breathers) particularly when we are stressed, anxious or upset, we tend to take short, shallow breaths without fully engaging our diaphragm (the muscle beneath our ribcage). Breathing with a fully expanded tummy allows us to benefit from deeper, fuller breaths, while calming our nervous system as we go along. Herbert Benson (Harvard physician) describes the belly breathing method in his book The Relaxation Response, as follows:
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose allowing your belly to fully expand (like a pregnant tummy) – exaggerate this motion to get the idea – hold the position for a count of 3 seconds (eventually moving up to 5)
- Exhale gently through your nose or pursed lips if preferred – the diaphragm will relax as the tummy moves back to its resting position
- There is little or no upper chest movement – place one hand on your chest and one hand over your belly. You should feel your belly hand extending and your chest hand staying relatively still
- Practice 10 series of breaths (inhale/exhale) and if you find your mind wandering, gently but firmly return your focus to the breath, counting as you go along
◊ 4-7-8 Breathing — the 4-7-8 breathing method is another technique (likely originating from India) that has been adopted in the West. One of my favorite interpreters is Andrew Weil (American pioneer of Integrative Medicine and graduate of Harvard Medical School). I first came across the 4-7-8 breathing method back in 2011 when I was preparing a research piece on digestion and relaxation. I will describe the method verbally but for a more helpful visual demonstration, you can view the video link below.
- Place the tip of your tongue gently and loosely against the ridge behind your front teeth; keep it there throughout the exercise
- Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound.
- Then, with mouth closed, inhale deeply and quietly through your nose for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 7, and exhale audibly through your mouth for a count of 8.
- Repeat the exercise for a total of 4 breath cycles twice a day. After a month, if you’re comfortable with it, increase to 8 breaths each time.
Here is a clip of Andrew Weil’s demonstration (there are fancier versions that have been recreated but this one remains my favorite in terms of background and technique – if it doesn’t work in your geographic area simply google 4-7-8 + Weil for a video demo that does): The-4-7-8-Breath-Benefits-and-Demonstration.
Rule out Medical Causes — if you are living with chronic and persistent gastrointestinal discomfort, be sure to follow-up with your trusted health care practitioner to investigate any underlying medical causes for your symptoms.
The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.