Do’s and Don’ts to Optimizing Your Digestion

Whether you turn on the TV, chat at the gym, or go to a dinner party, it’s almost impossible to make it through any length of time without the subject of a “diet” coming up. We’ve heard it all –  what we should eat, what we shouldn’t, how many calories, how much protein, and it goes on and on. What we don’t talk about enough though is digestion. What you eat is important, but what your body absorbs is even more important!

None of us want overt digestive problems or symptoms like heartburn, bloating, nausea, gas, constipation, or diarrhea, but there’s much more to it than that. Our digestive system doesn’t get near the respect and notoriety of other organs systems, like the heart and brain for instance, but the truth is that our immune system and our metabolism are almost completely dependent on the optimal health of our digestive tract. And that starts with properly and completely digesting our food.

At times we may notice difficulty digesting particular types of food, like proteins, or high fiber carbs, which may signal deficiencies in stomach acid enzymes. But more often than not, digestion can be substantially improved with a few simple, yet critically important techniques – techniques which we may already know, but don’t implement consistently.

Let’s look at some important  Do’s and Don’ts that can help optimize your digestion.

 THINGS TO AVOID / DON’T DO / OR BE CAREFUL WITH:

Don’t drink too much water with meals. We know drinking lots of pure water is critical for optimal health and fat metabolism – but limit drinking during meals so that the important digestive acids and enzymes don’t get diluted, which can in turn severely impair proper digestion. This is especially important with protein-based meals, as highly concentrated stomach acids are required for proper digestion.

Don’t recline or lay down within at least two hours after eating––it’s a gravity thing. Laying down increases the chance that digesting food (along with the stimulated acids and enzymes) will flow back up the esophagus and irritate the lining which causes heartburn, and over time, can even increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Avoid processed foods as much as possible. Good digestion starts with whole, healthy natural foods which are digested much more efficiently than processed foods loaded with chemicals.

Avoid fried foods which are laden with fats, and unhealthy fats at that. Such fats are more difficult to digest and high in Omega 6’s which are known to increase cell-damaging free radicals and are linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Be careful with spices. Depending on your physiology, hot spices like jalapeño, red peppers, Tabasco, onions, and/or garlic can all increase the risk of heartburn. Some people need to avoid these types of spices completely, or else pay the price.

Be careful with acidic foods. This could include tomatoes, citrus fruits, and vinegar. Heartburn may manifest depending on your sensitivity, and if these foods are eaten alone or as part of a larger meal.

Avoid Alcohol. Given how many people enjoy their beer, wine, or cocktails this can be a tough one to listen to, but alcohol can increase stomach acids as well as relax the sphincter valve muscles at the top of the stomach, increasing the risk of reflux and heartburn.

Be careful with caffeine. Coffee is itself an acidic drink and the accompanying caffeine also increases stomach acid and relaxes the sphincter valve muscles. In combination, this can lead to heartburn and/or upset stomach. This may be especially true if coffee is drank independently of a meal, as food can help reduce acid levels.

Avoid / stop smoking! Do we really need to talk about why smoking is BAD? Ok…Smoking stimulates the nervous system (when you should be relaxing to eat), it also increases stomach acid, risk of heartburn, and the risk of stomach cancers (along with lung and other cancers).

 THINGS THAT CAN HELP ENHANCE DIGESTION:

CHEW…a lot! Common sense, right? But most of us don’t chew our food nearly enough. Chewing is the first, and one of the most important phases of digestion. The mechanical breakdown of food increases the surface area so that stomach acids and enzymes can do their job more efficiently. So…how much should we chew each mouthful to optimize digestion? Controlled studies suggest a mouthful of food should be chewed 30-40 times before swallowing!

Eat slowly. This goes along with proper chewing, but the bottom line is we want to enjoy our food––chew adequately and allow the digestive process to take place naturally rather than being forced. This will help optimize digestion as well as curtain overeating.

Don’t eat if you are upset. Stress, and the main stress hormone cortisol, is terrible for digestion. Being upset stimulates the “fight or flight” side of your nervous (sympathetic) system rather than the relaxation (parasympathetic) side of your nervous system.

Eat fermented foods. This is hugely important because fermented foods help maintain a healthy balance and diversity of the gut biome––that is the bacteria that digests your food and is the heart and soul of your immune system. Foods in this category include probiotic yogurts, blue cheese, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, miso, and kefir. Even if these aren’t your favorite, it can just take a little bit to get the job done.

Get plenty of fiber. Fiber is the pre-biotic that feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut! Plus, fiber actually assists in the digestion of foods and can help absorb and prevent the absorption of dietary fats, as well as reduce cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is best for absorbing fats, including oat bran, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Take a stroll. Going for a slow, relaxing walk can also help with the digestion process and assist with intestinal motility. This is not meant to be a power walk, but just a 15 minute stroll enjoying the outdoors will do nicely.

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About the Author: Dr. Tom Deters

Dr. Tom Deters is the former Editor in chief and publisher of Muscle & Fitness magazine and publisher of both FLEX and Men’s Fitness magazines. He has published hundreds of articles and given hundreds of seminars on training, performance nutrition, diet strategy and bodyfat control.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.