Better tummy day by day
One of my favorite topics in health and wellbeing areas is digestion. Simply because i can't function if my stomach isn't functioning properly.
Digestion 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. The digestion process also involves creating waste to be eliminated.
According to GI Alliance:
Twenty million Americans suffer from chronic digestive diseases.
Digestive diseases necessitate 25% of all surgical operations.
Digestive diseases are one of the most prevalent causes of disability in the workforce.
More Americans are hospitalized with digestive diseases than any other condition.
Digestive diseases rank third among illnesses in total economic cost in the United States.
Fourteen million cases of acute digestive diseases are treated in this country each year, including one-third of all malignancies and some of the most common acute infections.
Digestive diseases represent one of the Nation's most serious health problems in terms of discomfort and pain, personal expenditures for treatment, working hours lost, and mortality.
Colorectal cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death among American men and women – and is responsible for over 51,000 deaths annually.
So as you can see the case of digestion should not be taken lightly because if there is an issue, it can really decrease a quality of life. Let's look at some simple things that can help us improve the digestion and therefore our wellbeing.
Connect the dots
1. The gut-brain connection is where it all begins. Our brain, and its interpretation of our surroundings, sends the necessary signal to the nervous system within the gut, also known as the enteric nervous system, that it is time to relax and digest food. On the other hand, when stressed, our brain can signal to the enteric nervous system that it is time to shut down the digestive system and focus on more urgent responses like running away from a danger. The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut. In this way, gastrointestinal distress can be the product of (or the cause) of mental distress - butterflies no more!
So next time you sit down to eat: relax, sit comfortably, without rushing or distractions, let that the desire to eat to appear, get ready to receive the food. Exposure to the sight, smell or taste of food increases salivation and gastric activity and triggers insulin release. It’s thought that the purpose of this cascade of enzymes and hormones is to gear up the body and get it ready to optimize the digestion of food.
But it’s not just the presence of food that activates this cascade – memory, mood, emotions and associations all play a part. Cues that have been linked with food in the past can set the whole sequence going.
Even just thinking about food gets the system buzzing!
The main purpose of eating is to consume and absorb the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy. Chewing your food well will support your digestion. The physical process of chewing food in your mouth helps to break down larger particles of food into smaller particles, increasing the surface area and making it easier for nutrients to be broken down for absorption. Throughout the chewing process, the body undergoes several processes that trigger digestion. Digestion is one of the most energy-consuming processes of the body, so chewing your food well helps prepare the rest of the body.
It may not sound sexy but chewing helps to reduce stress on the oesophagus and helps the stomach metabolize and break down the food. Saliva also contains digestive enzymes that are released when chewing which assists with digestion. Your mouth releases these enzymes that pass into the throat and stomach which further improves the digestive process.
Taking your time with food is very important also: it takes about 20 to 25 minutes for the hormones (our chemical messengers) to reach your brain to tell you that you're full so leisurely eating allows ample time to trigger that signal.
So if you were told as a kid to close the mouth and chew - they had a point!
Sleep on it
Lack of sleep plays a huge role in increasing stress levels which in turn affect the gut:
cortisol rises during the times when it was supposed to be at the lowest - like around midnight - suppressing the digestive system since it's not "essential" during the stressful situations; immune system creates an excess of pro-inflammatory cytokines, resulting in inflammation. And we know that a variety of digestive disorders are due to inflammation in the gut: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis. These all lead to imbalance of the gut bacteria (our gut hosts a complex community of over 100 trillion microbial cells which influence human physiology, metabolism, nutrition and immune function) and potentially even leaky gut (or increased intestinal permeability) — where food and toxins are able to pass through the intestine and into the bloodstream. This can lead to even more tummy troubles like bloating, inflammation, stomach pains, food sensitivities, and changes to the gut microbiome. Research shows that the more diverse gut flora can help us better absorb the nutrients from the food, as well as improve unpleasant digestive problems like bloating, pain, and diarrhea.
Tips on sleep
Even though your digestive system still works while you snoozing, give it a rest: staying up late and heavy meals, alcohol, exercising, cup of joes right before bedtime keep the digestive system busy instead of doing housekeeping tasks like repairing and growing. Also too little sleep results in increase of cortisol levels by 40% which slows down metabolism and triggers a 33% increase in hunger and cravings.
Get it moving
Physical activity plays a huge role in overall health and wellbeing. More specifically working out not only helps you digest food better, it also changes the composition of your gut microbiome – making you healthier from the inside out. Studies show that exercising even improve IBS symptoms and thanks to the natural endorphins released during workouts, it can help with chronic abdominal pain/ discomfort as well.
When you exercise, your body isn’t using its energy for digestion. Instead, it slows it down so that the muscles and lungs can get much needed blood. But since there are muscles in the digestive system, regular physical activity strengthens them as well, stimulating the gut, increasing intestinal activity to allow food to pass through it much quicker, even at rest, improving intestinal motility and elimination.
Another benefit of exercising is that certain gut disease - fighting microbes (about 80% of the immune system lives in the gi track) are favored and become stronger. This means not only do you get the immediate benefits of exercise like mental and physical strength and detoxification that comes with sweating – you also get the benefits of a healthier digestive system, long after you finish working out.
We've already touched base on stress but perhaps the most significant step for a better digestion is managing the stress levels.
When we’re stressed, our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system or flight-or-fight response: it prepares the body to protect itself against danger by shutting down functions that aren’t needed for survival at the moment like digestion. The emptying of the stomach is delayed, which can lead to a tummy ache, indigestion, heartburn and nausea. This will create even more stress on the body - aka a vicious circle of rising stress levels that lead to gut problems which lead to more stress.
But let's not forget the parasympathetic nervous system or "rest and digest" response. It controls the body’s ability to relax and helps maintain daily functions like your resting heart rate (heart rate while your body is at rest), the metabolism and the release of saliva to promote digestion. It also enacts peristalsis, or the movement of the stomach and intestines, to digest food as well as release bile for the body to digest fats. Essentially, the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the danger has passed.
We definitely want to activate this system around the meal times by:
eating in a relaxed state of mind and environment (not on the go, scrolling on the phone or even worse while driving)
create a sustainable routine for the meals (menu, time, place etc.)
finding mindfulness techniques that work for your personality (meditation, prayer, support from a friend etc.)
Notice how i didn't include the nutrition in this topic because starting with these simple steps is more attainable than changing your entire diet which should be personalized to you and your tummy. If you need help with that, i'm here for you!