Seven Tips for Digestive Health
The ability to properly digest food is an essential foundation of great health. What does it mean to have healthy digestion? You should feel energized by the food you eat and it should feel comfortable in your stomach. In addition, you should be having regular, well formed bowel movements (1-2 a day) that pass without a need for strain. Improper digestion will have accompanying symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea/constipation, acid reflux or pain. Many other issues can be linked to the food you eat and how you digest it, including pain, skin disorders and all types of allergies.
According to the National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse (an NIH subsidiary), 60-70 million people are affected by Digestive diseases each year, 12% of all inpatient procedures. This is just what’s diagnosed and classified as disease, not taking into account what’s not seen by a doctor. Needless to say, digestive health is a major issue in our society. The good news: there are many simple and effective steps you can take on your own to improve your digestion. Many benefits come from healthy digestion: improved energy and immune function, the mind is calmer and the internal environment is able to properly eliminate toxins (leading to decreased inflammation). Try out some of these steps below (aim for a month to really see the value) and see how much your health improves.
1. Chinese Medicine
I spend a lot of time working with people who have digestive issues. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs have a long history of benefiting digestion, and can quickly start correcting issues. The approach taken will be tailored to your unique needs (check the herbology section for more on how herbs are prescribed). The system of Chinese medicine also looks at food as medicine, providing a unique and important view on the characteristics of different food types. This gives important insights into how the foods you choose affect you. As part of your treatments, you will be advised on what foods to eat and avoid to reach optimum health. If you’d like a complete view of Chinese medicine’s view of food, pick up a copy of “Healing with Whole Foods”, by Paul Pitchford.
The rest of this list involves steps you will likely be asked to incorporate into your life as a part of your wellness plan. Regardless of whether you come in for treatment, you should definitely give the rest of these a try to see how much your digestion improves.
The stomach and Spleen meridians, which are responsible for transformation of food into energy, are located in the legs and abdomen. The Spleen is said to control the limbs. When you exercise, you are activating these very important meridians, thus kick starting your digestive energy.
If you’re not doing it already, starting a moderate exercise routine is crucial to almost all aspects of health. If you are out of practice, a simple and effective first step is walking 10-30 minutes a day. Try working up to 30 minutes; you don’t have to make it very intense. Moving the limbs around can have an amazing effect on your health, especially when movement is lacking in your life. Biking, running, yoga, t’ai chi, or really almost any type of exercise will have some benefit to digestion and overall health.
3. Choosing the right foods for your body
This is a huge topic, perhaps worthy of its own post. For now, let’s start with emphasizing the concept we’ve all heard “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT”. If you eat junk food, feeling like junk is usually what happens. If you eat whole, healthy foods, you are on the road to feeling healthy and vibrant. Eating balanced meals will support you in your endeavor to feel balanced. Comfort food can be comforting, but if this is a tendency you need to be honest with yourself about how much you are eating as a response to emotional stress.
Here are some basic guidelines for choosing foods:
- Read food labels and avoid/reduce processed foods – If something was labeled “poison”, would you eat it? Unless you know what that multi-syllable ingredient is on the label, poison is the safe interpretation. There are all sorts of chemicals, colorings and additives put into processed foods. A general rule to follow would be to avoid anything with artificial flavorings, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or anything with nitrates. Research healthy and simple recipes so you can minimize use of processed foods. You’ll likely get better tasting food without the hassle you might think. To start you off, I’ve listed some recipes in the resources section; more will be on the way.
- Reduce greasy/fried food intake – Research is plentiful on this, and none of it is positive. Fats are good, just usually when it comes deep fried or in excess meat intake.
- Incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables with vibrant colors – Without going into detail, all of the brightly colored foods have potent effects on health, acting as anti-oxidants (reducing cancers), anti-inflammatories (reduce pain, improve cardiovascular health and more), and providing many essential vitamins and nutrients.
- Eating Meat is OK – you just need to eat it moderately, consciously, and balanced with healthy vegetables. Avoid high fat cuts and foods prepared with preservative laden, fatty sauces.
- Food Combining –The book, “Healing with Whole Foods”, by Paul Pitchford, discusses this thoroughly. The basic idea is that grains and proteins require entirely different pH environments to optimally digest. Therefore, eating grains and proteins at the same time can easily be a source of indigestion. Both grains and proteins do well when combined with green vegetables, just not together. Try exploring this if your stomach is constantly upset after eating.
- Food Allergies – This is a large topic that keeps getting more recognition. People are most commonly allergic to dairy, corn, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. There are skin tests and blood tests that help determine allergies to food. If you suspect you’re allergic to something (like dairy), try and avoid it entirely for 2 weeks. If you notice improvement in your symptoms, chances are you’re allergic to that substance. The good news is that you can change the way your body responds to food allergens through treatments such as NAET (click here for more info).
4. Eating cooked foods (especially hot breakfast!)
The classical texts of Chinese medicine tell us of the importance of eating hot foods. This is particularly important for breakfast. The stomach is viewed as a cauldron, which is there to take the food and start breaking it down. If we’re putting cold food in there, then we are requiring the body to work harder to heat up the food so we can digest it. So starting off the day with a hot breakfast is of utmost importance. It actually helps increase metabolism through the rest of your day.
5. Make mealtime a relaxing experience/avoid multitasking while eating.
Another important aspect of digestion is what we are doing while eating. The stomach and spleen aren’t only responsible for digesting food, but also assimilating information and thought processes. The more we have to focus, the more digestive power we require. If you are the type that likes to work during your lunch break, you are making your digestion work twice as hard. Please do yourself a favor, and try to find a peaceful space in which to eat your meals.
The concept of taking a break from eating exists in almost all cultures and is referenced in many religious texts. Practically speaking, if you constantly have digestive issues and you’re always putting substances in your body, it would make sense to take a break and let your digestion catch up with your consumption. There are many different types of cleanses. If you’ve never cleansed before, start simple. Avoid greasy, heavy foods (meat, dairy, sugar laden substances) and shift to clean foods, emphasizing items such as steamed vegetables. Often, all it takes is reducing the bad foods to effectively cleanse and start feeling well. If you’ve eaten cleanly for a month and still don’t feel well, you might want to consult a health practitioner for advice on the next step.
There are many different supplements out there to aid in digestive health. Some of the common ones include Ginger, digestive enzymes, Chamomile, probiotics, and many more. All of these listed here are safe to try. If you’ve never taken probiotics, this is a great first step. The multi strand formulas are usually the most effective; Plum Blossom has some great ones. Look for a separate post (coming soon) that describes the benefits of various supplements in greater detail.
Chinese herbalism uses a detailed method of prescribing herbs based on your entire health history. There are many formulas that work very well for many cases. If you have a more complicated history, then a unique formula can be prescribed that matches your exact needs. You might want to try this for a fully informed supplementation program, or if you’ve tried various things to no benefit in the past.
As you can see, a lot of these tips are very simple ideas. That being said, they can make powerful changes in your health. Note that these ideas shouldn’t replace proper medical supervision. If you experience continued digestive difficulty, and have already taken steps similar to the list above, seek an outside opinion. Other than that, try them out. Feel free to contact me with any questions. Be well!