10 steps to better digestion
A healthy digestive system has benefits far beyond what we normally associate with our gastrointestinal tract. As well as improving symptoms like reflux, bloating, cramping and IBS, a healthy digestive system can also affect your skin, mood, cognitive function and immunity.
This is a step-by-step guide of easy, practical things you can do support your digestion - from stimulating the enzymes that break down what you eat, to eating foods that will encourage beneficial bacteria in your gut to thrive.
1. LEMON AND WARM WATER ON WAKING
WHY? Lemon juice increases the production of stomach acid and bile, which we need to break down foods and absorb their nutrients. Starting the day with lemon in warm water kick starts your digestion so you're ready to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. If you're someone who finds it hard to stomach breakfast, lemon water can also help to stimulate your appetite.
HOW? Add the juice of half a lemon to a cup of warm water first thing in the morning.
2. PREPARE TO DIGEST
WHY? Digestion starts with sight and smell. Before you even put food in your mouth, your saliva glands are stimulated by the food that you see and the aromas you inhale (it's why we describe food as looking or smelling mouthwatering). Saliva contains enzymes that start to break down food before it reaches the stomach and this is an important stage in digestion.
HOW? Take time to look at and smell your food before you start each meal and give eating your full attention. Eating more mindfully also helps you to slow down, which benefits your digestion and makes you more aware of when you feel full.
Eating bitter foods at the start of each meal can also help to stimulate your digestive enzymes - starting with a handful of rocket or other bitter leaves is an easy way to do this.
3. CHEW YOUR FOOD
WHY? It sounds obvious, but proper chewing is all too often sacrificed when we eat in a rush or without focusing on our food. Bolting your food without chewing fully makes it much harder for your stomach to break down what you eat as it hasn't been pre-digested in your mouth. Un-chewed food can cause problems all the way through your digestive tract, including indigestion, gas and bloating and malabsorption.
HOW? Concentrate on chewing each mouthful thoroughly before swallowing. Focus on the flavour of your food as you chew, and don't lift your fork to eat more until you have swallowed the previous mouthful.
4. SIP, DON'T GLUG
WHY? Drinking lots at mealtimes can dilute your stomach acid, making it harder for it to do its job of breaking down your food.
HOW? Sip steadily throughout the day, rather than gulping down large amounts of liquids. Drink water 30 minutes either side of meals to stay hydrated without compromising your digestion.
5. STEAM, SLOW ROAST & STEW WHEN IT'S COLD OUTSIDE
WHY? Steaming and slow cooking food at lower temperatures not only helps to preserve nutrients that are heat unstable, but it also breaks food down in ways that makes it easier to digest. Digestion expends a lot of energy. In colder weather, eating warming, easily digestible foods helps your body preserve more energy for keeping warm.
HOW? Reserve eating lots of raw foods for the warmer months, and eat hot food in winter. Broths, soups, casseroles and stews retain the liquids foods are cooked in, meaning you still consume vitamins and minerals that leach into the cooking liquids.
6. FEED YOUR GOOD BACTERIA
WHY? The microbes in your gut play a central role in your digestion, immune system, metabolism and even your brain function. Keeping your gut populated with the right balance of bacterial species is therefore crucial to good health. Stress, processed foods, exposure to toxins and antibiotics are just some of the factors that can alter the numbers and balance of bacteria in the gut.
Prebiotics are types of fibre that promote good bacteria to thrive in the gut. Including prebiotic foods in your daily diet provides the fuel for good bacteria to thrive.
HOW? Apples, artichokes, asparagus, avocado, bananas, flaxseeds, garlic, jerusalem artichokes, leeks, oats, onions, peas and wholegrains all contain prebiotic fibres. If these foods are new to your diet, introduce them slowly to gradually feed the good bacteria and help to establish a healthy balance.
7. EAT YOUR PROBIOTICS
WHY? Prebiotics and probiotics go hand in hand. Probiotics are the good bacteria that the prebiotics feed. Many people turn to probiotic supplements to make sure they're getting their daily dose of bacteria, but fermented foods provide them too.
HOW? Organic live yoghurt is a good source of probiotics, as are kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh and miso.
Making your own sauerkraut is simple, cheap and one of the best ways to eat probiotics. Made in Hackney have a really simple recipe.
8. STRENGTHEN YOUR GUT
WHY? Your gut wall provides a barrier between the food you eat and the rest of your body. Maintaining a strong gut barrier helps to prevent food particles and proteins escaping the digestive system and entering the bloodstream where they can cause immune reactions. 'Leaky gut' is the term used to describe a weakened gut wall, which can lead to food intolerances and contribute to autoimmune disorders.
HOW? Eat foods that support your gut, such as cabbage, bone broth, salmon, eggs, coconut oil and avocado and avoid inflammatory foods such as sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates. Pesticides can also contribute to leaky gut, so eat organic as much as possible.
9. ELIMINATE EVERY DAY
WHY? Proper elimination is essential to healthy digestion and detoxification. Passing stools 1-3 times daily ensures that you are eliminating indigestible food matter, toxins, old hormones and bacteria. If you are not going to the toilet regularly, these substances that your digestive system and liver have worked hard to process are reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
HOW? Keep things moving by staying well hydrated (drink 2 litres of water a day) and keeping physically active to promote bowel motility. Make sure your diet includes plenty of fibre from wholegrains, fruit, veggies and legumes. And make time to go to the toilet everyday, even if it means getting up a few minutes earlier in the morning.
10. REMEMBER THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION
WHY? There is growing research into the relationship between the gut and cognitive function, mood and memory. Known as 'the second brain', the gut is home to nerve cells that communicate directly with the brain. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood is made in the gut, and affects how it constricts and relaxes. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to irritable bowel symptoms.
HOW? Being aware of the inter-connection between the gut and brain can help you to tune into digestive symptoms and your emotional state as the first step in looking after both systems.
Eating more slowly, paying attention to how food makes you feel and building relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation into your daily life can have beneficial effects on your digestion and your mind.