We may be eating all the “right” foods but as well as considering the foods we put into our bodies any holistic approach to nutrition must also consider the body’s ability to digest and assimilate all the goodness that passes through our mouths. Our digestive system tends to be overlooked as we fixate on the quest for health through nutrition. The positive impact of our food choices can be enhanced if we also give some attention to supporting our digestion. This article looks at how we can do this.
The how of eating
Digestion begins when our body is anticipating food. The smell and sight of food activate our salivary glands and prepare the pancreas to release digestive enzymes. These moments between sitting down to eat and actually putting the food into our mouths are valuable and offer an opportunity to cultivate good digestion. Any pause we can create here will be helpful. We can allow time for the sight and smell of the food to excite our digestive system; we can bring our focus to eating and let go of whatever busy-ness we are carrying; we can relax the body and move into receptive mode; we can welcome the food into our bodies.
Let’s unpack this a little further. Digestion is facilitated by the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by relaxation, the sympathetic by action. When we eat food ‘on the run’ or come to the table stressed the sympathetic nervous system is dominant and energy and blood are shunted away from the digestive system toward the brain and muscles. There is a strong physiological reason behind this simple call to relax, to slow down before eating. Eating in a relaxed state benefits digestion. Simple.
Relaxation can also include attending to posture. If we eat slumped in an armchair or twisted we can interfere with the simple mechanics of digestion. The digestive organs don’t like to be compressed. So an open but not rigid posture also facilitates digestion. And just as the state of the body is important, so is the state of the mind. These days “mindfulness” has become something of a buzzword and we can bring this too as a support to digestion. If we eat mindfully, savouring and appreciating our food, two important things happen. One, we open the body to nourishment at deeper levels. Two, we notice when we are full.
In Chinese medicine we understand that emotions and states of mind impact our Qi. Worry, the emotion associated with our digestive system, knots the Qi. This manifests as tension in the digestive system and inhibits our ability to digest clearly. Anger causes our Qi to rise. As digestion requires downward movement Chinese medicine (and wise people all over the world!) advise not eating when angry.
It is not just our emotional state that effects our digestion. Our beliefs are also key players. There are two effects created by our beliefs, the placebo and nocebo effects, which are increasingly talked about and researched. In the study of the effectiveness of pharmaceutical medicines, both the positive and negative beliefs of patients have been shown to enhance or block a drug’s effectiveness. The same applies to food. If we believe that a food is good for us it is more likely to be so and if we believe a food is harmful the same is true. If we are in that particularly modern state of neurotic obsession with what we eat, we are already in trouble.
I don’t want to underplay this. What we believe can become real. Sham surgery has been shown to create real healing, the fear of death can cause death. I cannot tell you the amount of harm that is done by those who project their own fears on to food and lead thousands into ever increasing anxiety and confusion about what they eat. But I am in danger of ranting….
So now we are relaxed, mindful, positive in our beliefs and appreciating our food. What next? Once food is in the mouth we have the opportunity to chew. Some of us wolf the food down and leave this work to the stomach. However, chewing is another aspect of good digestion. Chewing begins the breakdown of sugars; prepares food for the stomach by breaking it down and warming it; and slows us down enough to appreciate the food and regulate our appetite.
Once food arrives in the stomach it remains there for between thirty minutes and a few hours. The stomach churns and gyrates, spraying the food with hydrochloric acid and breaking it down into soup, stabilising it at just above blood temperature. This is all in a good days work for a healthy digestion but when the digestive system is weak, what then?
If we deliver food to the stomach ready made into soup we are lessening its workload. If we puree the soup we make its work even easier. Therefore in convalescence or times when the digestive force is weak we give soup. Part of supporting our digestive system is assessing its strength and preparing foods accordingly. A robust system will be very tolerant, a weak one needs help and one way of doing this is to offer warm foods well broken down by cooking.
In Chinese medicine we have a notion of “digestive fire” which we call the Spleen Yang. In Ayurvedic medicine it is called “agni”. Supporting digestion means taking care of this fire. In practice this means avoiding excessive and continuous consumption of cold energy foods and refrigerated foods and giving preference to warm energy cooked foods. As digestion is a warm process it is also considered wise to avoid consuming chilled drinks with food. In fact, overconsumption of fluids of any temperature with a meal is seen as weakening digestion by diluting the digestive juices.
It is also better not to shock the digestive system, either by excessively consuming cold foods such as ice cream or hot foods such as chillis. Sudden changes of diet can also shock the system such as a sudden switch to raw foods or a fast entered without proper preparation. Even erratic eating patterns can distress the digestion. A regular and varied diet, going easy on extremes, is the best option. And changes need to come gently.