Digestive distress is an uncomfortable problem, and one that is becoming more and more common. Are you one of the nearly three-quarters of Americans that suffer from digestive distress of some kind? 
Digestive distress includes heart burn and acid reflux, stomach pains and cramps, gas and bloating, and constipation and diarrhea, to name a few. These symptoms are signs that the digestive cascade, the process of digestion starting with ingestion and ending with elimination, may not be functioning optimally.
We continue to uncover just how important gut health is on overall health, and optimal digestion is one key to good gut health. Fortunately, there are several simple ways you can improve digestion. So simple, you can begin during your next meal.
Improve Digestion by Sitting Down
Digestion is a parasympathetic process. Our culture of ‘go, go, go’ means we often eat on the run and in a stressed state. Does eating in the car while trying to make it across town during traffic sound familiar? Or maybe eating lunch at your desk while responding to email after email?
When we eat in a sympathetic, or stressed, state, our body is in ‘flight or fight’ mode and is not primed for digestion. Instead, our body is ready for action, turing on the processes that will allow us to fight or flee the perceived stressor. Digestion is not a process required in a survival situation, and it is turned off. In earlier times, a stressor was an occasional occurrence. Today, traffic or a frustrating email can elicit the same response, and these happen back to back throughout the day for many.
When we are in a parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest’ mode, our body is in a state of repair, allowing the processes that bring us to homeostasis, or balance, to turn on. The digestive cascade is primed, which allows us to digest and absorb the nutrients in our food optimally.
Take Action: Sit down and allow your body to come to a parasympathetic state before eating. Take a few deep breaths and relax. Step away from your work station and electronics. If you have trouble getting into a parasympathetic state on your own, consider using an essential oil blend to help induce the state, such as Vibrant Blue Oils Parasympathetic blend.
Improve Digestion by Taking a Moment for Thanksgiving
The digestive cascade works north to south, and it starts in the brain. Our first interactions with food are through sight and smell. These senses send information to the brain, letting it know that it’s time to produce digestive enzymes, like saliva, in anticipation of the food you’ll be enjoying. These enzymes are an important part of the digestive cascade, and when we don’t give our body the time it needs to produce them, digestion suffers.
Take Action: Spend a few moments anticipating your food before you dig in. Say a prayer or share a thought of thanksgiving for the meal, and allow your brain to process the messages your senses are sending. Improving the first step in the digestive cascade will result in improvements throughout the cascade.
Improve Digestion by Chewing Your Food
After sight and smell, chewing, or mastication, is the next step in the cascade. A significant amount of food breakdown, both chemical and mechanical, is designed to occur in the mouth. As we chew, we physically break down food with our teeth. Chewing (along with the sight and smell of food), produces saliva, which begins the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates. By thoroughly chewing, our brain also has time to send signals downstream to produce needed digestive juices.
According to a recent study*, the average number of chews before swallowing a bite of food is six.  This lack of chewing has several impacts on the digestive cascade.
First, the brain does not receive signals to trigger downstream digestive juices for the type of food that you are ingesting.
Next, with fewer chews, less saliva is produced. This results in less salivary amylase t0 chemically break down carbohydrates. When the ill-digested carbs move down the digestive cascade, amylase produced by the pancreas is not able to make up for the lack of break down in the mouth. Undigested carbs continue to move down the cascade, enter the colon, and can contribute to candida and general dysbiosis.
And last, we put a heavy burden on our stomach by passing large chunks of food. The stomach is designed to continue the digestion of well-chewed food, which is called ‘bolus’. While the stomach does have the ability to mechanically break down food, it is not designed to handle the majority of the break down.
Take Action: To improve digestion, chew each bite of food for approximately thirty seconds, or forty bites, or until it is almost liquid. This definitely takes practice, so improve as you can. Engaging in a good conversation helps, as you can chew while your dining companion is speaking. Set down your fork between bites to help keep from “shoveling” in food. As Robb Wolf once said, “know the difference between a mouth and a vacuum cleaner”. And, if you need additional motivation, a study has found that people consume less food, while experiencing the same satiety, when they increase the number of chews before swallowing. 
*Nope, never thought I’d be citing a study from Subway Sandwiches on my real food nutrition blog. In full disclosure, I was a Sandwich Artist for three years in the 90s. 😉
Improve Digestion by Skipping the Water
90% of Americans suffer from low stomach acid, or hypochlorhydria, according to Dr. Jonathan Wright, in his book “Why Stomach Acid is Good for You “. A common misconception is that heart burn is caused by too much stomach acid, which leads to a burning sensation in the esophagus. However, in the vast majority of heart burn cases, low stomach acid is the culprit.
Our stomach is designed to be a highly acidic environment. Stomach acid breaks down chewed food (the bolus) into nutrients that the body can absorb. Another role of stomach acid is to disinfect the stomach and protect us by eliminating bacteria and parasites. Stomach acid is a very good thing.
In a properly functioning digestive cascade, stomach acid (and mechanical breakdown) turn the bolus into an highly acidic substance called chyme. When chyme is of the right acidity, the pyloric sphincter opens and chyme moves on to the small intestine to be absorbed.
With low stomach acid, the chyme does not reach the required acidity to move on to the small intestine. Instead, it sits in the stomach and begins to rancidity (fat), putrefy (protein), and ferment (carbs). The pressure builds as the chyme expands (think about chewed food in a warm environment), and eventually the pressure pushes the chyme up the esophagus. While the chyme is not acidic enough for the small intestine, it is much too acidic for the esophagus, and results in heart burn and GERD.
Heart burn is only one side effect of low stomach acid, and there are many others. But, good news! There are several natural ways to increase stomach acid, which I’ll cover in separate post. In the meantime, you can improve digestion by making the most of the stomach acid you DO have.
Take Action: Limit the amount of liquid you drink 15 minutes before meals and up to an hour after. When we drink during digestion, we are diluting stomach acid. Given that most of us are already running low, the last thing we want to do is make what we do have less effective. If you need to drink during a meal, go with small sips. And please, do not down a large glass of water prior to eating in the hopes of eating less!
So, what do you think? Did you try any of these simple ways to improve digestion? I’d love to hear if they help you. Let me know in the comments!