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Food Hygiene: How to Optimize Your Digestion

And Absorption Of Nutrients From Your Food

By Beth Dorsey L.Ac, FABORM

If you suffer from heartburn, malabsorption, constipation or diarrhea, you may want to know about a concept called Food Hygiene. Despite its name, food hygiene has nothing to do with the cleanliness of your food. It has everything to do with improving your digestion, absorption of nutrients from your food, the ease of your bowel movements, and your overall experience of eating food. Here are 6 ways to optimize your digestion:

1)   Spend time preparing your food.   Digestion does not begin in the stomach, nor in the mouth during chewing. Digestion actually starts in the head with a cascade of nerve signaling and chemicals.  The cascade is triggered in part by our experience of preparing our food—thinking about it, touching it, smelling it, tasting it—taking it in with all of our senses causes us to salivate, our stomach to create the stomach acid, our pancreas to release the enzymes, and our gallbladder to create bile needed for digestion. This cascade is not triggered with the same force by the opening of a package or by picking up an already prepared meal.  If eating on the go, take a moment to take it all in (like you would if you were preparing it yourself). This will allow you to break down and absorb the nutrients from your food more efficiently and completely.

2)   Enjoy ½ teaspoon of apple cider vinegar (or other bitters) ideally about 15 minutes before eating.  The smell and taste of the vinegar in your mouth will also promote the digestive cascade.  Specifically, it triggers a digestive hormone, cholecystokinin, to be released and this causes the digestive juices and enzymes of the stomach, pancreas and intestines to be released.  It preps the whole body to be ready to break down and absorb food.  Sometimes patients who have experienced acid reflux in the past may worry that it will be too acidic for them.  This is not so.  Although we think of apple cider vinegar as acidic, it is much less so than stomach acid.  In fact, it often greatly improves reflux by tonifying the overall action of digestion.  There are many approaches to treating the cause of acid reflux without proton pump inhibitors or antacids, which only cover up the symptom of an imbalance and  can predispose you to osteoporosis and as well as to other preventable conditions.  The apple cider vinegar is not a permanent ritual, but one that if people do for a few months while digestion is getting back on track, and also at times when they are unable to prepare a meal, they can benefit from that stimulus to digestion.  Apple cider vinegar is also an excellent source of minerals and has many other health benefits, so if you choose to make it a lifelong ritual, more power to you.

3)   Drink fluids AWAY from food. It’s ok to take small sips of water as needed during a meal, but don’t chug a whole glass. Try to avoid drinking substantial amounts within 20 minutes before or after a meal.  The idea behind this is very simple. It allows the digestive juices to stay concentrated and therefore better able to break down food.  Better break down of food allows for better availability and absorption of nutrients. This is one way that conditions of nutrient deficiency, such as anemia, are linked to the way food is eaten. Still, please aim to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water per day; just try to do it between meals.

4)   Eat in a calm environment, eat sitting down, take a few calm conscious breaths first, avoid stressful conversations and concentrate on your food rather than a newspaper, a computer screen or other work. These suggestions are all designed to relax your nervous system. Input from the nervous system impacts digestion in the extreme. So often, we’re eating on the go, and our bodies are in flight or fight, stress mode. That is a stressed out, danger mode where your body is on alert; it is what kept our ancestors safe from predators. When in this mode, the body perceives that it has bigger priorities than digestion. In fact, the body shunts blood away from the digestive system and into the limbs, so that we can run for our lives if we need to. The opposite state has been referred to as “rest and digest.”  In other words, for proper digestion to occur, the nervous system needs to be calm and relatively stress-free. Anything you can do to temporarily create this environment for yourself while you eat, will help a lot.

5)   Eat regular meals around the same time every day.  This simply gets your body in the habit of anticipating food and beginning the digestive cascade.  This can also help greatly with blood sugar balancing and cortisol regulation. Unbalanced blood sugar (too high, too low, or simply not even) can contribute to anxiousness, fatigue and light-headedness, among other symptoms. Cortisol dysregulation can have devastating, long- term effects on your energy, sleep patterns and immune system. Eating regular meals contributes to overall harmony and rhythm in the body, two things which are generally lacking and needing to be reinstated in people suffering from anxiousness or depression.

6)   Put your fork down and CHEW. Chew your food until it becomes liquid in your mouth, then swallow it.  Some people say chew each bite 31 times, but we don’t really want you to count each chew. That takes the fun out of eating. Chewing your food until it liquifies allows the food to begin being digested both chemically through the saliva and mechanically by your teeth before hitting the stomach. Thorough breakdown in the beginning means better absorption of nutrients from your food, and easier bowel movements in the end.  When food isn’t properly broken down in the mouth, it can easily ferment in the gut, causing pathogenic bacteria to flourish. When you chew thoroughly, you will be able to notice when you are full much easier, rather than shoveling in the food and overeating.

Start with fostering just one or two of these habits and eventually they will become just that—habits.  You might start with eating breakfast at the same time every day, sitting down, taking a few conscious breaths and committing to chewing at least the first five forkfuls thoroughly.  Over time you can add in more of these habits, and your digestion, as well as overall health, well benefit greatly.