Modern medicine has a way of approaching human health that involves isolating the affected systems and treating them as if they’re separate from the whole. The problem with this approach is that every system in the human body almost never functions in isolation.
This doesn’t mean that the modern approach is wrong or not useful. On the contrary, putting a broken arm in a cast is a logical thing to do to ensure proper healing. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore things like quality sleep and a healthy diet to support the immune system.
In much the same way, addressing gut problems should incorporate factors outside of the gut, particularly behaviors that use systems that promote good digestion. With that in mind, let’s 5 simple science-based tips that improve digestion.
1)Chew your food
It seems fairly intuitive, one of the first steps of the digestive process is chewing your food. But there’s actually some good science behind why spending more time chewing your food will improve your digestion. We’ll start with the obvious.
The more you chew your food the less time it needs to spend in the stomach. Without the mechanical grinding your teeth perform, the workload your stomach takes increases substantially. This higher workload will undoubtedly increase the likelihood your stomach lining becomes damaged by the greater acid secretion needed to breakdown un-chewed food down.
Chewing also increases salivary production of secretory IgA, an antibody that helps kill bacteria you swallow when you eat. Additionally, greater secretory IgA entering your gut throughout the day may also keep bacteria in your gut from overgrowing.
Finally, chewing your food increases blood flow to the organs of digestion while you’re eating. This increased blood flow provides oxygen to the cells in the gut so that there’s enough energy to carry out digestion, absorption, and mucosal defense. These processes aren’t free, and the 2 ATP created by breaking down glucose under anaerobic conditions certainly pales in comparison to the 32 ATP you get from breaking glucose down with oxygen, or the over 100 ATP you get from breaking down fat in the same manner.
So what does poor chewing get you? Poorly broken down food entering the small intestine and inadequate energy to digest it or prevent bacteria from overgrowing there. Hmmm…
2)Practice diaphragmatic breathing
Few people are aware of how important proper breathing is. Those of you who have practiced meditation or yoga have probably been clued in to this secret and powerful way to help tame the stress response. But did you know it’s also a great way to optimize digestion?
Many people breathe wrong, which is odd to say but absolutely true. Most of us breathe shallowly in to our chest primarily using the intercostal muscles that run between the ribs to expand the rib cage. This is an inefficient way to breathe and is also referred to as chest or shallow breathing.
The proper way to breathe is often referred to as diaphragmatic or belly breathing. This involves breathing in through the nose and decreasing pressure in the chest cavity by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle that runs underneath the rib cage. Breathing in this manner allows for deeper breathing and has the added benefit of stimulating the vagus nerve.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve improves digestion by increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity. The parasympathetic nervous system functions as the rest and digest arm of the autonomic nervous system. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system gears us up to digest and absorb our food. As such, practicing diaphragmatic breathing, particularly before you eat, can help promote better digestion.
3)Go for a walk before breakfast
Every animal on the planet performs some level of physical activity before eating. At the very least, they don’t just roll over and slam down a bowl of cereal. It makes sense that perhaps physical activity plays some role in preparing us for food consumption.
Unfortunately there isn’t a ton of data on this, but there is a small clinical trial that showed a 10-fold increase in bile output from the liver to the duodenum in individuals who performed physical activity after an overnight fast. This increase in bile output may function as a way of seeding the mucus layer with bile to enhance fat absorption. It could also function as a way to remove pathogenic bacteria while promoting bile resistant commensal bacteria.
And the best part is, the greatest increase happened after 20 minutes of physical activity equivalent to walking at 3.4mph. So it doesn’t require what we’d call vigorous physical activity to see a benefit.
Exercise comes in many forms from cardiovascular exercise to pilates to strength training. But as a general concept, there isn’t a single therapeutic approach that can completely transform your health more than exercise, particularly if you’re currently not doing it.
Exercise can improve gut health via many mechanisms. It promotes a healthy microbiome and helps the body more efficiently deal with endotoxin/LPS. It also improves metabolism in the gut. The next podcast will cover, in detail, the many ways that exercise improves gut health.
5)Eat on a schedule
Any discussion on digestion would be remiss without mentioning circadian rhythms. I’ve mentioned eating within a 12 hour window countless times but I think it’s important to point out that eating on a schedule may be just as important.
What do I mean? It’s simple, just eat at the same times every day. Doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? So how does it work? It works through the action of 2 hormones…probably more, but I can get the point across with 2.
Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the stomach when it’s empty to promote hunger. In addition to promoting hunger, it also increases gastric acid secretion to help digest your food. And as we follow a pretty strict eating schedule, eating at the same times every day, we get an anticipatory bump in ghrelin to promote digestion of our meals.
This makes sense. Circadian rhythms are meant to optimize our chances for success in our environment. Ghrelin functions as a hormone that motivates us to seek out food, and what better time to motivate us than a time when food continually presents itself? This would work out great in a situation where we actually had to find food, and would make us better at digestion and extracting the nutrients from it.
The health of your gut and digestion of your food should never be looked at in isolation. Much of what you do during the day will have an effect on how your gut functions, and this should be taken in to consideration if you have problems with your gut.
While data in this area is pretty sparse, there is information you can use to your advantage to give your gut a little bump. Five behaviors that you can incorporate today include:
- Chewing your food more thoroughly
- Practicing diaphragmatic breathing
- Going for a walk before breakfast
- Undertaking an exercise program
- Eating on a schedule
While I don’t believe these factors will cure someone of a nasty functional bowel disorder like IBS or IBD, I do think it reduces the risk of a flare and reduces your risk of SIBO. In my next blog and podcast I’ll dive deeper in to the mechanisms through which exercise improves the gut.