Now that I’m done nutrition school, I often talk to my friends about little simple ways they can improve their digestion. Health really starts as basic (or not so basic, digestion). After all, you can be drinking all the green juice and eating all the kale in the world you want but if you’re not digesting your food properly, what’s the point right? I have learned so much invaluable information attending CSNN (Canadian Institute of Natural Nutrition) that I wanted to share my absolute basics to help your digestion with you.
Disclaimer: This list is meant to be helpful for the average person. However, there can be rare cases where some of these recommendations may aggravate your specific issue as every body is unique so I’d always suggest speaking with a Naturopath, Holistic Nutritionist or Functional Medicine Doctor to discuss your specific situation. I can also suggest some trial and error. If you try something and it doesn’t feel right to you, STOP 🙂 . Listen to that gut instinct! So let’s jump to it then!
- Chew your food. Sounds basic right? But most of us are in such a hurry running around or eating between shifts or whatever that we often end up shoveling our meals into our mouths. I know I’m guilty of rarely sitting at a table to eat like I did with my parents growing up. Digestion actually starts in the mouth due to the many enzymes that are present. So if you find yourself having trouble digesting your food, I’d start with this simple easy and CHEAP tip!
- Start your day right. Start your day with lemon juice (1 tbsp) + room temperature or warm water. If you don’t like lemon juice, you can also use apple cider vinegar (ACV) but the latter has a slightly funky taste so if you’ve never had ACV, stick to the lemon juice to start! There are two reasons for this: #1) when we wake up, we are usually at least slightly dehydrated. The majority of us don’t drink water (or very much) during the night so after 8 hours or so of sleep, it is natural that we would need some liquid in the morning to flush our body and #2) we want to create an acidic environment in our stomach. Our stomach is meant to be acidic. Proper acidity is actually crucial as it prevents pathogens we may ingest from doing us harm (as they can be neutralized in the stomach) and activates key digestive enzymes – aka ensuring proper digestion.
- Soak, Sprout and Ferment. For optimal digestion, it’s best to soak, sprout or ferment certain foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes because they contain phytic acid. The biggest issue by not doing this is that phytic acid can bind to certain minerals, such as iron, zinc, manganese and even calcium to slow or hinder their absorption, which you obviously don’t want. I try to do this when I can and avoid making it hard or tedious. You can easily incorporate this tip. For example: make some overnight oats, soak your beans overnight or sprout some almonds! If you find it hard to absorb these foods, then DEFINITELY try this tip out! There’s also lots of good products on the market that have done the work for you so if it’s in your budget, splurge on sprouted products next time.
- Cook your greens. This is sort of the same idea as #3 above but foods such as spinach, brussel sprouts, swiss chard, kale, beet greens, endive as well as many others contain oxylates. Oxylates prevent the absorption of certain minerals, which are reduced when food is cooked. I’m not saying to never eat a salad again because I do love my salads and foods do lose some nutrients when they are heated but just to be aware of this if you eat a lot of raw foods, juices etc. and are experiencing digestive discomfort. I think it’s best to have a balance between raw and cooked foods, depending on the season of course. I tend to have more raw vegetables in the summer vs. winter.
- Eat probiotic + prebiotic rich foods. Probiotics are “good” live microorganisms that help your gut stay in balance symbiotically with “bad” bacteria, yeasts etc. that may be present in there. Back in the day, our ancestors used ferments as a way to preserve food and thus got plenty of it in their diets. These days, with the advancement of our society, we have stopped eating the same amount of probiotic rich food as even our parents did. There’s so much research being done on the gut and how much the microbiome really matters that I think the next few years will be super interesting as more studies are published but for now, I try to eat as much probiotic foods as I can! Some examples of probiotic foods to incorporate are saukerkraut, miso, kimchi (my favourite), yogurt (if you can tolerate it), kefir etc. Make sure your products such as saukerkraut are actually fermented in brine (lactic acid fermentation) and not just pickled using vinegar. The latter will not contain the probiotic benefits you are looking for. The best way to do this is check the ingredients and buy from the refrigerated section at the grocery store instead of the shelf stable products. Additionally, don’t forget to eat your prebiotic foods. These are simplistically fibre that probiotics need as food and to thrive. Some examples of prebiotics are: Onion, Garlic, Jerusalem Artichoke, Chicory, Asparagus etc.
- Avoid foods you’re sensitive to. This might sound obvious but it really isn’t because often times we consume certain foods regularly and don’t realize that our symptoms and that food are related. If we continue to consume foods that we are intolerant to, we are constantly calling on the body’s immune system and resources to show up and heal the inflammation. Some inflammation in the body isn’t bad. That is how our muscles grow after the gym for example. However, chronic inflammation is and is likely linked to many issues further down in our lives. If you don’t know what a possible allergen is for you, there are many tests out there (not all credible so make sure you trust the test/ practitioner) such as Vega testing, muscle testing or even blood work. A lot of people who strongly believe only in Western medicine have negative things to say about the reliability of some of these tests and only trust blood tests but really if it tells you you’re sensitive to x, you cut out x and you feel better…then more power to you! If you don’t have the resources to afford those tests, as they can be quite pricey, you could do an elimination diet. The idea being to remove common allergens from your diet for about 6 weeks and then slowly reintroducing 1 food at a time and seeing how your body reacts to them again. This is tough because you need to try each food in isolation and see how you feel before and after and then give it time to clear the system before trying another food. Personally, I went the muscle testing method route and have been cow dairy-free for probably 5 years? I can’t even remember anymore. I wrote a blog post about why it was the best thing I ever did, which you can read here.
- Eat enough fibre. There are 2 types of fiber – soluble fiber, which is soft and turns into a gel like substance when it absorbs water and insoluble fiber, which isn’t broken down in our bodies so it adds bulk to our stool. We need both types for healthy digestion and luckily some foods contain both like flax seeds! Soluble fiber slows down the absorption of sugar and cholesterol in the body and helps keep us full longer, which is great if you are trying to lose weight. Additionally, soluble fiber has prebiotic benefits (as written at #5 above). The Government of Canada recommends that adult women get 28g per day and men get 38g per day of fibre. This isn’t always an easy number to get and it’s estimated that half of the population isn’t meeting their fibre needs. For example, a small apple only has 3.6g of fiber, a banana has 2.6g of fiber and 1/4 cup of steel cut oats has 5g of fiber. I try to incorporate high fiber foods into my diet so I can get close to or reach my fibre intake. For example: 2 tbsp Chia seeds gets you 11g of fibre! I think you get the point :).
- Digestive Enzyme Supplement.
I don’t recommend digestive enzymes as something to rely on (without taking steps to fix the root cause) but more so if you are going to a dinner party, short vacation or other special occasion where you know you won’t be eating the best or eating foods that you may be intolerant to. Digestive enzymes are supplements that can help give you that boost in digestion when you’re in a pinch. If you’re looking for a recommendation, I’d try these ones by Thorne. Always look for a reputable brand and understand what kind of support the supplement offers. I like to use a general digestive enzyme that helps with the digestion of all the macronutrients but let’s say you really needed help with just fats, I would consult with a nutritionist and see which brands have digestive enzymes for specific issues.
I hope you found these recommendations helpful and can incorporate some into your own life! If you’re looking for more support or like more educational posts, feel free to reach out to me via email or on socials @balancingandie. p.s. Thanks for sticking with me for this long post!