What we absorb or digest properly has more importance than what we eat. And key to this is health of the digestive, or Gastro Intestinal (GI) tract. I’m referring here to avoiding the worst that can happen: malabsorption and the lack of absorption of nutrients and food. In this post I’m going to go into some tips and rituals to take care of your tummy!
A quick request …
Mise en place
To optimize absorption and get the most from your food, firstly make sure you’re calm and in a good mood before eating – stress will shut down and stop the digestive process, so make sure you wind down. If you are hurried or stressed, consider having something sweet, like a banana: the sugar may well calm down your adrenals and allow your body ready for food.
In addition, create a ritual to feel grateful for your food: this will help to trigger your body into a receptive “rest and digest” state. My favourite ritual is saying a prayer of grace whilst touching my hands in prayer to my forehead. “Grace” and being gracious is a wonderful way to describe how we can be when we are deeply nourishing ourselves at our meals.
Next, smell and appreciate the smell of your food – as you do you’ll be unconsciously liberating digestive fluids ready to go to action on that food. And have a digestif, such as lemon juice in water, or bitters – these will help the stomach become acidic enough to digest food properly.
Now, most importantly, remember to chew! Not only does this break down food mechanically, chewing also stimulates the release of digestive juices. So it helps to chew whilst having a smoothie or juice!
Finally, allow yourself to begin absorption after your meal. Create at least a 30 minute pause before grabbing a cup of coffee or a tea. Caffeinated drinks like these will simply fire up your adrenals and take you out of rest and digest mode. So get into the habit of taking a break after a meal and even treating yourself to a nice gentle walk. Your body will be much happier for this!
In the end, the Gastro Intestinal tract is an orchestra of different parts that all act in a wondrous symphony to absorb nutrients. And it can be assisted with tastes that are out of this world – such as inspired dishes using health promoting super spices (detailed below). In addition, dietary sources of fiber (from whole grains, legumes, beans, vegetables and fruit) are also key to GI health.
Spices that aid digestion
- Umbelliferae family seeds (Anise, Caraway, Dill, Fennel): help expel gas (carminative) and relax intestinal spasms (antispasmodic)
- Cardamom: carminative, digestant, stimulant, treats indigestion and flatulence
- Cayenne pepper and paprika: contains capsaicin which acts as digestive and anti-ulcer aid, treats indigestion, stimulates salivary flow and increase secretion of digestive fluids in stomach
- Cinnamon: sedative for smooth muscle (eg that lines GI tract and enacts peristalisis), carminative, digestant, diuretic, antibiotic, anti-ulcerative, stimulates weak digestion
- Cloves: contains Eugenol (and other components) which prevent digestive tract cancers, help liver function (detoxification environmental toxins), and are anti-bacterial
- Coriander seed: carminative and digestive aid; stimulates conversion of cholesterol to fat digesting bile acids in liver
- Cumin: stimulates secretion of pancreatic enzymes; digestive aid and effective for flatulence; anti-bacterial; anti-fungal; enhances liver’s detoxification enzymes
- Dill seed: contains Monoterpenes (including carvone, limonene, anethofuran) that activate and assist liver in eliminating toxins. Flavonoids assist carminative and sedative properties
- Ginger: carminative, alleviates symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, promotes elimination of intestinal gas, promotes intestinal spasmolytic (substance that relaxes and soothes the intestinal tract)
- Nutmeg: Carminative; Anti-diarrheal actions including improving intestinal tone and inhibiting intestinal contractions stimulated by irritating agents; food preservative, disinfectant and antiseptic of animal and plant pathogens and food poisoning and spoilage bacteria
- Pepper (Black): Carminative and stimulates taste buds to prompt secretion of stomach acids; Anti-bacterial and Anti-oxidant; contains Peperine which increases absorption of nutrients such as selenium, B vitamins and beta-carotene, supports and enhances the liver’s detoxification processes
The process of digestion
- Digestion begins in the mind with the Cephalic phase, whereby sensory awareness prepares the body for digestion by promoting release of digestive enzymes throughout the body.
- The second phase is chewing in the mouth, a mechanical process which breaks down the food and mixes it with enzymes in the mouth. Swallowing takes the food to the third stage of digestion – in the stomach, where food is mixed with Gastric Acid, a chemical process of breaking down the food into smaller parts ready for absorption.
- The third phase happens as bile from the liver and digestive enzymes from the Pancreas are added and further break down the food.
- The fourth phase occurs as food passes through the Small Intestine where nutrients, now small enough, are absorbed.
- The next stage occurs as all the blood from the digestive tract is fed to the Liver for filtering.
- The final stage occurs as food passes through the Large Intestine, where food is processed for elimination.
The liver plays such a pivotal role in digestion. When i realised this, i did an in depth study about it to learn how to optimise liver health. Put simply, all the blood from the digestive tract passes firstly through the liver for filtering and the initial stage of processing the nutrients before it travels to the rest of the body. So give your liver some huggy love – its doing an amazing job!
- Milk thistle: helps protect liver from toxic damage. Milk thistle is traditionally used for liver disorders. This herb contains Silymarin, which is an antioxidant, to help prevent free radical damage in the liver due to toxins. Silymarin also increases the glutathione content of the liver. The most interesting effect of milk thistle in the liver is its ability to stimulate protein synthesis. This results in an increase in the production of new liver cells to replace the damaged old ones.
- Dandelion: increases bile flow, thus helping liver to detoxify, as well assisting fat digestion. Dandelion root has an extremely high nutrient content, increasing bile flow, improving liver congestion, bile duct inflammation and gallstones.
- Schisandra berry: liver protective as well as calming to the adrenals
This post is adapted from a study paper I have posted which has complete details about digestion
A quick request …
Marieb, E.N. (2009). The essentials of human anatomy and physiology. San Francisco, C.A.: Pearson Education
Murray, M. (2001). Total body tune-up. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Press
Murray, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Healing Food. New York, N.Y.: Atria Books
Murray, M. (1998). The complete book of juicing. Roseville, CA: Prima publishing
Haas, E. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, Ca. Celestial Healing Arts.
Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schlitz, B., Schmidt, M., Lerman, R., Quinn, S., Jones, D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Second Edition. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.