Optimizing Your Digestion

Digestion doesn't start once our food hits our stomach. It starts way back when we first lay eyes on the food. Our eyes send a signal to our brain that something good is coming.

Brenda Godinez Unsplash

Wendy Behenna May 9, 2022

The phase before our food hits our stomach is a very important part of digestion called the Cephalic Phase. It's the phase of getting our digestive system primed for what's to come. The stomach starts to respond to seeing, smelling and even thinking about food. This phase is responsible for 20% to 50% of our gastric secretions and hormones that aid in our digestion.

Important Conditions for this Phase to Work Optimally

Our body's need to be in a relaxed state in order for the cephalic phase to work optimally. It's a rest and digest mode or often referred to as the parasympathetic nervous system. Our food moves through the different stages of digestion at a pace so our bodies can extract all the good nutrients it contains. If we are in the opposite state - Sympathetic Nervous System - we are in the fight or flight mode and our body shuts down to save all it's energy for what it thinks is coming. Grabbing our food from a take-out window, gobbling it down in the car and rushing off to a meeting or event are examples of this fight or flight state and is not the way we want to be eating our food.

Chewing Our Food

Our teeth are our only chance to break food down mechanically before it reaches our stomach. By slowing down and chewing our food, it allows both our body to be in a rest and digest state while breaking our food into smaller pieces. These smaller size particles are easier for our digestive enzymes to break down and liberate the nutrients from. You can eat the healthiest food out there, but if it passes through your body too quickly, all the good stuff is flushed down the toilet.

Ayurvedic Diet Guidelines

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical system that is one of the world's oldest holistic healing systems that has been around for thousands of years. This ancient system has guidelines for healthy eating and better digestion. I find it very interesting that these guidelines have been practiced for some many years. We might be hearing about these guidelines for the first time or some of us have heard them before, but didn't realize how important they are for our digestion. Some of these guidelines are:

  • Eat calmly and chew well - don't eat too fast

  • Eat only when you are hungry (after previous meal digested - 5-6 hours)

  • Eat in a calm and pleasant environment - seated at a table - be present when you eat

  • Be happy and cheerful when preparing and eating your meal - mood affects your digestive system and the energy from the food

  • Eat quality food that tastes good until satisfied but not full - fill the stomach half full with food - 1/4 with room temperature or warm water and leave a 1/4 for expansion of gases

  • Warm foods are better digested than cold foods - warm water or tea over cold water or iced drinks

  • Don't eat late at night and eliminate snacks - snacks interrupt the digestive cycle leading to incomplete digestion

  • Eat 3 meals a day at regular times to maintain proper digestion

  • Use food as your medicine - you are what you eat - consume whole, fresh foods to give both instant and lasting energy - food contains the best energy when eaten as soon as it can after being picked - think local

  • Give thanks for your food - take 3 big belly breaths while being thankful for the food on your plate, the farmers that planted it for you, and its ability to nourish your body.

Other Tips

1) Consuming bitter foods will help stimulate digestion. Bitter tasting foods are thought to stimulate the flow of digestive juices which may aid our digestive process to break down food more quickly and effectively. Some examples of these types of Brooke Lark - Unsplashed foods are watercress, endive,

arugula, coffee, dandelion greens, dill, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, turmeric, ginger, citrus- lemon, limes and grapefruit, dark chocolate (80% cacao or cacao nibs), to name a few.

2) Present your food in a pleasing way. Attractive looking food sends signals to our brain that this is going to be really delicious! Serving meals on nice plates, adding a little garnish - fresh herbs, sprouts or chopped nuts, having a rainbow of colour and using aromatic spices to activate our sense of smell, are all little tricks to get those digestive juices flowing and ready for the upcoming meal.

3) Go for a walk after a meal. Moderate exercise like a 15 - 20 minute walk after eating may help our food travel through our digestive system, reducing symptoms of constipation and reducing inflammation.

14 Best Foods for Digestion

Here's an article by the Academy of Culinary Nutrition that lists 14 foods you probably have in your kitchen that we can consume to help our gut.

14 Best Foods for Digestion by Academy of Culinary Nutrition

Turmeric Chia Seed Pudding

This easy to make pudding can be sweetened to your liking. Turmeric, ginger and chia seeds are all said to help aid digestion and are a component of this recipe.

Recipe Turmeric Chia Seed Pudding

CCF Ayurvedic Tea (Cumin, Coriander, Fennel)

This Ayurvedic tea is a combination of equal parts of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds. It is said to help with digestion, bloating, detoxing and may boost metabolism. Great tea to drink if your digestive system needs a little love.

I like using organic seeds to make this blend. You can source your seeds from Amazon or I get them from Organic Matters - a Canadian company in BC.

CCF Ayurvedic Tea Recipe

Wendy Behenna is a retired Medical Laboratory Technologist who now uses the kitchen as a "lab" to create healthy, real food dishes. As a graduate of the Culinary Nutrition Program, she wants to share the knowledge she acquired to help people with meal planning and cooking skills, especially those transitioning to a gluten-free and dairy-free lifestyle. She is also a Certified Tea Sommelier and loves incorporating tea in her recipes when possible.

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