5 Things to Understand About Good Digestion

One of root causes of so many common ailments and diseases is poor digestive health. Different people suffer from poor gut health for different reasons, but there are some explanations that are quite common and in some cases, preventable. In my work with clients, I always ask some preliminary questions – and the answers often reveal some basic and important things that these clients never even noticed about themselves.  Some clients realize for the first time that they are dehydrated.  Others realize that eating on the go is making them sick.  These preliminary questions help so many people feel much better very quickly.  Along those lines, I will dive into the basics of good digestion for the first few posts and then get more nuanced as the weeks progress.  No matter where you fall on the continuum, I hope you learn just one new thing about your digestive health.  As always, please feel free to comment or ask questions.


Eat with intention:  Good Digestion starts in the brain

One of my favorite things about Winter is walking into the house and delighting in the deep aromas of thyme and rosemary, perhaps a savory broth or something charred and flavorful; I know there is a delicious (and usually nutritious) meal waiting for me.  I am lucky, my husband, like me, loves to cook and enjoys creating in the kitchen.  I take a wiff and ingest the steam and smoke that escapes the pot in preparation for what I know will be a scrumptious meal.

At this point, my body is already preparing for dinner.  Each smell sends a signal to my brain that I am going to eat- very soon.  This message gets relayed to my salivary glands, food is coming!  I then sit down, take a deep breath, look at the gorgeous table in gratitude, and on some occasions, I even bless my food. These rituals, passed down through generations dating back to old sages, religious figures, tribal leaders and the like, can be very spiritual.  For some folks, they are based in religious observance.  For others, it is an exercise in mindfulness. But no matter the origin of what inspired you to pause, these actions actually help the body begin the digestion process.  When I eventually take my fork to my mouth and take my first bite, everything is online.  I begin to chew and bam, out comes the requisite saliva necessary for the proper breakdown of food- that food and saliva have now combined into ­­­­a bolus.  That bolus eventually goes into the stomach where acid breaks it down so that the nutrients in our food can be absorbed in our small intestines.  This critical step is the basis for good digestion and good health- if our food doesn’t break down in the stomach none of the other important steps of digestion and elimination will work.

So, how do we prevent poor digestion if we don’t cook or have someone to cook homemade meals for us? We are busy, we eat on the go – in the car, while we walk, at our desks.  We often eat for sustenance, when we realize we are hungry.  Or the opposite, when we are bored and are emotionally eating.  In both of those circumstances, we are less likely to be mindful about what we are doing.  We lack ritual and forgo the smelling, the looking, the salivating- we dive right in before our brain has activated the digestion process.  When this happens, our enzymes do not release, we don’t properly break down our food and myriad problems may arise.  So how do people on the go let their bodies fully prepare for digestion?

The old sages were onto something.  Indeed, nearly every religion has some sort of grace or blessing prior to eating.  Perhaps it is because we eat at least three times daily and it is a constant way to connect to the divine.  Maybe it gives us pause for gratitude that we live with abundance and can afford to eat.  Perhaps it serves as a way to get us ready for the spiritual practice of eating – especially if it is something grown from the earth. All of these things might be true.  But it definitely is true that eating with intention and readying the body to eat serves the practical and physiological purpose of triggering digestion before we even bring food to our lips.

So next time, think twice before you shove something into your mouth while you’re looking at your computer, driving your car or walking to your next meeting. Give yourself just a few moments of readiness before you eat and see if you can feel the difference.

Breathe Into Your Digestion

I sat on my meditation cushion and could not stop thinking:  What am I going to eat for lunch today?  What do I need to buy at the grocery store?  Oh no, I forgot to call back the school.  I never did pick up that dry cleaning. Meditation can not possibly be a beneficial exercise, I am not getting anything out of this.

I always thought it was a positive trait to be a thinker, but now I’m beginning to doubt it – I can’t turn it off.

I told my yoga teacher about my inability to stop thinking.  This is not working for me- surely there is something else I can do to get the same benefits one gets when meditating.

Just come back to the breath, she told me.

Everyone has thoughts, even the most committed practitioners.  Do not judge yourself or think that you are “bad” at meditating because your mind wanders and you begin to think about things – random things – things that might even make you anxious.

The key in that moment is to notice the thought, see it float by, then return to focus on the breath.

When you concentrate on the breath, and return to focus on it once your thoughts are adrift, you are training your brain to focus on one thing.  You are channeling your mind to go inward even during moments of distraction from the outside world.  This takes much practice.   Monks have been at it for centuries.  Even the most committed yogis practice returning to the breath.  We all have thoughts.  We all wander.

When we live in our mind, in the past or the future, we might hold onto pain or regret.  We might live in fear – which inevitably affects our physical body.  Focusing on the breath and living in the moment is how we begin to let go – let go of our tension and let go of whatever negativity might be occupying our thoughts.  This is how we truly release the stress that can affect our physical body.  When our body is stressed, our digestion suffers.  We suffer.

By focusing on the breath we can learn to return to the most basic moments in everyday life.  The next time you are in a stressful situation or you feel discomfort in your body, take a moment to sit.  In your home, in your car, in a café.  Stop and inhale deeply, expanding first in your belly, then the ribs and then the chest.  Then on an exhale in the opposite direction.  If you do this for several breaths and focus on what you are doing, a calm will return to you.  Breathe into your digestive system and notice how it feels.  Just as in meditation, it might feel odd at first.  You might not see any immediate changes.  But keep trying, a little every day.  You will eventually feel a shift.  You will feel more connected to your body and you will have the skill to calm your body and your mind in any given moment. You will be alive in the present moment – not living in your mind – able to help your body get the calm that it needs.