Achieving Optimal Digestion
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
By Dr. Ann-Marie Regina, ND
Proper functioning of the digestive system is essential for achieving optimal health. The digestive system is much more than just a place where your food gets broken down and absorbed. Hormones and enzymes necessary for health are activated during the digestive process. Your digestive system can protect you from infections and detoxify your body from harmful chemicals that are being ingested. If you experience digestive concerns regularly, you are at risk of developing nutrient & mineral deficiencies, hormone imbalances, increased toxic burden, aggravations of preexisting conditions and the triggering of new symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Suboptimal Digestion
The following are some of the typical signs and symptoms experienced when digestion is not functioning optimally:
Gas & bloating
Constipation &/or diarrhea
Nausea &/or vomiting
Low energy & weakness
Low immunity & frequent colds and flu's
Anxiety & depression
Joint pain & inflammation
Skin conditions such as acne, eczema or psoriasis
The Basics for Promoting Healthy Digestion
1. Brain Gut Connection. During times of stress or anxiety, your body shunts blood and resources away from the digestive tract towards your muscles. Your brain perceives that there is a threat and is preparing the body for fight or flight. In this state, when you eat, digestion is not as effective since your body's natural mechanisms for breaking down food is diminished. You can stimulate digestion by relaxing your mind as your gut is connected to your brain by the vagus nerve which promotes rest and relaxation.You can help your digestion by relaxing before meals and taking deep breaths to soothe the nervous system. Also, take time to smell your food as this stimulates the salivary glads to secrete enzymes that are a part of the digestive process. Lastly, chewing your food adequately helps to break down food and to prevent you from overeating. Overeating can slow down and put stress on digestion, not to mention contribute to excess fat storage in the body. By creating a soothing environment during meals, you can promote healthy digestion.
2. Elimination. An essential aspect of digestion is the elimination of waste. The aim is to ensure proper bowel movements every day. Constipation leads to the re-absorption of toxins. This can result in symptoms such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain. It can also lead to hormone dysregulation and other metabolic imbalances. To address constipation it is important to stay hydrated, and to ensure adequate fats and fibre are part of your diet. Adding healthy oils such as olive oil, avocado, coconut and fish oil to your diet helps to lubricate your digestive tract. Foods high in fibre such as vegetables, psyllium, chia seeds, flaxseeds bulk up stool and stimulate the stretch receptors in your intestines which will trigger a bowel movement. Fibre in the diet also can bind to excess cholesterol and hormones helping eliminate them from the body.Conditions such as (but not limited to) hypothyroidism, diverticulitis, leaky gut, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), hypochlorydria (low stomach acid) and irritable bowel syndrome can result in constipation. Speak with your naturopathic doctor if you have any of these conditions as they often require additional treatment recommendations.
3. Healthy Gut Bacteria. The human gastrointestinal tract (GIT) alone contains 10x14 microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and fungi. That's approximately 100 times more bacterial cells than human cells which shows how much of an impact they have on human health. The human GIT provides a home and food for the bacteria and in return the bacteria protect the lining of the gut and regulate your immune system by turning carbohydrates into byproducts that are anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer. Your gut bacteria also plays a role in regulating blood sugar by promoting insulin release, satiety and reduced gastric emptying. This is just the tip of the iceberg, the microorganisms residing in your digestive tract, have significant impact on your health and disruptions to them can result in a wide host of symptoms. Some factors influencing the state of the microbiome found in your digestive tract include: the type of food you consume as it will also feed the microorganisms, antibiotic use and GIT diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's, celiac disease and IBS. To mitigate the negative impact of healthy bacteria disruption, follow the three P's: probiotics, prebiotics and polyphenols.Oral probiotics are live microorganisms supplemented to the GIT that confer the same benefits of the microorganisms already in your gut. There are strain specific probiotics for particular conditions or multi-strain options, but please discuss which is best for you with your naturopathic doctor as your body's needs are individual. Fermented foods such as tempeh, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut are also another source of live microorganisms and are considered to be probiotics as they confer the same benefits to health. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fibre that feed the gut bacteria that are already present and contribute to increasing the abundance of the healthy bacteria. Polyphenols such as flavanols are found in vegetables and fruits. They too will increase the abundance of bacteria with a "health promoting profile" such as Bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Vegetables and fruits also contain dietary fibre that can also act as prebiotics as well as provide minerals and nutrients that are necessary for optimal health.To learn more about the gut microbiome here's a link to my blog on "The Gut Microbiome and Health."
Though the basics are important for maintaining a healthy digestive system, the human body is complex. There are so many factors that can affect your digestion. Your hormones, age, mental health, diet, sleep regiment, health conditions can impact and be impacted by your digestive system so it is also important to address other aspects of health as well. Digestive concerns are not treated the same, for example conditions such as SIBO can be aggravated by probiotics and IBS can be aggravated by prebiotics. Exploring any underlying food sensitivities that stimulate an immune reaction locally in your digestive tract and distally throughout the body can cause many different symptoms and aggravate preexisting conditions. Even environmental exposure to things like heavy metals, plastics, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones in meats, dyes in food and many more can disrupt your digestive health. Naturopathic doctors have the training and medical knowledge to look at your health comprehensively and find the root cause of your concerns, as there are many factors that influence health.
Dr. Ann-Marie Regina, ND focuses on individualized nutritional counselling and helping patients make healthy lifestyle choices that are specific to them. Dr. Ann-Marie is now offering 30 minute nutritional consults focused solely on creating sustainable and effective dietary adjustments that address your concerns. During the nutritional counselling visits, Dr. Ann-Marie will assess your nutrition with an assessment tool which investigates your water, protein, fat, starch, vegetable, fruit and fibre intake. The assessment will also take your health concerns, activity level, hormones, food intolerances, age and sex into consideration.To learn more about nutritional counselling and which foods work best with your body, please book an appointment with Dr. Ann-Marie Regina or schedule a complimentary 15 minute "meet and greet."