When we think of healthy digestion, the natural inclination is to first look to what we’re eating.
Hippocrates did say: ‘Let food be thy medicine,’ after-all!
And it’s absolutely true that we need to choose our foods wisely, for what we eat, we become.
Think about it…
Our body takes food and transforms the best bits of that food into our physical body.
Yes, our body is made up of the very things we put in it!!
This helps us realise why we don’t want to put crap in this very divine vehicle that is our body, right?
But I digress…
Yes, what we choose to eat is important.
But even as important, if not more important, is how we eat.
Today I’d like to share with you:
- Why it’s important that we focus on ‘how’ we eat, and
- How to eat well for maximum nutrient absorption and wellbeing.
Ok, so first thing’s first.
When we eat, we eat.
What I mean by that, is when you choose to take food into your body, that should be your only focus.
No sitting eating at your computer, as you finish up your work.
No running around, shoving food into your gob, as you drive off to your next appointment.
You sit and you eat.
Eating becomes the activity you dedicate your full attention to.
Let’s take a look at the Chinese Medicine perspective, so we can understand this on a deeper level.
The Spleen is the organ of transformation and nourishment.
It is therefore the Spleen that is responsible for converting our food into usable nutrients and sending them to the areas of the body that need them most.
The thing is, our Spleen has another important role.
While it helps us digest food, our Spleen also helps us digest information.
The Spleen governs our ability to think, process information, study and concentrate.
When we read a book, for example, we need to adapt words (food) into sense (nutritional substances), and then store them or put them to use.
So digesting our food and digesting our life (and all the information in it) happens in a similar way.
But here’s the thing…
If we’re busy ‘doing’ stuff while we eat, our Spleen has to split its attention, and can’t direct all of its energy to digesting our food.
It’s too busy digesting that spreadsheet you’re working on while you eat, or thinking about that stressful email you don’t quite know how to reply too.
As a result, the food in your stomach doesn’t have a chance to be fully digested.
Undigested food can cause more immediate symptoms such as bloating and constipation, and more longterm symptoms such as fatigue, low immunity and sickness.
Because remember, our body needs the nutrients from the food we eat in order to nourish all the systems in our body.
If our food doesn’t get focused digestion time, then we miss out on these vital nutrients.
And if you have bloating, tummy upset or the like, these are more obvious signs that your body’s not digesting your food well.
Ok, so Healthy Digestion tip #1: Just eat.
No multitasking, no running around, no working or studying at the dinner table.
If you’re engaging in conversation with others while you eat, keep the topics light and save those more in-depth, or even stressful, conversations for later.
When you choose to eat food, the message is simple:
Healthy Digestion tip #2: Take three slow deep breaths before you start eating.
Our body needs energy to digest food.
And one of the main ways we get energy, is through our breath.
Yes, breathing well, energises the body.
If you’re feeling sluggish, spend a minute breathing slowly and deeply, and you’ll instantly notice a difference!
I digress again…
The point is, by taking three slow deep breaths before we start eating, we’re doing two things:
- Helping build our energy reserves so our body has digestion fuel
- Letting the body know: Now I’m releasing all my thoughts, so I can focus solely on eating.
Because hey, when we take conscious breaths, it clears the mind, releases our thoughts, and allows us to come into the present.
And we want to come into the present moment so we can place our full attention on the meal in front of us.
Plus, conscious breathing also calms the nervous system, so that our body’s one focus can be on eating and digesting.
This helps release the scattered mind, so we don’t scatter our energy.
I share more on the benefits of breathing well in my blog: Healthier living could be one big breath away.
After taking those breaths you may also like to say a few words of gratitude for the meal you’re about to eat.
Because hey, feeling grateful is ALWAYS a good thing!
Healthy Digestion Tip #3: Relax into a healthy posture.
As you place your focus on your breath, invite yourself into a relaxed but healthy posture.
Hunching over, crossing your legs, sitting in a twisted out of aligned kind-of-way compresses our digestion organs, thus hindering the movement of food through our body.
Try getting water to flow through a kinked hose!
That’s what it’s like when we contort our bodies into strange shapes when we eat.
So sit on your chair (if you choose to be on a chair) on your sit bones with your feet flat on the floor, lift your heart a touch, allow the crown of your head to gently reach towards the sky, loop your shoulders up and back, and allow them to relax down your back.
You’re ready to eat!
Aim to maintain an upright but relaxed position as you eat, and your body will love you for it.
Healthy Digestion Tip #4: Eat joyfully
There is a plethora of scientific evidence that says when we feel happy and joyful, our body can perform its various functions better.
And this is true of our digestive system.
When we enjoy eating our food, we open ourselves to being fully nourished by what we eat.
Hence to say, choose food that you like, and that offers you a wide taste palette of flavours.
Our body really does accept the food we give it if we’re happy when we eat it.
And being happy when you eat is far easier, when you have a healthy relationship with food.
I share more about how I healed my relationship with food in my blog: How I stopped binge eating. True Story.
For many people, it’s less about what you put in your body, and more about healing your relationship with food.
Most people know that eating things like refined sugar, coffee, alcohol and processed foods are not ideal.
And it’s best we aim to lower the amount we eat of them.
Our attitude to the food we eat is everything, as it informs the Spleen what to do with the food that goes in.
So once you decide what you’re going to eat – even if it’s a so called ‘bad food’ – accept that food into your body with love and gratitude.
Enjoy every mouthful.
Don’t get caught up worrying that you’re not eating the right thing, or feeling guilty for indulging in that decadent chocolate cake.
Once you decide you’re having it, do so with complete joy.
Smile as you look at your food, enjoy the individual flavours, and let eating be a deliciously joyful part of your day.
Healthy Digestion Tip #5: Chew well.
Our stomachs don’t have teeth, ok?
So that means we need to chew our food well, before it reaches our stomach, otherwise we’re making our body work that extra bit harder to break down our food, so the nutrients can be sent to where they’re most needed.
To quote Daverick Leggett, the author of Helping Ourselves, ‘Well chewed food lessens the work our digestive organs have to do and increases the efficient extraction of nutrients.’
Chewing also warms chilled food, which can put extra strain on our insides.
In the book Zen Macrobiotics, George Ohsava, says we must chew our food at least 50 times.
But he says: ‘If you wish to assimilate the macrobiotic philosophy as quickly as possible, chew each mouthful 150 times.’
OK, ok, that seems like a LOT!!!
While 50-150 chews per mouthful may seem a little too timely for most of us, I highly recommend you aim for 30 chews to begin with, and see how that feels for you.
Or simply set the intention to chew a little more than what you currently do, and go from there.
We don’t want to make eating a chore!
But seriously though, pureeing our food in the mouth along with the saliva really does help support healthy digestion.
When we eat too fast – or ‘inhale’ our meals – the important pre-digestive processes of salivation and mastication get bypassed.
The more you can get your food into a highly digestible matter, the more your body will appreciate you.
It really is that simple.
As Mahatma Gandi once said: ‘You must chew your drink and drink your foods.’
Plus, chewing more allows you to taste every element of the food you’re eating, making eating a delicious sensory experience, as opposed to simply being an opportunity to fill up your belly.
This is why allowing time to eat slowly and consciously, is so important.
Healthy Digestive Tip #6: Stop eating just before you’re full.
I was brought up in a household where stuffing yourself until you felt ill at an all-you-can-eat restaurant was considered a good meal out.
But in truth, this is one of the worst things we can do.
When we overeat we create stagnation in the body; a temporary queue of food waiting to be processed.
Our body then needs to exert extra energy to deal with this excess of food, often leaving us feeling tired and fatigued.
Think of the Christmas Day slump after your eat your big festive lunch… all you want to do is have a long snooze on the couch, right?
If we overeat often, we overstrain the Spleen, which can lead to other complications in our health.
Ideally, you want to stop eating just before you feel full.
As John Kirkwood says in his book The Way of the Five Seasons, ‘It takes time for the hormones leptin and ghrelin to register satiety’.
Especially if you’re eating quickly, you can end up eating much more than you need, without realising it, until it’s too late.
So stop eating when you’re about 3/4 full, then wait 20 minutes, to give your body time to register that feeling of fullness.
That way you won’t risk overeating, and thus, clogging up your digestion system.
Healthy Digestion Tip #7: Don’t drown your food.
When I sit down to eat at someone’s house, I’m often asked: ‘What can I get you to drink with your meal?’
It’s very common to drink while we eat, but if we look at how the digestion system works, this isn’t ideal.
As a general rule, drink 20-or-so minutes before you eat, and wait until at least 20 minutes after you’ve finished eating, before you have another drink.
Because having too much liquid in our belly when we eat, dilutes the digestive juices responsible for breaking down our food.
We need those digestive juices to be at their strongest so we can turn our food into the fuel we need to thrive.
Having a small amount of liquid is ok, but you want to avoid anymore than a teacup’s worth.
Ultimately, fluid is best drunk between meals, not at meals.
Healthy Digestion Tip #8: Don’t shock your belly.
Ok, so our belly is warm.
It needs to be warm to break down our food.
If we go putting cold things into our body like ice-cream (sorry!!) and cold smoothies, then we put too much strain on our digestive system.
In Chinese Medicine terms, we need a digestive fire!
Yes, the digestive process needs warmth, otherwise we cause stagnation in our belly, which as we discussed before, can stop the food from being processed.
The occasional ice-cream on a hot day, or the occasional smoothie is ok, but regularly putting cold substances – like ice water – in our body, severely weakens our digestive fire, and can lead to the collapse of our Spleen’s function.
So while I know there are a lot of so-called ‘healthy’ diets that promote the daily drinking of smoothies, consider how maybe you could do smoothies that are warm in nature, or simply eat all that goodness you’ve just blended into a drink.
Our body loves the real deal.
Healthy Digestion Tip #9: Eat well before bedtime.
Later in the day our body starts to chill down for the evening, and prepares to do its all important repair work.
Yes, between 11pm and 3am our body does a magnificent cleanse that allows us to function at our best.
You can read more about that cleanse in my blog Quality Sleep = Better immunity.
But here’s the thing…
If we eat late, then our body may still be processing food when this optimum cleaning time hits, meaning:
1. We miss out on our daily clean out.
You know what it’s like to come into the office and the bin’s overflowing ‘cause the cleaner never came.
It feels… well… yuck!
And that’s kinda how you’re going to feel if your body has to prioritise digesting over cleaning.
And 2. Because our body’s in chill down mode, it doesn’t quite have the energy reserves to digest as quickly, meaning that food is likely to sit around for longer than necessary in our digestive tubes.
Ideally you want to aim to eat your main meal of that day between 5pm and 7pm.
That allows plenty of time for your body to be food free overnight.
Healthy Digestion Tip #10: Connect more with the Earth that feeds you.
In Chinese Medicine the Spleen – which you’ve come to know as an important alley in our digestive process – belongs to the Earth element.
The Earth being our provider of nourishment and support.
Our true mother!
She does offer us all the delicious foods we need to thrive, after-all!
Spending time in nature, growing your own food – even if it’s just a pot of mint on the windowsill – is a great way to start to connect with the very source of our nourishment.
When we have a deeper awareness and appreciation for how our food comes into existence and explore the seasonal produce on offer, we come more into alignment with the very essence of what we put in our body each day.
The very food that becomes us.
So in conclusion, having healthy digestion is about being more present with our bodies and the food we place in it.
Healthy digestion is about being willing to enter into relationship with that which nourishes us.
Using mealtimes as an opportunity to connect with the food and with ourselves.
And this is essential, because at the end of the day, it’s our healthy digestion that allows all the organs, muscles, tissues and bones of the body to be fed and nourished so we can live an abundantly healthy and fulfilling life.
Yes, good digestion is the foundation of of our overall health.
So care for it well.