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This article is geared to those of you who once digested well, but over time started struggling with health, weight, mood, digestive and other health concerns. Perhaps you are eliminating foods, taking digestive agents or exercising like crazy to recapture your health, but with limited success.
Learning the basic lifestyle rules for optimal digestion and how to troubleshoot a digestive tract gone wild should be a high school course requirement. Sadly, most of the time we are left to our own devices here.
According to Ayurveda, digestion is the gateway to our physical, mental and emotional health.
Join me in this week’s article as I walk you through the steps of rejuvenating your digestion and feeling better than you ever thought possible.
First, let’s talk a little bit about how digestion gets compromised in the first place, and the telltale signs of a digestive system that needs a tune-up.
How You Eat is More Important Than When or What You Eat
In my book, The 3-Season Diet, I discuss the three major causes of weight gain, in order of importance: how, when and what you eat. The state of one’s mind while eating (how you eat), even from the youngest age, may be one of the most important factors in our digestive strength. With this in mind, stop, take time and relax while you eat – remember that your intestinal microbes who support all facets of optimal health can tell if you are stressed or not when you are eating a meal.
Eliminating Foods Is Not the Solution to Poor Digestion and Weight Loss
There is no doubt that there is a small percentage of folks who simply do not have the genetics to digest wheat or dairy. Some kids just start out with food allergies and need to eliminate certain foods. For many others, eliminating hard-to-digest foods like wheat and dairy has become a popular – though often unnecessary – way to lose weight and perhaps cover up symptoms of poor digestion.
A life sentence of no wheat or dairy is a tough pill to swallow. Learning to troubleshoot and reset healthy digestion may be the answer you have been looking for.
“When I Was Younger I Could Eat Anything”
When I ask patients, “How is your digestion?” I often here the same comments. Do any of these sound like you?
- “Wow, when I was a teenager I could eat anything.”
- “I used to have a cast iron stomach.”
- “My digestion is nothing like it used to be.”
- “I really struggled with my digestion my entire life until I gave up wheat and dairy.”
- “I avoid heavy and fatty food because it either just sits there, I bloat, get acid symptoms or get nauseous.”
Many of Us Only Treat the Symptoms of Poor Digestion – Not the Cause
I see that many people have slowly altered their diet over the years to help them digest and feel better. For many, those once easy-to-digest comfort foods just don’t digest like they used to. It is as if someone turned down the digestive furnace. When this starts, we begin to notice some extra pounds, a bloated belly, digestive issues and a slew of associated health concerns. Though we start exercising more, take yoga classes, change our diet, and try to de-stress, the problems just keep on coming.
In an attempt to change our diet, we take out the fat and avoid fried food. We cut out the hard-to-digest foods like wheat, dairy, sugar, salt, soy, nuts, corn, breads, baked goods, fast foods and, yes, those delectable comfort foods as well. In addition to taking the bad foods out, we start eating more healthy foods like green salads, veggies, whole grains and lean meats. While we have always known that these are the healthy foods, many of us finally make the decision to eat healthy because we feel so lousy when we don’t. For some, they don’t really feel better until they become a vegetarian, vegan or raw foodist.
I am not suggesting that these diets are flawed in any way.
I am suggesting that many of us have become attracted to more restrictive diets because they make us feel better. An underlying digestive imbalance may be hiding behind the new diet.
Avoiding Certain Foods Doesn’t Solve the Problem
For example, if you stop eating wheat and the tired heavy feeling you had for years goes away, it is natural to blame the wheat. My question is: if you take away the wheat and feel better, does that mean we have solved the problem? Are you digesting everything else perfectly? Perhaps when you were a kid you seemed to digest wheat fine and now it just doesn’t agree with you. Perhaps somewhere along the way your digestive furnace was dialed down and you lost the ability to break down those hard-to-digest foods.
Why, when and how did that happen and – most importantly – how do we turn that furnace back on? Could we start eating all those rich and “allergenic” foods again? With a strong system, we wouldn’t find ourselves becoming dependent on restrictive diets, enzymes or herbal laxatives. With a proper understanding of your digestive process, you can be free of digestive pills and powders, food allergies and a host of other related imbalances.
What is Optimal Digestion?
When the digestive fire is low, we crave carbs, breads and heavy food to feel satisfied. When the digestive furnace is turned back up to 100%, you will find that you don’t crave those heavy foods. While you can digest them, you find yourself very satisfied with a more vegetable-based, green, fresh and raw fruit diet.
While eating such a diet is the healthier choice, one of the keys to staying healthy for years to come is to be able to digest anything if you need to, and not feel terrible after eating harder-to-digest food.
Compared to when you were young – at what percent is your digestive furnace set today? 20, 30 or 50%? Let’s fire it up to 100% and metabolize that food the way we were intended to. Oh, by the way, this works for all ages!
Let’s get started!
Initially, there are two common reasons why the digestive strength becomes weaker over time: thick bile and dehydration.
Is Your Bile Too Thick?
Thick bile is one of the most common reasons for the digestive furnace to be turned off. The bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When we digest a fatty meal, the gallbladder squirts bile into the small intestine where it breaks down fats and neutralizes stomach acids (like hydrochloric acid or HCl) as they leave the stomach.
If the bile is thick because of a congested liver or a history of constipation or loose bowels, there will not be enough bile to neutralize the HCl that is entering the small intestine. The un-neutralized HCl acid will burn the villi of the small intestine. This can cause occasional heartburn, bloating, indigestion, fullness, loose stools and nausea – to name a few. The now scorched small intestine sends an angry memo to the stomach to stop producing so much acid. The digestive furnace in the stomach is dialed down to match the low level of bile flow so the un-neutralized acid doesn’t irritate the intestinal lining. Lack of stomach acid and bile disturbs the production of pancreatic and small intestinal enzymes which, in concert, complete the digestive process.
For a while, the digestive symptoms go away and we slowly adapt our diet to a furnace that is firing at, say, 50% of its maximum. We eat less, eliminate fats and hard-to-digest foods, exercise more and practice stress reduction. But soon the digestive symptoms, including tiredness and moodiness, return.
At this point we have the choice to either eat an even more restricted diet, or we can turn the furnace back on.
Thin Bile = Thin You & Good Digestion
Before we can turn the furnace back on, we better be sure we fixed the reason why it was turned off in the first place. With this in mind, we need to thin the bile to help de-congest the liver and speed up the digestive process.
STEP 1: Eat Beets for Healthy Bile
The best dietary way to thin the bile is to eat beets. If you can eat one beet a day for 3 months, you will help cleanse your liver, thin your bile and allow your stomach to fire up that furnace.
Beets deliver their best bile-thinning, liver-cleansing effect when they are eaten raw and grated with lemon juice and a little flax seed oil. Eat like a salad with lunch or dinner.
STEP 2: Hydrate!
One of the biggest causes of poor digestion is dehydration! Yep, many of us don’t drink enough water to allow the stomach to produce the needed amount of digestive acid. Underneath the lining of the stomach is a water-dependent, alkaline, bicarbonate layer that neutralizes the stomachs acids. Simply put, if there is not enough water in the body, this bicarbonate layer becomes thin and the hydrochloric acid (HCl) in the stomach could burn a hole in the stomach wall. As this is obviously unacceptable, your smart stomach lining inhibits the production of HCl during times of dehydration to avoid burning the walls of the stomach.
When the HCl of the stomach is inhibited due to dehydration, the strength of the digestive furnace is dialed down to save the lining of the stomach, and hard-to-digest foods enter the small intestine undigested. This leads to the concerns listed above.
In one study, drinking a large glass of water 30 minutes before a meal supported a significant reduction in weight.
If you are dehydrated, it is recommended that you drink one-half your healthiest body weight in ounces of water per day for 6 weeks. For example, if you weigh 130lbs, drink 65 ounces per day (about 8 cups).
An easy Ayurvedic technique for treating dehydration and flushing your lymphatic system in one go is to sip plain hot water every 10-15 minutes throughout the day for two weeks.
Parenting Tip: Dehydration is the most common reason why kids get tummy aches. Try giving them a big glass of water and often the tummy ache goes away within 5-10 minutes.
STEP 3: Turn the Furnace Back ON!
The most effective way to turn the furnace back on is with herbs and spices that have been traditionally a part of most meals. Perking up your food with ginger, black pepper and salt can boost the digestive strength and stomach acid production.
One of my favorite digestive techniques is to sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of salt with a squeeze of lemon juice into a glass of warm water 15 minutes before a meal. If you are eating at a restaurant, you can do this right when you sit down, before you order your food. In 15 minutes when the food arrives, your digestive fire will be ready to cook some food!